The Pryce Family, Book 2
Deep in debt and stalked by a deadly conman, Jane Connolly needs a job and a safe place to stay. With no one to turn to in an unfamiliar city, she can’t refuse the kindness of a magnetic stranger.
A former mixed martial arts fighter, billionaire Iain Pryce couldn’t walk away from a small town girl in a big city, especially when it’s obvious she’s in trouble. But her sweet spirit threatens the single principle he’s been living under for the past thirteen years: don’t lose control…
Thirteen years ago
The two most common reasons why people drank were to feel good or to forget. With Iain Pryce it was always the latter, but for whatever reason he couldn’t seem to forget right now.
Damn it. He should’ve never gone to his parents’ place. His mother always prepared a lavish gift for his birthday, and he hated her for it. It was like she wanted to buy her way back into his good graces. So the wisest thing would’ve been to just skip it and hang out with people he actually liked. But he just couldn’t pass up the vicious thrill of watching his mother cringe in horror as he reenacted how he’d beaten the crap out of the other guy in his most recent cage match.
His mother had tried very hard to fit in with the wealthy and powerful Pryce family, so it upset her that Iain had dropped out of college to fight like an animal in a pit. A sneer pulled at his mouth. He would have bet any two of his limbs what she was really upset about was the way his grandmother, Shirley Pryce, blamed her for his “horrid” fascination with crass violence.
So after each match, he visited his parents’ place. Usually only his mother was home, except when she was out seeing some gentleman friend. He showed her his bloody knuckles, displayed the cuts and bruises on his face and body and gave her a highly descriptive blow-by-blow description of the match, always doing his best to highlight the most disgusting and gruesome details.
And as her face turned pale and pain filled her eyes, the bitter pleasure never failed to twist in his belly. Laughter and bile choked him. He could never forgive her for cheating on his father and creating the mess at home.
But his mother hadn’t been home alone with only servants around that night. His father had been home too. Iain had stopped in front of their room and heard the familiar scenario play out–the door was always closed, but his parents’ words never stayed in.
“You’re never home,” his mother would say. Accusing.
“I’ve been busy,” his father would say. Uncaring.
“What business interest could you possibly have in Georgia?”
“I have business interests everywhere. Don’t you know that by now? Let’s not forget our agreement. My finances are my own—just spend the money and have yourself a good time.”
There was laughter from one of the tables behind him. “Yo mama been cocked more times than a shotgun.”
Iain’s hand tightened around the shot glass. His phone pinged, and he glanced at the text: Hey, where are you? I thought we were going out to celebrate your birthday?
Iain downed the vodka. The liquor incinerated his throat and burned his sinuses. He wasn’t in the mood to celebrate, and he certainly didn’t want to tell his younger brother, Mark, he was at a bar using a fake ID.
The bartender ambled over. Despite his thinness, wiry muscle ran along his arms. Both of his forearms had black tats with skulls and some other designs Iain couldn’t quite make out in the dim light. “Another,” Iain said.
The bartender poured him a fresh drink, collected the empty glass and left to serve other customers.
“Yo mama so nasty, she pours salt water down her pants to keep her crabs fresh.” Laughter and beer steins being thumped on the table.
Why the hell did I choose this bar? It wasn’t that close to his place, and the liquor tasted like piss. The crowd was mostly male. Cheap shirts and jeans strained against thick chests and legs. In a custom-tailored shirt and slacks from Milan, Iain stood out like a cleaver among butter knives.
“Yo, purty boy!” a drunken guy yelled from behind him. “You even got a mama?”
Iain ignored him. Not worth the hassle. The guy’s two friends started trash talking, and Iain let it roll off his shoulders. He felt like shit right now, but he didn’t want to fight those morons. It’d be unfair—in his favor—even with three on one. If he kept ignoring them, they’d eventually get bored and move on to a more receptive target.
“Hey, skinny boy, yo mama so nasty, they call her the carpenters’ delight,” the leader of the trio called out.
The taunt pushed Iain back to a time four years before, when he’d found his mother naked with a carpenter who’d come to install shelves in the library. Neither of them had seen him, but he’d seen and heard more than enough. Bile rose in his throat.
Another of the trio added, “Flat as a board and easy to nail.” Snickers and laughter followed.
Maybe worth the hassle after all.
He got up and walked over to the table. Rage–white and hot–was building up, burning his nerve-endings and dragging him back to the present. But he knew how to appear calm on the outside.
“There’s a party in her mouth, and everyone’s coming.” The biggest of the three looked at him tauntingly and raised his beer mug in mock salute.
“Yo mama’s such a slut, she’s been on more wieners than ketchup,” another one added. The three were nearly helpless with laughter.
Four years’ worth of bitter hatred and fury pumped through his veins as he launched himself at the men. Two kicks to the head, and two of them dropped. The third one was just standing up when Iain scooped up an empty mug and smashed it into his face; he went down, too.
But that wasn’t enough. His body moved on auto-pilot, punishing the men far beyond the point of victory.
Strong hands gripped Iain from behind. He resisted; he was an expert at evading holds and breaking free. But there were too many of them, and then the cops came.
* * * * *
Iain got his one phone call before they threw him into a cell, so he dialed his father. Salazar Pryce was probably the only one who could bail him out.
Ninety minutes later, his father appeared. Despite the late hour, he was impeccably dressed in a new suit from Italy.
The skin around his eyes creased with disapproval, Salazar stared at Iain. He seemed totally out of place in the gray, concrete ugliness, and Iain couldn’t bring himself to face his father’s disappointment and disapproval.
“I’ve got the lawyers working on this mess right now.” Salazar’s voice was flat. “They’ll handle all the legal ramifications.”
Iain swallowed. “Thanks.”
“Just what the hell were you thinking?”
Heat flooded his face. “I wanted a drink.”
“You know my liquor cabinet’s always open.”
Iain’s head dipped in shame. It was shitty of him to lie to his dad after dragging him out of bed at two a.m. “I was just pissed.”
Salazar raised his chin, something he did only when extremely angry. “Most people would cut off an arm to switch places with you, and you do something like this because you’re pissed.” He looked up at the concrete ceiling. “Well, ain’t that a kick in the pants.”
Anger surged through Iain. His fists tightened as he glared at his father. “Why aren’t you divorcing Mom?”
“Divorce your mother? Why on earth should I?”
“You know she’s been cheating on you. That’s why you started having affairs, right? To get back at her, to punish her.” Except you also punished the rest of us.
Salazar’s gaze came down and rested on Iain, his face devoid of expression. “No. I cheated first.” He shrugged. “But she knew I wasn’t the faithful type when she married me.”
Shame and anger thickened in Iain’s blood. They coated his mouth and lungs like tar, suffocating him, and he felt regret burn through his gut.
Salazar wasn’t finished. “Now listen, because I’m about to tell you something important. You’re a fool to let such a minor thing affect you like this. If you’d really lost control and killed one of those lowlifes, all my money and connections wouldn’t have been enough to save you.” His face twisted into an awful mask full of derision and pity. “When your grandmother said you should toughen up, she didn’t mean grow up and become a thug with the best karate chop in the cage. She meant emotionally. Emotions do not rule a man. You need to build a wall around yourself so you’re not so easily affected by things like this. Learn to rein it in, keep things in proper perspective. This mindless violence…it’s no better than being an animal.”
Salazar stepped back and adjusted the lapels of his suit. “Now, I’m going to go see about getting you out of here. Try not to kill anyone until I get back.” He turned and walked to the door. There was a buzz and he left.
Iain buried his hot face in his hands. His eyes burned, but tears didn’t come. Now that the initial shock of his father’s revelation dissipated, shame at his judgmental attitude seeped into his bones like poison. And he had no idea how to mend the past hurt.
It took about an hour for his father to reappear. In that time Iain focused on the future—he’d quit cage fighting and go back to school. And hone his body and mind until nothing could get to him.
Those would be the first few steps toward making amends.
The wintry wind nipped at Jane Connolly, its bite painful without a jacket. It wasn’t the brightest idea for a woman to be out alone, but she really needed a job, and if she moved her car she would lose her free spot. And these days, free was important.
As the back door to the small Italian bistro came into view, she slowed down and sniffed her white button-down shirt surreptitiously. It and a pair of soft khakis were her best interview outfit—old, but presentable. A sigh escaped her lips when she couldn’t detect any odor. The laundry really should’ve been done the day before, but she hadn’t been able to find a laundromat within walking distance of her car. At least she was clean—she’d scrubbed her face and brushed her teeth in a fast-food restaurant bathroom. All the time she’d been in there, her stomach had twisted at the smell of hot, greasy burgers and fries. She’d almost begged for a bite to eat.
She blinked away sudden tears. Crying before an interview was not the way to win brownie points. So what if this wasn’t how she imagined her life in a big city would be? She couldn’t go home as a total failure. The pity—and all the I told you sos—would be unbearable.
Wiping away the tears, she pulled her shoulders back and stiffened her spine. She had to just grit her teeth and do and say the right things. If the restaurant manager knew she was living out of a car, he might not give her the job. Sad to say, but some people judged.
The loud conversations in the kitchen died as she opened the door. A big, beefy man with a ruddy olive-toned face turned to her, while others stared. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Yes. My name’s Jane Connolly.” She cleared her throat. “I heard you’re hiring a cook?”
He gave her a cursory glance. “You heard wrong.”
He shrugged his thick shoulders. “Just what I said. No opening in the kitchen.” It was painful to watch his bad acting.
“I saw your ad. And I asked your waitress.” She clenched her hands as her palms grew damp.
“The ad had a typo. And the waitress was mistaken.” He studied his fingertips. One of the kitchen crew behind him sniggered, and he shot him a nasty glare. The sound stopped instantly.
She swallowed a hot ball of humiliation. He wasn’t going to get rid of her so easily. “Look, I really need this job. I can do the work.”
“No, honey, you can’t. We only hire new graduates from the CIA.”
Jane glared at the man. He was having fun at her expense, while she was begging for a job and some self-respect. “Why would you need spies in a kitchen?”
The place erupted with laughter. The man wiped a tear from a corner of his eye. Finally he managed a semblance of a serious expression and turned to her. “If you need a job that bad, we might could use a waitress. A lot of our customers tip pretty well.”
“But I don’t want to be a waitress.”
“Then we can’t hire you. Look…uh…”
One of the crew said, “Her name’s Jane.”
“Right. Jane. If you really want to work in a restaurant, you should be glad to take any job, yeah? Can’t always get your dream job fresh out of college.”
“I’m not fresh out of college,” Jane said. “I’m twenty-six.”
“You look like you’re barely twenty-one.” He shrugged again. “If you don’t want to work, then it’s no skin off my nose.” He turned to the kitchen crew. “All right, you lazy bastards! We got dinner to serve!”
The men started hustling.
She couldn’t even speak through the hard knot that had traveled from her belly to her throat. She left before she broke down and begged for a chance. At least the man had been kinder than the others in her hometown. But the message was always the same: she wasn’t good enough to be paid.
Jane trudged along the broken and uneven pavement of Washington D.C. back toward her car. More than half the sun was already under the horizon, and shadows stretched along the sidewalks. Most old apartment buildings and townhouses had their curtains drawn, and light seeped out around the edges. The area had the mingled smells of a dozen different dinners, and Jane took a deep breath.
One day, girl. One day.
Maybe sometime in the future she’d look back on this and laugh about it. Even make a joke of it. “Oh yeah, that time when I got rejected. Again. It was hard, but I made it. I was willing to work and determined to succeed,” she’d say. “And sure enough, my chance came. I just knew it’d happen for me if I kept at it.”
As she moved farther from the bistro, more cracks and potholes appeared. The frigid air held a mixture of old grease and human waste and trash. Here, the homes didn’t smell like warm dinner. Loud catcalls and rough laughter drifted from somewhere, and she half-ran to her car. They probably weren’t directed at her–they sounded too far away, but she cringed anyway, her neck tense and shoulders raised.
Not for the first time in her life, she wished she’d been born a man. Then people wouldn’t laugh at her when she applied for work in a kitchen or think she’d never amount to anything.
And a man would’ve never fallen for a con artist like Gio.
Work in somebody else’s kitchen? Get outta here. Jane, you gotta think big. Why work for somebody when you can be the boss and do what you want? If they don’t wanna hire you, screw ’em. Who says you can’t start your own restaurant?
God, how persuasive he’d been. He’d shown her glossy photos of new restaurant openings across the country and created a beautiful vision. And he’d been the first person to tell her she could succeed. If he’d been trying to get into her pants, she might’ve blown him off, but he’d always behaved perfectly.
She’d been so convinced he was on her side, that he really wanted to see her do well. She’d opened a line of credit, using her portion of the family land as collateral. And she’d given him fifty thousand to buy equipment from liquidation auctions and secure a lease.
He’d used the money to pay off his bookie.
She put the heel of her hand against her belly and rubbed the hot and painful spot.
There was no way to get the money back–Gio apparently didn’t even have a job. It was up to her to make it right, and she’d rather be dead than have the bank take the land that had been in her family for three generations. Her family didn’t deserve to lose their legacy because she’d been stupid and gullible. They might not have supported her, but none of it was out of cruelty. They simply didn’t see her as anything other than the little girl who stayed home and cooked and cleaned because that was the role she’d played since forever.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, and she pulled it out to check the caller. Speak of the devil.
“I asked you to stop calling,” she snapped.
“You bitch, you think you can run and keep my money?” came Gio’s low voice. It had sounded as smooth as whipped cream when they first met, but now it reminded her of loose nails in a can.
“It’s my money. You stole it from me.”
“It was a fuckin’ investment! I told you that already!”
“It was your gambling debt.”
“You can’t hide forever, Jane. I know how to find you.”
“No, you don’t.”
“You’re gonna be sorry!” he yelled. “You cun—”
She hung up, shaky with anger and frustration. She had no interest in his ranting or insults. She’d heard enough when he’d realized she wasn’t going to hand him any more cash. Apparently he’d still owed money to the bookie. He stole fifty thousand bucks, she thought. How much more could he owe?
Finally she reached the small street where she’d parked her rusty old Chevy. She’d been so certain if she’d moved out of her hometown, where everyone saw her as “that nice Connolly girl,” she’d be able to get a good-paying job and a place of her own. Instead she’d spent the last few weeks alone in her car in a hostile city eating nothing but stale crackers and processed cheese.
She swallowed bitterness. No self-pity, girl. It wouldn’t do her any good to feel sorry for herself or wish she could go home. Going home meant admitting defeat. Unlike some of the town’s people, her family wouldn’t openly gloat, but it would be in their eyes when she returned with her tail tucked between her legs.
Jane frowned as she got closer to her car. There was something odd about the Chevy, like it was sort of sitting too low. She hurried toward it and then she saw Gio hadn’t been kidding when he’d bragged that he knew where she was. CUNT was spray-painted across the windshield in a bright apple red, and all four of the tires had been slashed.
Jane stared at the car, willing it to be a dream. But it wasn’t. The windshield still sported the horrible four-letter word in all caps, and her tires didn’t magically heal themselves.
She couldn’t drive and live in a car like this, and she didn’t have the money to fix it. She had no job after months of searching. Her bank had given her a sixty-thousand-dollar line of credit, but she couldn’t take even a penny out of it. She already owed so much.
As she stared at her car, her breath caught in her throat. A nasty tremor started in her hands, and she closed her eyes.
Then she lost it.
* * * * *
Iain Pryce forced his hands to remain relaxed on the steering wheel of his cousin’s brand new Maserati, but twin hammers still beat against his temples. He should’ve never gone to Maryland to meet his old mixed martial arts buddies. As much as he liked them, they reminded him of the worst night of his life.
Most of them had retired from MMA fighting and owned gyms or other businesses. They’d talked about the good ol’ days. A few had asked Iain why he’d retired and how life was treating him. Iain had smiled the entire time and made jokes but never really answered the questions.
He should’ve stayed in L.A., but the city was making it hard to maintain his usual even keel. His parents had recently elevated their silent passive aggression to another level. They’d never had an ideal marriage, despite their high-society moniker–The Eternal Couple. But there was something new in their relationship that really set his teeth on edge…if he allowed it to.
Then there was Mark’s engagement. Iain was glad for his younger brother, but watching him be stupidly happy with his fiancée twisted something inside, and it shamed him. He should be totally ecstatic that Mark had finally hooked up with a nice girl, but maybe he was just annoyed he’d lost a perfect wingman for clubbing.
Iain frowned, then had to swerve sharply when another car suddenly decided to shift into his lane. Temper, temper, he admonished himself. He pulled his car to the right, breathing in and out to a slow four-count and resisting the impulse to curse.
The exit coming up looked vaguely familiar, so he took it. Maybe he’d reached McLean already.
He soon realized his error. There was no way these cracked streets and defaced signs belonged to his cousin Elizabeth Pryce-Reed’s swanky neighborhood. Where in the hell was he? Thanks to Elizabeth’s paranoia about stalkers—she’d had a few—she’d ripped the GPS out of the car, so he couldn’t even use the latest technology to get himself back to her place.
He took out his phone. He’d forgotten to charge it the night before, but it probably had enough juice left for a call or two. The phone flashed LOW BATTERY as he dialed Elizabeth, then an X appeared over the battery status as it rang, and before she could answer, it died.
“You gotta be kidding me.” Elizabeth’s phone was a different make from his, so of course the charger in her car didn’t work on his phone.
Sighing, he drove around slowly and aimlessly, hoping to find somebody—anybody—who could help him. Half an hour later, he hadn’t seen a single soul who seemed interested in helping him. Everyone he’d seen had looked at the Maserati like they were thinking about chopping it up and selling it for parts.
He rubbed his face at an intersection of two small streets. Okay. Calm. Need to focus. All he had to do was find the highway that would take him to the neighborhood where Elizabeth had bought her new house. He could do that, no problem.
Just as he was about to drive past the intersection, a woman screamed. If he’d been anywhere but the crappy part of the capital, he might have driven past. He didn’t like getting involved in things. But his conscience nipped at him.
Anything could be happening. Robbery, rape, or worse. What if the woman was being killed?
Sometimes he really hated his conscience.
Iain pulled into the street and saw a slim woman standing under a streetlight. She was medium-height and carried a backpack, but other than that he couldn’t tell in the uncertain light. She was staring at an old car and screamed again.
Guess she wasn’t being murdered. Now he could just drive by, no problem, nothing to weigh on his conscience as he lay down that night to sleep. He’d done the right thing.
Then she turned, saw his car and locked gazes with him. Her large, dark eyes seethed with anger and despair. Underneath all was pain so raw, he gasped like he’d been punched in the gut. He couldn’t look away; for a moment it felt like he was suspended in the air.
To his relief, she turned away, but not before he saw her wipe her eyes with the back of her hands.
He seriously should just drive away. Pretend he hadn’t heard her scream or seen her cry. He didn’t do tears. But he couldn’t. His damned conscience wanted him to make sure she was really okay because apparently the fact that she wasn’t being murdered wasn’t enough.
Against his better judgment, Iain took a deep breath, pulled over and lowered the window. “You all right?”
“What do you think?” she shot back, gesturing at the old car. “Does this look all right to you?”
He frowned as he noticed the flat tires…then the red CUNT on her windshield. It didn’t seem like random vandalism. Whoever had done this knew her and was trying for intimidation. She wasn’t wearing a jacket, and under her ill-fitting clothes her shoulders were bony. Her facial features were even and finely carved, but too angular and sharp from hunger. He’d seen that look from aspiring actresses and models dieting to look like a starving Somalian child.
No, no, no. Don’t get involved.
“Got a place to go?”
“Why? You in the mood to take in a stray?” she asked, her voice sharp.
No, he wasn’t, but he couldn’t leave her either. Something about the way she was trembling warned him she was close to breaking. He knew what he’d done the last time he’d snapped, and he didn’t want her to snap too. Unlike him, she probably didn’t have anybody she could call to bail her out. If she did, she wouldn’t be standing around screaming at her car. “Actually, I’m lost,” he said. “I need to get to McLean.”
“Really?” Her gaze flicked over the Maserati, and she raised an eyebrow.
“Yeah, really.” When she kept staring at him, Iain shrugged, oddly bothered by the fact that she didn’t trust him. She was just being sensible by not getting in the car with him. “Okay, look. Call 911 and report it. That way at least your stalker will go to jail.”
She turned irresolutely under the streetlamp, then shook her head. “Wait.” She reached into her damaged car and pulled out a small duffel bag. Then she went around the front and stood by the passenger seat. “I’ll help you get to McLean if you drop me off at a church.”
He stared at her, wondering why in the world she had a sudden desire to pray. But, whatever worked. He unlocked the door. “Get in.”