Protecting What's His Page 26

“Yeah. Shit.” She stared out the window, her back to Derek. “Ginger used to stuff cotton in my ears and blast country music to drown it out. She knew how much it upset me. That’s why she has an issue with it now. She doesn’t realize it only bothered me back then because I didn’t understand it. To her, it’s just plain black and white.”

Derek had seen Valerie Peet’s criminal record, not that he could tell Willa that. He’d known Ginger’s childhood had more than likely been rough. Obviously, he hadn’t even scratched the surface. Rage flowed through him just imagining two young girls being subjected to something so awful. Indeed, Ginger had been required to grow up at a very young age.

He sat down heavily in the kitchen chair vacated by Willa. “I still feel like I’m missing something.”

She faced Derek across the table. “Our mother…she’s complicated. Sometimes her johns would stick around for a few days. They’d make promises to her and then bail once the drugs dried up. She’d get depressed, go on a drinking binge.” Willa plopped onto the back of the couch, crossing her arms over her middle. “I think you care about my sister, Lieutenant, so I’m going to drop some knowledge on you.”

He managed a nod.

“I’m sure I don’t have to remind you how attractive Ginger is. But so was our mother at one time. And Ginger’s biggest fear has always been becoming our mother.”


Willa made a sound of agreement. “Still. It’s the real reason she doesn’t date. She watched men use our mother and discard her like yesterday’s trash her whole life. So you see, you literally could not have f**ked up more by bailing and not calling Ginger for two days.”

Derek’s throat felt banded by steel. Jesus, how could he not have realized this? She’d needed words, assurances from him, and he’d left without even saying good-bye. And, worse, stayed away while he let his work consume him without sending her so much as a text. Of course she’d feel insecure about where they stood. He’d given her no reason to feel otherwise. But what would he have said?

Thanks for the hottest f**k of my life, baby. Let’s do it again as soon as I get home from work. Twice.

He scrubbed a hand over his face. Just as she’d been innocent of men, he lacked experience being in an actual relationship.

If he didn’t want to lose her, he needed to figure it out. Fast.

He just hoped like hell it wasn’t too late.

“I’ve got to get out of here.”

“I thought you might.”

“Aw, come on now, sugar tits. I’ve been tipping you all night. Show me something.”

Ginger ignored the light-beer-drinking Neanderthal she’d nicknamed Nacho addressing her from the end of the bar, completely unaware of the tortilla chip stuck to his shirt. Subtly, she checked for the security guards in the crowd, hoping they’d come remove this guy quick. She’d alerted them over ten minutes ago that one of her customers needed tossing out, but they appeared to have forgotten or just plain blown her off. Any other night, she would brazen it out. Banter with the sorry f**ker until he walked away or got too drunk to respond. It would probably even entertain the other patrons and increase her tips.

But he’d caught her on a bad night. A real bad night. And honestly, she could think of nothing more satisfying right now than gulping down each of her customers’ drinks shotgun-style and line-dancing on the bar.

What the hell is this techno music about anyway? Everyone’s just pretending to like it, right?

“Baby, you look mad. Don’t be like that.”

Ginger squeezed her eyes shut, wishing Neander-Nacho hadn’t called her baby. It reminded her of Derek and their one-night stand. Their truly amazing one-night stand that would never be repeated, obviously, since he hadn’t bothered to call or stop by once since it had happened. Seemed pretty damn clear where they stood.

The fact that she’d been a virgin probably scared the hell out of him, made him run for the hills thinking she’d be all clingy. Ready to go eat brunch and pick out a puppy.

Fat chance. She ate breakfast, or she ate lunch. The two had no business being combined.

Apart from Willa finding out, Ginger refused to regret it, though. In fact, when she saw Derek again, she might even wink and blow him a kiss. Just to let him know how much non-regretting she was doing.

She’d known from the beginning where this thing between Derek and her was headed and she’d gone there willingly. Eagerly. Sans panties, even. She didn’t want a relationship with him. With anyone. So why had her bravado deserted her when she needed it most? She couldn’t stop moping around like one of the characters in some scripted teen drama. Frankly, she was kind of embarrassed for herself.

It reminded her too much of someone. She’d been avoiding admitting it, but thanks to Neander-Nacho’s antics, she’d started hanging streamers and blowing up balloons at her own pity party. She glanced up from the cash register and caught sight of herself in the mirror behind the bar. The dull, defeated girl she saw there terrified her.

“Sweetheart, I’m talking to you. Not that I don’t mind seeing you from behind.” High fives, the clinking of glasses against one another.

Dull and defeated, my ass.

Ginger spun around and approached the jackass who no longer deserved a nickname. She spoke loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear. “Listen, you ignorant bastard, I have some news for you. There are literally dozens of loser, backward-hat-wearing, fart-joke-telling sons of bitches exactly like you in this establishment right now. You are not unique in any way. In fact, you are boring the shit out of me with your predictability. So finish your goddamn drink and pack it up.”

Then she picked up his untouched shot of tequila and tossed it back, reveling in the burn as it flowed down her throat.

The handful of patrons who could hear her tirade over the pounding music applauded and whistled for her. Even the guy’s friends poked him, repeating the highlights of her put-down. He didn’t look happy about it in the least. His face turned bright red, his fist clenching on the bar. Slightly alarmed, Ginger turned back around, intending to call for security once more.

A hand banded around her bicep, yanking her backward. The wooden bar bit into her upper back and her leg slammed into a sharp corner of the ice bin. She struggled to pull her arm from his hand to no avail. His friends shouted at him to let go, but his grip merely tightened.

“You’re a whore!” He yelled against her ear. She flinched at the volume of his voice. In a panic, she swung her eyes to the other end of the bar, where Amanda jogged toward her wide-eyed, dropping the drink she’d been pouring on the way to reach her.

Suddenly Ginger’s arm ripped free of his grasp and she slumped to the floor, hidden from view behind the bar. A loud crash, followed by shouting coming from the dance floor, had her scrambling to her feet.

Ginger’s eyes widened. Derek stood behind Nacho, gripping him around the throat with murder in his eyes.

Chapter Fifteen

Nacho’s hands tore at Derek’s grip, trying to free his neck so he could breathe. Likewise, Nacho’s friends appeared frantic, trying to pull Derek away from Nacho, but he wouldn’t budge.

Derek’s turbulent gaze met hers briefly and she read his silent question there. She nodded at him once to assure him she was unharmed. Then without warning, he slammed Nacho’s head against the bar with such force that Ginger jumped back to escape the blood spurting from his nose. Even the crunch of cartilage breaking could be heard over the pulsing music.

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