FROM POPULAR ROMANCE AUTHOR DEANA BIRCH
Book one in The Covington Heights Crew series
The only thing she has to give is exactly what they want.
The Covington Heights Crew has a funny way of protecting their own. With rapes from rival gangs and human trafficking riddling their poverty-stricken streets, they’ll keep the girls from their neighborhood safe—for a price. No money? No worries. They have quite creative payment plans.
Messed up? Yeah, they know. They’re criminals.
Twenty-one-year-old Fiona Thompson was happy to stay off the radar of the twisted drug dealers who encourage her mother’s habit. She’s sure that she can work her way out of Covington and find a better life for herself and her baby sister. But then she beeped. Loud.
Second-in-command Leo Ricci is a poser. The web of lies he’s spun for a life unravels every time he’s around Fiona—every day he’s trying to keep her safe and every second he’s avoiding his destiny.
When his missteps challenge the authority to which he’s pledged his allegiance and Fiona’s life is at stake, there’s only one solution—become the man he never wanted to be and leave the place that was saving him from a worse, but unavoidable fate.
The dark gray grime around the rim of the tub would not go away, no matter how hard I scrubbed. I flipped my long ponytail over my shoulder and sprayed the foaming cleaner into the corner where tile met porcelain. While my efforts would bear no fruit, I couldn’t stop. If I could just make our dirty apartment shine, there had to be hope for our lives.
The baby whimpered then wailed from her crib in the back bedroom, and I stored the worn-down green sponge and the bottle that promised gleaming effects on top of the medicine cabinet, rinsed my hands in the sink and went to tend to Violet.
Her sobs quickly morphed into coos once she was in my arms and I’d shushed her with an easy bounce and kiss on her sweaty head. Even though she could walk, I carried her to the kitchen, and I wasn’t surprised to see that my mother had not left any milk. After a diaper change—at least we had those—I packed Violet into her wobbly stroller and rode the slow, rickety elevator down to the ground floor of our apartment building. The florescent light flickered over the beat-up metal mailboxes as we crossed the depressing lobby.
The sun shone bright and blinded me for a quick second. The weather had two gears, hot or storms. And while the storms were a relief from the heat, the wind and rain that came with them didn’t make running errands easy. I navigated the stroller through the cracking cement of the courtyard, careful not to step on anything sharp or deadly with my flimsy sandals.
Predictably, the Covington Heights crew were huddled around their bench across from the run-down park—all in their signature black jeans, which must have been torture in the heat. In three months, their numbers had doubled and I was sure it could officially be considered a gang. I recognized a couple of them from their lives before they’d decided to become delinquents. I was even sure the tallest one had been a star basketball player in his day. And, while their matching pants unified them, the physical similarities stopped there. Blonds, shaven heads, dark hair in a man bun… They were all different in race and creed.
Internal groan. I was brewing a perfect stew of resentment, hate and disgust for those fuckers—and maybe just a pinch of lust. Ripped asshats. They were like a calendar spread for hot bad boys.
Their business was an endless supply of drugs that fed my mother’s meth habit, and groupies drooled around them like they were rock stars. Gross.
But they were also an anomaly. As long as you called Covington Heights home, they kept you safe, client or not. And for that, I gave them my respect.
Maybe it had been my odd hours that had kept me off their radar—the sole benefit of working the night shift. Not to mention, the maid’s smock and comfortable shoes I had to wear to work hadn’t done much to make me stand out. Or perhaps I was just too old for their tastes. Their female hangers-on didn’t exactly look over eighteen—not that it was any of my business. And not that I had been paying attention.
But the whispers I had heard about them weren’t all horrible. Girls had sworn they were harmless, a notion I couldn’t quite swallow with their primary source of income.
Violet sucked her thumb in the stroller below me. I lowered my head and picked up my pace to pass by the group of drug-dealing male models.
“Hey, little mama,” a dark-haired guy with a black tank top over his muscled chest called. “Where you been hiding?”
Great. I’d officially bleeped on their screen. Fuck.
I let out a slow breath before turning with a wry smile. “Been here all my life, big boy.” And a big boy he was. He had almost a head on me. It was best to ignore his olive skin and dark inviting eyes below thick brows. I kept walking.
“Hey!” Black Tank Muscle Man stepped in front of the stroller and my breath hitched.
I met his gaze, and even though my spine was like an iron rod, I softened. “I’m just trying to get some milk. I don’t want any trouble.” And I certainly wasn’t interested in being their customer. With my thumbs hooked on the handle and a hopeful smile, I opened the rest of my fingers in a small surrender then clasped the stroller again.
Black Tank’s eyes traveled the length of my body and he licked his plump lips that looked like the softest thing on him. Jesus, he dripped danger and sex at the same time. Those two ingredients should not be allowed to mix.
He jutted his clean-shaven chin toward the stroller. “This your baby?”
I should have lied. Single moms were probably less appealing to someone like him, but for whatever reason—maybe fear of being caught by one of the crew that did know me—I told him the truth. “It’s my sister. Please let us pass. She needs her milk.”
He stood his ground, staring at me for a long beat. I couldn’t tell if he was mind- or eye-fucking me. But there was nothing pure about the vibes he was sending, of that I was sure. A lump grew in my throat and I wouldn’t allow myself to try to swallow past it. I was a girl who’d grown up in the projects. I knew damn well that if you gave an inch to a bully, they would take a whole damn mile.
After one more glance at my chest, which made me hate the boob fairy who’d given me D cups, he stepped to the side. The tension from my back released and I pushed Violet to the deli. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that those foreboding, dark eyes followed me the whole way.
On the return trip, his electric, wicked energy stalked me, haunted my every step. Yeah, I was officially on the radar and had no idea why or how to disappear from it. It was only once I’d closed the door to our apartment on the seventh floor, gotten Violet her milk and turned on her favorite program that I allowed myself to shudder in the corner of our tattered brown couch.
What was worse was that I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. The hard truth was that I’d liked his attention, even though I was sure I hated him and all he stood for. At least I wasn’t stupid enough to trust him. But, to be fair, I didn’t trust anyone—an addict for a parent could do that to a girl—and, yeah, Black Tank certainly did not have take-you-out-to-dinner-and-buy-you-flowers ideas forming in his beautifully dark eyes.
I made Violet a peanut butter sandwich with our last two pieces of bread and cut an apple that we shared as I ate instant oatmeal. While the clock ticked closer and closer to when I needed to leave for work, it came—the instinctual awareness that my mom would be late coming home, again. And therefore I would be late for work, again.
I cleaned the small mess we’d made from eating—I didn’t think what I’d done could qualify as cooking—and I sat with my uniform on, ready to bolt out of the door, as I assumed the too-familiar position of waiting for my mother to get home.
Over the years it had been a sad and constant element of my life. When she was late, I usually knew why, and I was sure that this time would be no different. The door finally opened thirty minutes after I’d needed to leave and her skinny, fidgeting frame walked through. Every ounce of my being hated leaving Violet with my mom while she was high, but if I didn’t work, we would be worse off than we already were, and I didn’t want to imagine what that might look like.
My mom ignored me and went straight to the kitchen, where she took out a glass and filled it from the tap.
Fighting with her, high or sober, was a battle I’d surrendered to in high school, so I hid my sigh and stood.
In the calmest voice I could muster, I asked, “Can I have the phone, please? I need to let work know I’m running late.”
She darted her bloodshot eyes around the room, looking anywhere but at me. As she twisted her lips, I understood that the phone was gone—either lost, stolen or sold. Great.
“Right,” I said with a knowing nod. “I’ll be back for breakfast.”
Her guilty conscience must have been keeping her from both eye contact and speaking, because she turned her back to me and drank the rest of her water. I hurried out of the door and flew down the seven flights of stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. It was all I could do not to run through the courtyard and down the three streets to the subway station, where I was lucky enough to catch a train, my heart still thumping in my chest.
At the stop in Midtown that led to the hotel where I worked, I bolted up the stairs, retying my long hair into a tighter ponytail as I went. I entered the side door in the alley for employees and hauled ass down the stairs to the locker room where we kept our personal belongings.
The cold LED lighting was a bright contrast to the dark basement, and I had to blink several times to adjust my eyes. But once I’d focused, I saw my supervisor sitting on the bench in front of the row of mint green metal lockers.
“Fiona.” He crossed his arms and frowned. Sweat puddled around his thinning blond hair. Carrying around his massive stomach must have been a lot of work.
“I know.” I brought my hands together in a plea and slumped. “I’m so sorry. I’d love to say it won’t happen again, but my mom—”
He held up his chubby hand that looked more like a ball of dough with five short, fat sausages sticking out of it. “You’re fired.”
My chest contracted at the loss of oxygen.
“No, no, no, no, no. Please.” I needed to make him understand. Me losing that job wasn’t just a paycheck. It was our livelihood. The government didn’t hand out checks to addicts anymore. The only thing we had for security was the shitty apartment, because no one in their right mind would want to live in our neighborhood.
A neighborhood where the police rarely made an appearance… A neighborhood where criminals ruled with wicked eyes, iron fists and where they openly exploited the addictions of their own… Where girls gave up hope of leaving and settled into worshiping drug dealers because instant gratification was more attainable than a long-term plan…
No. I needed this job. I had a fucking dream. Get the fuck out of Covington Heights. Roly Poly on the bench in front of me did not understand what he was doing to me and my sister.
“Mr. Hansen…please.” There was no need to fake the tears streaming down my face and I hoped my trembling bottom lip would show him how desperate I was. I tapped my fingers on my cheeks as I searched his mole-like eyes for any hint of sympathy. There was none.
“I’m sorry, Fiona. If I can’t keep my cleaners in line then it’s me without a job. I’ve been warned about being too lenient. I can’t stick my neck out on the line for you or anybody else. It’s nothing personal.”
For him, maybe. For me, it was everything.
Contemporary romance and erotica writer Deana Birch was named after her father’s first love, who just so happened not to be her mother. Born and raised in the Midwest, she made stops in Los Angeles and New York before settling in Europe where she lives with her own blue-eyed Happily Ever After. Her days are spent teaching yoga, playing tennis, ruining her children’s French homework, cleaning up dog vomit, writing her next book, or reading someone else’s.