Wednesday night following church meant
pie and coffee at Fred’s Place.
For as long as Izzy could remember, Gramma Fred had closed the diner on Wednesday
nights at six, opening again immediately after Bible study.
Some weeks, when prayers were short and lessons delivered at breakneck
speed, the coffee would be ready to pour by eight o’clock.
Other weeks, slow southern weeks when everyone’s sins needed
an extra washing, the pie would be nearly stale by the time it was
Tonight, Uncle Len had more on his mind than usual and give over a big part
of the service to the choir. It seemed a night for song, and a good thing,
Singing didn’t require a body to do no more than embrace the hymns’ familiar
and comforting words. And tonight Izzy had no mind for listening.
Joseph Baron wasn’t up with coming to church, but he’d agreed to
meet her for pie.
She pulled her compact sports sedan into an empty space facing the
front windows. Baron was already seated at the long counter, swinging right
to left and back again on the stool that seemed too tiny to hold what that
muscled body had to weigh.
She wrapped both hands over the top of the steering wheel and leaned
her chin against her fingers. Staring at him fed her sweet tooth
in ways Fred’s
apple pie never could.
But sitting here wasn’t going to get her anywhere and so she
pulled the keys from the ignition, tucked them along with her wallet
into the front pocket
of the poncho woven in dark paprika, cinnamon and sunflower gold she wore over
a plain brown shirtwaist.
Penitent clothes, Mamma Rose called the combination that was more
subdued than the rest hanging in Izzy’s closet.
All Izzy knew was that in the humbler clothes, the simpler colors she found
herself able to wholly focus on her spiritual self.
Since she was so used to going to Fred’s straight from the church, she
hadn’t even thought to change for her “date” with Baron.
And that was okay. She had no reason to hide any part of herself from anyone-even
though she did.
She wondered if he had secrets he hid, what they were, how she could pry them
out since subtlety was not one of her strong suits.
She pulled open the door to fresh brewed Sumatra-one of the perks
of being Fred’s granddaughter. Fred kept Izzy’s favorite brand for Wednesday’s
Following her nose lead, Izzy straight to Baron and the cup he cradled between
his two beautifully large hands. She eased up onto the stool at his side but
spoke to her grandmother hovering with pot and mug in hand.
“Now, Fred. I’m going to be terribly disappointed if you’ve
given away all my brew.”
Fred merely poured Izzy a cup as she addressed her response to Baron. “Think
twice about ever having children, Joseph. They produce ungrateful complainers
who try to pass themselves off as loving granddaughters.”
Izzy lifted her mug and, eyes closed, inhaled before looking back at her grandmother
who stood with one hand on one hip and her brow imperially arched.
“And now I suppose Her Ungratefulness will be wanting a slice of pie, not
that the sweetness wouldn’t be an improvement.”
“Apple would be great, Fred.” Izzy stood up on the barstool’s
rungs, leaned over and wrapped her grandmother in a hug. “And vanilla ice
cream,” she added as she sat back.”
Fred simply huffed as she returned the coffee pot to the warmer and headed
to the opposite end of the counter and the pie case.
Izzy watched her go, feeling Baron’s gaze on her face as she
When she finally glanced up, it was to find him looking at her with
a curious expression. “What?”
He shook his head. “Just nothing. Interesting rapport you’ve
got with your grandmother.”
“She’s amazing. The best. Aren’t you Fred?” Izzy asked
as Gramma Fred slid a plate with a quarter of a pie and a pint of ice cream toward
“Eat up,” she said, blowing a kiss to Izzy before getting back to
the rest of her customers.
“You’re lucky to have that,” Baron said, lifting his mug to
Izzy didn’t think she’d ever seen a man’s hand envelope a
coffee mug so completely.
“It’s beautifully smothering, wonderfully challenging.”
“Is that a complaint?”
She slowly pulled the soup spoon from her mouth, pressing her lips to the spoon’s
bowl to get the last smear of ice cream. The slowly part allowed her to think
of a comeback that wouldn’t send this man tail-tucked and running into
It wasn’t a reputation she was particularly proud of, but so went her
temper. “Tell me about your family, Joseph Baron.”
He picked up the spoon resting on his
saucer and tapped the counter with the end. “Well, Isabel. If I had a family I’d
be more than happy to tell you about them.”
What a strange admission to make. She didn’t think she’d ever known
anyone without at least a black sheep or disinherited outlaw sharing the family
name. “Would you like to adopt mine? I have more than enough to go around,
and not enough business for all of them to stick their noses into.”
A smile pulled at his beautifully full lips before revealing even
white teeth that she knew someone had paid to keep that straight.
So white against his
sweet pecan skin. Staring into his coffee, he shook his head. “Can’t
say that interference is something I need anymore of these days. When I was
back running with my boys, well, having a nose stuck into my business would’ve
been a good thing.”
Curious, her feelings about this man. “Your boys? Just what
kind of running did you use to do?”
He rolled one shoulder, and she wasn’t quite sure if he was giving her
an answer or simply shrugging off her question. “Running I’m not
exactly proud of, Isabel. I’ve done some things. Things I shouldn’t
have done. But that was a long time ago. People change. Circumstances, too.”
“So, how have you changed?” she asked quietly, her mood suddenly
pensive as she pressed the tines her fork into her pie crumbs. Yes, she wanted
to know, even as she admitted feeling intimidated by his answer.
She’d known former gang-bangers and what it had taken to turn around
those lives. But she hadn’t known a one as intimately as she wanted to
know Joseph Baron.
“For one thing, I only strap on blades that are legal.” But no less
lethal, he might as well have said. “And I have a respect for human life
that I sure as hell never learned from example.”
Something in the way he said it told her . . . “You learned it from experience,” she
finished for him.
He nodded, frowned. “A month spent with a tube up your dick and down
your throat’ll make a big difference in the way you see your life.”
And in that instant, Izzy’s whole world shifted. Here all this time she’d
been bitching and moaning because everything around her seemed to stay the
same. No matter what she did to get away, family obligations kept calling her
How petty she had been in her complaints, how small her issues were
in comparison. And then it hit her that, if not for his strength
of character to overcome
his background, his strength of will to switch the track down which he’d
run, he might never have lived to come into her life.
He didn’t have to give her the details for her to know that a very large
thing had happened in his life. “That’s why you do what you do,
isn’t it? You save lives because you almost lost yours.”
His gaze dropped almost involuntarily to the number fourteen intricately
tattooed on his left forearm, as if covering up an earlier design
he wanted to hide.
And then he dug for his wallet, tossed a ten on the counter and got to his
feet. “I want to show you something.”
She glanced from the bill on the bar to his face. “Gramma Fred
will be insulted if you try to pay.”
Baron looked back briefly at the money he’d left before signaling for
Izzy’s grandmother. She made her way down the counter, refilling cups
along the way, stopping when Baron covered his with his hand. “One cup?
“Shift change is at midnight and I’m on call. I’ve got to go.” He
picked up the ten and tucked it into her apron pocket. “Isabel tells me
you won’t accept payment.”
“My girl’s got that right,” the older woman said, her head
cocked in that jaunty way that dared him to argue. And then she looked at Izzy. “He
called you Isabel.”
“I know, Gramma,” Izzy said, her heart swelling with the tingle of
anticipation. “I think he’s used to getting his way.”
“I am. I also tip based on the service, not on the cost of the meal.” This
time it was Baron’s look that told Gramma Fred he wouldn’t be putting
up with any backtalk.
“Thanks, Gramma. Wednesdays without you just wouldn’t be the same.” Izzy
got to her feet and leaned over to press a kiss to her grandmother’s cheek.
As much as she enjoyed seeing Gramma Fred speechless, Izzy couldn’t imagine
not hearing that bossy voice on a regular basis.
And she was still wondering over her sudden melancholy when she and Baron reached
The stars were bright in the sky of velvet darkness, and Baron had
parked at the far end of the lot where the floodlights didn’t quite shine. Izzy
couldn’t say that the idea of shadows and solitude bothered her a bit.
Nope, not even a little.
In fact, the idea of having Baron and the stillness all to herself brought
a warm flush to her skin. She crossed her arms and rubbed her hands over her
bare skin and the gooseflesh that had nothing to do with the weather.
“Are you cold?”
Oh, but she loved the rusty and weathered sound of his voice, the way he observed
and paid attention, never letting a detail slip away. She shook her head. “Not
He opened the driver’s door; light spilled out in a sharp triangle
and took away much of the ambience Izzy had been soaking up.
But then he started unbuttoning his shirt and everything changed.
He kept his gaze focused on hers, his eyes never wavering, even ceasing to
blink. As Izzy watched, he bared his chest, one gorgeously muscled inch at
His pecs were amazing, sculpted above an abdomen that was rippled all the way
to the waistband of his uniform pants. Izzy held a hand to her throat to keep
it from fluttering, feeling strangely lightheaded and awe-inspired.
But it was when he shrugged out of the shirt completely that she fully caught
her breath. Scars pocked his shoulder, deep gouges that stopped at his collarbone
only to pick up again near his waist, a scatter-shot pattern that spilled across
his torso toward his ribs and disappeared down into his pants.
Her voice caught at the base of her throat, and her heart thundered. His body
was so beautiful, so perfect . . . and so badly damaged.
When she finally found the ability to speak, she asked the most obvious
“I had my ass kicked by a nine millimeter Beretta.”
He said it so matter-of-factly, as if being shot was no worse than running
into a brick wall or flying fists. “A drive-by?”
“How old were you?”
And he’d spent weeks in the hospital recovering. Weeks he’d been
all alone. “Who took care of you?”
“Doctors, nurses.” He started to shrug back into his shirt.
“Wait.” She moved closer, and she touched him because not touching
him wasn’t an option.
She placed her palm squarely over his pectoral muscle where his skin was smooth
and warm and resiliently firm. But then she spread her fingers, searching out
the closest scar and rubbing a circle around it before dipping into the quarter-sized
“Shhh.” She stepped closer and laid her cheek in the center of his
chest. His heart thudded; his chest rose and fell. Her fingers continued to explore.
She traced the random configuration toward his shoulder, reversing the path
down over his ribs and coming closer to tears with each scar her fingers discovered.
When she reached the last one he’d uncovered, she simply wrapped
her arms around his waist and held him, pressing her lips to the
ribs that guarded
Baron sucked in a hiss of breath at the contact, his hands moving to her shoulders
as if to set her away. She wanted nothing more than to stay where she was as
long as she could get away with not moving.
But at Baron’s insistence she stepped back and looked up, catching
only a glimpse of the moon before his head descended.
His lips were beautifully full and soft even while firm in pressing
down with their kiss. She slipped her palms beneath his shirt, up
his back and held him
close, wishing she’d was wearing anything right now besides her penitent
She kissed him back, moving her body into his, against his, doing the same
with her tongue. He pressed harder, deeper, his hands reaching down to cover
her backside and pull her fully into his strengthening erection.
He so obviously wanted her that she found herself floundering when
in the next moment he set her away. “I don’t want your pity, Isabel. I’ve
long since learned my lessons and I know how to take care of myself.”
Pity was the farthest thing from her mind. He stood there in the
open door, his hands at his waist, his chest bared and beautiful as he struggled
“Oh, Joseph. That wasn’t pity. That was a woman enjoying a man.”
His grin started slowly, then broke freely over his face. “As long as
we’re clear on the concept.”
“Oh, yes. We are.”
“Then you’re welcome to climb up into the cab of my truck and show
me more of what you enjoy.”
And, of course, she did.