We fell asleep wrapped around one another, spent and satiated. Her hair was stuck to my chest and her taste was all in my mouth and it was perfect. Her soft weight on top of me was kind of like the anchor that I had tattooed on my neck. It held me in place, kept me grounded, reminded me she was my home port when we had both been adrift for so long.
I JERKED AWAKE AND SWORE in aggravation when Salem’s elbow landed in my gut as she scrambled up and out of bed. At first I couldn’t figure out what she was doing, but then I heard Poppy frantically knocking on the bedroom door and the dog barking his fool head off. I groaned and reached for the jeans I had left on the side of the bed the night before. Salem had commandeered my shirt, so I was only half dressed as I made my way out into the living room to see what all the commotion was about.
I told Jimbo to hush and fetched him a tennis ball to distract him as Poppy shrieked incoherently at Salem. I was about to whistle and tell everyone to chill the f**k out when the buzzer from the security door at the front of the building went off on the wall unit. It buzzed and buzzed like someone was leaning on it. It was only four o’clock in the morning and this obviously wasn’t a locked-out neighbor.
“What in the hell is going on?” I scrubbed my hands over my hair and made my way over to the girls.
Salem looked at me over her shoulder, her dark eyes worried and fathomless. Even with her tawny complexion I could tell she was pale.
“Poppy thinks it’s Oliver, her husband.”
I frowned and crossed my arms over my chest. The buzzer went off again and I looked at it balefully. “How on earth would he even know how to find you?”
Poppy was shaking her head back and forth and crying big fat tears. “I don’t know. Oh my God, he’s going to kill me.”
I felt my eyebrows dip low over my nose as I made my way to the intercom. “It’s probably just some drunk that can’t get in and keeps leaning on the same button.” I hit the response key and barked, “Move it, dude. Not one is letting you in. It’s four in the morning, don’t make me call the cops.”
There was no response, but as soon as I let up off the call button it started buzzing again. Salem was watching me like I should know what to do, so I just shrugged and said, “Fine, I’m gonna go out there and help them get their damn finger off the buzzer. Whoever it is.” Poppy started crying harder and Salem frowned at me.
“You saw her when she got here. This guy is unpredictable and unhinged. I don’t want you to get hurt. Maybe we should just call the police.”
The buzzer started trilling once again and Jimbo growled at it low in his throat. I reached down to scratch him between his ears.
“Let me handle it first. This guy doesn’t get to harass my girls and maybe he needs to pick on someone his own size.”
Poppy hiccuped. “He’s insane, Rowdy. He nearly beat me to death because I wouldn’t agree to have kids with him. What if he has a knife or a gun? I don’t want you getting hurt because of me.”
I gave both of them a lopsided smile and pulled the door open. “Don’t worry about me. I’m good at taking care of you, remember?”
They both called my name as Jimbo darted past me and bolted to the end of the hallway where the security door was located. I grabbed his collar just in case and pulled the first door open and made my way to the second where the intercom was located. There was a man standing in front of the console pressing the button with Salem’s apartment number on it and not letting up on it.
He was pretty unremarkable-looking. He was shorter than me by quite a bit, and he was wearing nondescript khakis and an untucked polo shirt. His hair looked like it had been raked through with aggravated hands, and when his dark eyes landed on me I could see fury blazing out of them.
“Hey, man. Knock it off. I don’t know who you are but you have the wrong apartment.” Jimbo growled low in his throat and tugged at my hold on his collar. He was a good dog and never aggressive, so it made me frown at the guy. “Move along, buddy.”
The guy stepped away from the console and looked me up and down. Granted I looked like I has just been loved hard and woken up grumpy, which I had, but I still towered over him and there was no missing the apprehension that crossed his puckered face. His gaze landed somewhere on the pirate ship inked on my chest and he asked me with a sneer, “Who in the hell are you?”
I was so taken aback all I could do was blink. The dog barked a loud, high-pitched yelp and the guy gave him a dirty look.
“The guy on the outside of the security door doesn’t get to ask the questions. Like I said, get lost or I’m calling the cops.”
His chest puffed up and red rage flooded into his face. “My wife is in there and I’m not going anywhere until I talk to her.”
Poppy was right. This guy was missing a few screws.
“No. You aren’t getting anywhere near her. I saw your handiwork last time you ‘talked’ to her and that isn’t happening again.”
“She belongs to me!”
I took a step forward the dog lunged at the guy’s crotch. “People are not property. Poppy is a sweet girl who deserves better than an ass**le that uses her as a punching bag and a dad that looks the other way while it’s happening. Go back to Texas and forget about her.”
He took a step closer to me and almost lost a finger when he poked me in the bare chest with it.
“I know about you. The orphan with no family, no roots. You have no one and nothing. Poppy didn’t want you then and there is no way she wants you now. I’m going to talk to her even if I have to go through you to do it.”
I probably would’ve let it go, probably would have managed to maintain my cool, but before I could form words to tell the guy to f**k off, he lifted his foot and kicked Jimbo square in the side. The dog howled in pain and jerked out of my grip. I didn’t have to worry about swinging first because the little bastard tried to get in a sucker punch when I turned to see if the dog was okay. I caught his fist in my hand and jerked his arm behind his back. When he was off balance I clocked him once hard in the mouth, which split his bottom lip open and had blood dripping down his chin. I was just so much taller than him that really he couldn’t get any leverage as he wiggled against me and I turned him around and clamped him in an unmovable choke hold.
He threw his head back and tried to head-butt me, so I grabbed him by the back of the neck and bent him forward so that he was wrenched over at a totally awkward and painful angle. I marched him out of the breezeway and down the sidewalk to the street. I shoved him away from me with enough force that he stumbled and fell forward on his hands and knees.
“Don’t come back, dude. I’m taking Poppy to get a restraining order today, and believe me, if you think I’m bad you don’t even wanna see what her sister has in store for you if you come around again. Only piece-of-shit men hit women and you’re lucky I don’t do to you what you did to her.”
He turned over to look back at me and I swore he was plotting my death as he glowered at me. I really should smash his nose in to teach him a lesson or at least kick him in the ribs to pay him back for the dog.
“Poppy is mine.” It came out garbled and I just lifted an eyebrow at him.
“She feels differently about that. Someone along the way shoulda taught you how to respect women.”
I whistled for Jimbo and laughed out loud as he limped over to where the fallen intruder was still lying and lifted his leg. Poppy’s husband tried to scramble away to avoid the golden shower but he wasn’t fast enough and Jimbo was obviously proud of himself as he bounded back over to me. We watched as the guy got to his feet, swearing at us and calling us names the entire way as he stormed off to his car.
I patted the dog on the head and told him “good boy” as we went back inside to the girls.
Salem was pacing back and forth and Poppy was curled up into a tight ball on the couch when we went back inside. Salem launched herself at me as soon as I cleared the front door, so I wrapped her in my arms and kissed her on the top of her head.
“I called Royal. I had to.”
I kissed her on her trembling mouth when she looked up at me and tugged on the ends of her hair. “Probably a good idea to have your sister talk to her. She’s right. That guy has some serious issues. I think he really might be a major threat to not only her, but you as well. She needs an emergency order of protection and you should see if Royal can arrest him for animal cruelty.” I nodded toward the dog, who had made himself comfortable on the couch next to Poppy. “He kicked Jimbo in the side.”
Salem gasped and then called the guy every bad name that was in the book. “I’m so glad you were here.”
Poppy poked her head over the back of the couch and said, “Me, too.”
I kissed Salem again and told her, “I’m always going to be here.”
She wrapped her arms around my waist and rested her cheek over my heart, which I swear was beating just for her.
“So am I, Rowdy.” I actually believed her when she told me that now, and nothing made me happier.
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO go back to sleep after all of that, so by the time Rowdy and I had to go to work we were both dragging. Him even more so since he had to go in earlier than normal to make up for the appointment he had missed the day he was late and hungover. Poppy didn’t want to be at the apartment alone and I couldn’t blame her. So I decided to take her to the shop with me and put her to work up in the store. Everything was finally tagged, organized, and inventoried. We were only about a week out from having a fully operational store above the tattoo shop and there were already inquires in my in-box about online orders for merchandise. The shops were both so busy, the guys and the new artists all booked out over a month in advance, so I knew that Nash and Rule were going to have to hire someone specifically to manage the retail aspects of the business. It was a good problem to have, I just hoped the guys saw it the same way.
Cora was excited to have extra hands around for the busy day. She actually had scheduled a couple of piercings for the afternoon, so she put Poppy to work in the office updating portfolios and working on some kind of spreadsheet that had something to do with office supplies and stuff the guys ordered for their stations. She was in a tizzy about paper towels or something like that, which made Poppy laugh. Cora seemed even more hyper and more boisterous than usual, enough so that Rowdy asked her about it. She just brushed him off and the subject was dropped, at least until she walked up to the counter with her client, a girl that had wanted dermals put in behind her ears and I noticed a big, fat, sparkly ring on that all-important finger as Cora handed me the checkout paperwork.
I felt my jaw drop as I reached out to snatch up her much smaller hand in my own. “Did you get engaged?”
The shop was busy and there was plenty of chatter going on in the background, but when I asked the question the place was suddenly quiet enough to hear a pin drop. Cora yanked her hand back and a hot-pink flush colored her face. Her turquoise eye flashed at me in humor and the brown one got all melty and soft.
“Maybe.” I laughed at her and reached back for her hand to look at the ring on her left hand.
This was Cora after all, no boring diamond or traditional gold setting would do. Instead it was a ring that twisted around her finger and had two gems sitting offset next to each other, one a creamy golden topaz and the other a pristine blue sapphire. It wasn’t an exact match to her two-tone eye color but the idea was there and obvious. I never would have pictured a big, gruff guy like Rome Archer getting something like an engagement ring so perfectly right.
I felt Rowdy over my shoulder as he reached out and took Cora’s hand from mine.
“I knew he was up to something last night. Secretive bastard.” He let Cora’s hand fall and reached out to squeeze me on the back of the neck. I wasn’t sure if it was a warning not to get any ideas or a warning that something like that beautiful ring was in my near future. “Congratulations, but why didn’t you say anything, Tink?”