Marked - Elisabeth Naughton

CHAPTER ONE

Some nights, a woman just wanted to bash her brain against a wall to keep from screaming. For Casey Simopolous, this was one of those nights.

“Yo, sistah. My tongue’s not getting any wetter over here by itself.” The blond frat-boy wannabe at the other end of her section threw his arms out wide with a could-you-be-more-stupid? look on his face. “We gonna get those drinks or what?” The two idiots seated next to him at the small circular table laughed and slapped him on the shoulder in a you-da-man move that made Casey grind her teeth together.

Oh, she could think of a number of comebacks for that one, but like the bad girl she wasn’t in this den of indecency, she bit her lip instead. She plastered on a smile she didn’t feel, dropped off the beers at table eleven and headed toward the troublemakers.

She hefted the full tray over her head as she zigzagged through XScream. Around her, heavy bass echoed from speakers hidden in the walls, vibrating the floor beneath her feet, sloshing her brain against her skull in the process. She had a killer headache, and that low-level buzz she’d been experiencing for the last thirty minutes was wreaking havoc on her usually cool-headed mood. If she hadn’t eaten recently, she might have chalked it up to low blood sugar, but since Dana had forced her to choke down a burger during her break, she knew that wasn’t the case. And she was tired of trying to figure out just what was wrong with her anyway.

Strop stressing already, would you? Sheesh…

She shook off the thought and picked her way around tables, past loggers and teachers and even the town’s mayor. Far be it from her to judge who got their thrills in a place like this. To her right, Anna was onstage, working it for all she was worth, and from the corner of her eye, Casey caught a bra—or was that a G-string?—fly through the air, but she ignored that too. Just as she did every night.

The college kids who’d been flicking her crap all evening whooped and hollered as they watched Anna turn with a lusty grin, bend over at the waist and shake her size-zero behind. They obviously didn’t catch the fact that Anna’s seductive wink and lip-licking was motivated by nothing but dollar bills, but then that wasn’t exactly a surprise. These three yahoos were anything but Rhodes scholars.

They barely spared Casey a glance as she drew close, which was just fine with her. The micromini schoolgirl ensemble Karl insisted all the servers wear wasn’t the most flattering outfit on her five-foot ten-inch frame, and she couldn’t wait to be done with her shift so she could get out of it as fast as possible.

She set the first beer on the table in front of troublemaker number one, moved around behind the blond who was shaking his head in a yeah-baby move while salivating over Anna, and reached for the next beer on her tray. But before she could wrap her fingers around the chilled glass, a body slammed into her from the side, jostling the drinks and her and sending frothy golden liquid spilling over her tray.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, trying to right the tray before she lost everything on the table at her side. “Watch it!”

That buzzing picked up in her head, and before the words were even out, a tingling sensation lit off in her hip to radiate outward across her lower back and knock her equilibrium out of whack.

Casey swayed, reached out for the table but only caught the edge with the tips of her fingers. She had a moment of Oh, crap as she went down, heard chairs scrape the dingy floor and the college kids’ shouts of surprise. But before her body hit the ground, an arm of steel that seemed to come out of nowhere wrapped around her torso, and another darted out to rescue the falling tray.

She didn’t have time to do more than gasp. The mystery man who’d nearly knocked her to the ground turned her in his arm as if she weighed no more than a feather and set her on her feet. He handed her the tray, nodded and said in a thick accent, “Excuse me.”

And Casey lost all ability to speak.

He was huge. Easily six and a half feet tall and at least two hundred and fifty pounds of solid muscle. His legs were like tree trunks, his chest so wide it