CARVED IN ICE
No sacrifice goes unpunished.
After fifteen years of as an Air Force PJ, Russel “Ice” Foster’s military career is in the crapper. With the equivalent of a scarlet letter hanging over his head, he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation. He’s survived firefights, MREs, and endless traumas. So, civilian life should be a walk in the park…
Except that he hasn’t been discharged twenty-four hours, and he’s already involved in a bar fight and driving a drunk girl home. He doesn’t know more than her first name, and Quinn makes it clear she intends to keep it that way.
He’s just trying to be a gentleman—ignoring the searing desire burning beneath his skin whenever he looks at her. He’s been trained to do hard things, and not taking her to bed? Right up there with his last HALO. But every good soldier has a plan, and he’s mapped out a strategy to get her back in his arms—where he has every intention of keeping her. He just didn’t expect her to bolt—or to discover she’s neck-deep in trouble. The kind that’s liable to get her killed.
With the help of his new boss, Hank Patterson, and his company Brotherhood Protectors, Russel’s determined to find some answers. But the truth comes at a price, and if he fails this mission, he’ll lose more than just his honor. Because despite all his training, even he can’t raise the dead.
One month later. Seattle, Washington.
“What can I get you?”
Russel focused on the woman standing behind the bar, a towel slung over one shoulder, her platinum-blonde hair swept up into a messy bun. Jet-black eye-liner ringed her eyes, highlighting the light blue of her irises.
He smiled. “Pale ale. Whatever’s best out here.”
She cocked one eyebrow then grabbed a bottle from beneath the counter. “Manny’s is a local favorite.” She cracked the cap off. “Glass?”
“Ma’am? Wow, you really aren’t from around here, are you?”
The truth hit home, only it wasn’t just Seattle or Washington State that seemed alien. It was the whole package—civilian life. Christ, just thinking those two words made his skin crawl. After all his years in the service, he’d never imagined he’d be sitting in a bar, his career in the crapper, and his damn head so fucked up, he wasn’t sure whether laugh about it or start a fight. Or maybe he’d come here hoping to hook up. A few rounds of hot sex generally took the edge off.
Right. As if sex was going to make him forget getting kicked out. Forget the stain on his record—the one that virtually erased all those years of risking his ass to save someone else’s. That mocked the oath he’d lived by since joining. While a part of him had known the inevitable outcome a month ago, it hadn’t lessened the stab of pain when he’d gotten the official ruling.
Russel forced a smile. “That obvious?”
The woman laughed. “No one says ma’am around here. At least, not without a thick southern accent. I get called babe. Darling, sometimes. Besides, you’ve got the look.”
“There’s a reason people pour out their hearts to bartenders, sweetie. We’re pretty good at reading body language. The way you’re scanning the bar, looking like you’re about to jump out of your skin… Either you’re a spy, or this isn’t your usual scene.” She stepped back, crossing her arms over her chest. “Let me guess. Based on your freakishly large frame, short hair, and what looks like possible dog tags around your neck, you’re either a wrestling pro in town on a tour, or…” She grinned. “You’re military.”
He snorted, the word stinging the raw wound still bleeding beneath his skin. “Not anymore.”
“Ouch. Doesn’t sound like it ended well.”
“Most things involving war don’t.”
“So, is this a stop on your way home?”
He shook his head. How did he say that he’d come here to deliver a dying message to a dead soldier’s wife? That every tear she’d cried had been like a knife across his flesh. That having her thank him for his kindness had cut deeper than his other-than-honorable discharge. She wouldn’t have thanked him if she’d known he’d abandoned her husband’s dead body in order to track down the men who’d captured his partner. That Russel had disobeyed direct orders in an effort to save a soul—atone for arriving too late. For not saving the other half of hers.
He worked up a quirk of his lips. “I had a promise to keep.”
She frowned then sighed, leaning her elbows on the bar. “Sounds like you need more than just one beer. Like I said, I’m a pretty good listener. How about you and I…”
Her gaze drifted to somewhere over his right shoulder. “Shit.”
Russel glanced behind him, but to him, it was just a sea of people—endless leather jackets, jeans and cowboy hats. Nothing looked out of place. Guys hitting on girls. A couple of boys shoving each other off to one side. Exactly what he’d expect in this kind of establishment.
He arched a brow. “Something wrong?”
The woman huffed, fluttering a few wispy hairs around her face. “I’ll say. Looks like Red, over there, has some unwanted company. The kind that’s gonna either break out into a brawl or get the cops showing up at my door. Maybe both.”
He swiveled on the stool, searching the area more closely until he narrowed in on a pretty little redhead on the far side of the room. She had her hair in a similar bun, only half of hers had slipped out of the knot, cascading around her shoulders in a messy curtain of auburn curls. She was sitting alone at a table, nursing a drink, while three guys hovered around her. One of them slid his hand along her shoulder before she knocked it off, clearly mouthing for him to “fuck off”.
Russel grinned. He had to hand it to her, she had guts. She didn’t look big enough to take on one of the men, let alone all three. Though, he knew better than to judge people by their appearance. He’d witnessed more than a few female soldiers half his size kick guys on their asses without breaking a sweat. So, maybe the girl could handle herself.
The bartender muttered something under her breath then sighed. “Girls like that don’t belong in this kind of place. Not alone, anyway. Most of the men that frequent this bar aren’t the kind you want to take home—not unless you’re a damn black belt. Or heavily armed.”
“Do you know her?”
“She’s like you. A first-timer. And the way she’s been belting back those coolers, I’d say she’s either going through a breakup or lost her job. She doesn’t seem like the typical party crowd we get. Casual clothes. Very little makeup. Girl’s out of her league, here.”
She tossed the towel on the counter. “I’ll grab one of my guys. Have them step in before it gets ugly. Or bloody.”
Russel snagged the woman’s wrist, giving her a genuine smile, this time. “No need. I’ve got this.”
She tilted her head. “Looks, manners, and a gallant knight? You must have been some kind of soldier.”
“Nothing special. Just did my job.” He stood, reaching for his wallet. “How much do I owe you?”
She smiled and waved it off. “That one’s on the house. Consider it a thank you for your service. Or, if that bothers you, it can be payment for helping me out.”
Russel nodded. He didn’t like getting special treatment, but he knew by the firm press of her shoulders that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He turned, staring at the redhead, again. The guy who’d touched her had shuffled closer. He seemed determined to drape his arm around her shoulder, despite the way she continually batted away his advances. A light flush now colored her cheeks, and her back looked stiffer. A few more minutes, and Russel bet his ass things were going to get physical.
The guy bent lower and reached for her thigh, rewarded with a face full of whatever cooler she’d been drinking. He startled back, scrubbing his hand down his face before glaring at her. “Shit. Why the hell did you do that?”
She tightened her grip around the bottle, looking as if she was considering smashing it over the guy’s head, when Russel moved into her sight line. She froze, her gaze shifting toward him. Her eyes widened as her head tilted back to meet his gaze, and her mouth gaped open slightly.
He smiled, hoping the simple gesture put her at ease, before addressing the men. “I don’t want to speak for the lady, but I’m pretty sure that’s the universal sign for all of you to get lost.”
The guy glanced up. Whether it was Russel’s size or how he carried himself, he wasn’t sure, but the man straightened, nudging his buddies then lifting his chin higher. “You’re right. You don’t speak for her. So, why don’t you go back to wherever you came from? We’re in the middle of a conversation.”
“You mean the one where she told you to ‘fuck off’ a few minutes ago?” He took a step closer, placing his beer bottle on the table. “As I see it, this can go down two ways. You boys can disappear on your own, or we can take this outside.”
“You think you can take all three of us on? Alone?”
“It won’t be a fair fight, but I can wait while you try to convince a few more of your friends to join in, if you’d like?”
A smile twitched the woman’s mouth before a bemused chuckle made it past her pursed lips.
The guy behind her sneered, glancing between her and Russel a few times. “You must think you’re something.”
He reached for the woman a moment before Russel moved. Within seconds, he had the asshole off to the side and on his knees with his wrist bent backwards. The man grasped at Russel’s arm in an attempt to release his hold, cursing when Russel increased the angle.
Russel leaned in, still eyeing the other men as he dragged the jerk toward him. “I don’t think you understood me. Try to touch her, again, and I’ll break more than your wrist. Now, I suggest you all leave.”
The creep nodded, cradling his hand against his chest when Russel released it as he shoved him onto his ass. His buddies helped him up, all three giving Russel a wide berth as they headed for the door.
Russel waited until they’d stumbled outside before gazing down at the woman. “My apologies, ma’am. Men like that give the rest of us a bad name.”
She stared up at him, blinking several times, before shaking her head. “You… I didn’t even see you move. Then, you had his hand, and—”
“I hope I didn’t frighten you.”
“Hell, no. That…” She whistled. “Is it bad that I kinda wish they’d been stupid enough to go outside with you? Because I would have enjoyed watching them get their asses handed to them.”
He chuckled. “For a moment, I thought you were gonna cold-cock that one creep with your cooler.”
“I was.” She motioned to the chair across from her. “Would you like to sit? Can I buy you another beer as a thank you?”
He scraped the chair out then slid onto the seat. “You don’t have to thank me.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Are you seriously for real? Is there a hidden camera or something?”
“You act as if no one else would have done that.”
“That’s because no one else would have, other than maybe one of the bouncers. Even then, he would have probably asked me to leave, too. Haven’t you heard? Chivalry is dead, and nice guys are extinct.”
He laughed. God, it felt good to do that. “So, you’re saying I’m a throwback?”
“In a good way. Though, I’m surprised they tested you, because…” She waved at him.
“Because I’m freakishly large, as the bartender put it?”
Her lips quirked. “I wouldn’t have used the word ‘freakishly’.”
Russel smiled as he leaned back in the chair. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d enjoyed easy banter with a lady. “You’re…unique.”
She pouted. “Unique? Isn’t that guy-speak for crazy?”
“It has multiple meanings.”
She arched a brow as she copied his position. “Sure. Just like, ‘she’s got a great personality’, right?”
He laughed harder when she made the air quotes with her fingers. “I was right. You are a ball-buster. So, tell me. If I hadn’t happened along, what were you planning on doing, other than breaking the bottle over his head?”
Her lips lifted, and it was as if someone had beamed a spotlight on her. Her smile lit up her entire face, accentuating the even symmetry of her features and the devilish gleam in her eyes. Her insanely green eyes. Fuck, how had he missed that before? Missed how beautiful she was? How smooth her skin looked or how full her lips were?
Her smile flourished, and his damn chest gave a hard thump, as if his heart had just flipped over. “I’m not helpless. I can punch a guy without crying over breaking a nail. And I have a full can of mace in my purse. I only needed enough of a distraction to get some distance.”
He leaned in, bracing his forearms on the table. “Let me get this straight. You were gonna hit that asshole over the head with your cooler bottle. Then, while he was working himself up into a lather, you were gonna slip out, punch anyone who got in your way then hold them all back with a can of mace?”
“Well, when you say it like that…” She scowled. “What else was I supposed to do?”
“How about not put yourself in this position to begin with?”
He sucked in a deep breath then eased back, taking another pull of his beer. He wasn’t sure why he was so worked up, other than picturing all the ugly ways her night could have ended.
She stared at him for a while. “So, I’m not allowed to come out and have a few drinks by myself because I have a vagina?”
He choked on his beer, nearly spitting it across the table. Damn, he liked this woman. Feisty. Beautiful. A dangerous combination, but Russel wasn’t known for shying away from danger. “You’re right. It’s not fair. But places like this don’t care about equality. And guys like that take what they want without any regard to who they hurt in the process.”
She leaned forward, this time, that green gaze locked on his. “Trust me. I’m intimately aware of what guys like that are capable of. I know the moment I step into a room who’s safe and who isn’t.”
Russel studied her, her words making the hairs on his neck prickle. The bartender wasn’t the only one who was good at reading people, and he knew there was far more to this woman than he’d initially thought.
“I see. So, who else in here is safe?”
“Besides you?” She chuckled as she leaned back, again. “No one.”
“And you’re sure about me? I could have chased those guys off so I could get you alone.”
She snorted. “Please. Everything about you screams honorable. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was tattooed across your chest.”
Except for the part where the Air Force had deemed him anything but.
“Besides, it would be a pretty stupid move—making a scene like that—if you planned on being anything less than a gentleman.” She nodded toward the bar. “I’m betting the bartender would remember you to a tee. She hasn’t taken her eyes off you since you sat down.”
He glanced over his shoulder, grinning at the blonde watching them from behind the counter. “You have a point. But, if you know how dangerous it is in here, why come in?”
She shrugged. “I wanted to go somewhere…different. Off-character, I suppose.”
“You mean, somewhere you wouldn’t be found.”
Her expression sobered. “I just didn’t want to bump into anyone I knew. Not tonight.”
“Something happen tonight?”
“Do you always ask strangers this many questions? Christ, I don’t even know your name.”
He extended his hand. “Russel.”
She stared at his palm then slowly placed her hand in his. “Quinn.”
“Quinn?” He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “That’s pretty.”
She didn’t answer, placing her fingers back around her cooler once he’d released her. “So, what’s a nice guy like you doing in a place like this?”
“Isn’t that my line?” He fiddled with the label as he watched her watch him. “Similar motivation, I suppose. I kinda wanted to disappear, too.”
She nodded, downing the last of her drink then signaling to the bartender for another.
Russel frowned. “Rumor has it you’ve been pounding those back. Don’t you think it might be time to call it a night?”
Her face lit up, again, and he felt another hard thump in his chest. “A night? It’s ten o’clock. Even Cinderella got to stay out until midnight.”
“But Cinderella didn’t have a bunch of assholes trying to get in her pants.”
Her smile widened. “Neither do I, anymore. Thanks to you.” She handed the bartender some cash when she arrived with another hard lemonade. “Thank you. And could you bring my friend another Manny’s.” Quinn arched a brow. “Unless you’re done? Or moving on.”
Russel cracked a smile, nodding at the bartender. She glanced between them then shrugged, heading back to the bar. Russel waited until she’d returned with another beer and taken his empty away before focusing on Quinn. She really was beautiful. The way her hair set off the pale, creamy tones in her skin and brought out the flecks of amber in her eyes. And, with half of the silky locks falling out of her clip, he had no trouble imagining what she’d look like after a night of tumbling between the sheets. Or against the wall. Bent over the couch.
He cleared his throat as he gave himself a mental shake, watching her work her way through her drink. A drop beaded on her lip, and he nearly creamed his damn pants at the way she licked it off.
Quinn glanced at him, her gaze raking up and down his body. “So, Russel…what brings you to Seattle?”
He took a swig of his beer, grinning at her. “What makes you think I’m not from around here?”
“Call it an educated guess. I saw you walk in. You looked…out of place.”
“Funny. The bartender said the same thing about you.”
“Did she?” Quinn sighed. “She’s right. I don’t go out that often. I’m not much of a drinker.”
“Says the woman who’s working her way through another cooler.”
“Like I said. Tonight’s different. And don’t think I didn’t notice you didn’t answer my question.”
He pushed down the resulting sting. “Let’s just say I’m in the midst of a career change.”
“Ahh. One you’re not happy about. I can appreciate that.”
“Is that why you’re here? Drinking your way to oblivion?”
“Most things are.” He arched a brow when she drained the last of her drink. “That didn’t take long. Tell me, how are you planning on getting home?”
A furrow creased her brow as she stared at him, looking as if she was deciding how much to tell him. “Taxi.”
“I’m a big girl. I got myself here. I can get myself home.”
“You weren’t drunk when you got here.” He scrubbed a hand down his face. He didn’t want to come across as a sexist asshole, but damn… He wasn’t from Seattle, didn’t know it that well, but even he was aware that the girl was asking for trouble traveling in this part of the city, alone.
She giggled. “Who says I am, now?”
“That giggle to start with. Do you have someone you can call? To meet you or pick you up?”
Those fucking sexy lips of hers quirked, the barest hint of gloss glinting off the overhead lights. “You mean like a boyfriend? No, I don’t have one of those. Besides, I already told you. I’m not helpless.”
She pushed to her feet, swaying unsteadily. Russel jumped up and hooked his arm around hers, planting his other hand on her waist. She leaned against him, and a sweet fragrance filled his senses. He tried not to inhale, but it wove around him, sinking beneath his skin until he was sure it had infused his blood.
She laughed, attempting to push off, only to teeter into him, again. “I guess I shouldn’t have gotten up so fast.”
“The speed had nothing to do with it, sweetheart. It was the half a dozen coolers you drank.”
“I only had five…I think.” She giggled, again. “Or was it seven?”
“Whatever it was, it was more than enough. And it seems to have hit you all at once. Can I take you home, now? Or are you determined to keep drinking until you can’t even stand?”
“But… I haven’t figured it out, yet?”
“Figured what out?”
She shook her head. “I need more time. I don’t know what to do? What’s right?”
“More alcohol isn’t going to help you think clearly. Just… Let me take you home. I’ll see you get tucked safely in bed. And you can think about whatever is bothering you, tomorrow. Okay?”
She glanced up at him. “You’re gonna take me home and tuck me in bed?”
“You said you knew who was safe and who wasn’t.”
“I do, and you are.” She sighed. “I guess I am a bit…unsteady.”
“Is that a yes?”
She tilted back her head until she could lock her gaze on his. Her tongue darted out to wet her lips before they curled upwards. “Yes. It’s a definite yes.”