Hard as You Can

By: Laura Kaye

Chapter 1

Crystal Dean hurried out of the private party room and let the fake smile drop off her face. Damn bachelor party. A lot of times, the groom-to-be was totally embarrassed by his buddies’ surprise strip-club party, so things stayed low-key. No such luck tonight. Instead, her guest of honor was so rowdy, handsy, and intent on sampling the wares that she wished she could warn this slimeball’s fiancée to run fast and hard in the other direction.

Not that Crystal was an authority on making good choices. Or else she wouldn’t be working at Confessions, the strip club where her sorry excuse for a life had landed her as a waitress. Although, it wasn’t like she’d had much of a choice. At least her wares weren’t up for sampling . . . anymore. And she didn’t strip or give “private shows” in the back rooms.

No, Crystal’s boyfriend had shielded her from all that. And, anyway, Bruno was too possessive to share her with anyone else. At least there was some benefit to his control-freak tendencies.

Hurrying down the dim, private hallway that threaded between the party rooms, Crystal ran through a mental checklist of what she needed to do. Another round of drinks for this party. Deliver the appetizers for her other party. Check in with Bruno to see if he was ready for dinner—

The door to the back parking lot wrenched open and a group of men—some who worked for her boss, Jimmy Church, the head of Baltimore’s most notorious gang, and a few she hadn’t seen before—poured into the narrow space. Crystal stepped back into the shadows, hoping to avoid their notice.

Decked out in a suit and tie that must’ve strained the resources of even a men’s big and tall shop, Armand Lewis, or Big Al, guided the men down the other end of the hall toward Mr. Church’s private lounge. The big guy was an Apostle, a senior gang member who had paid his dues, earned the operation some serious money, and proven his loyalty in a whole host of ways you just didn’t want to know about.

With their dark slacks and jackets, nothing about the newcomers’ appearance was particularly noteworthy, but they exuded an air of authority and self-assurance Crystal recognized. And the unusually subdued demeanor of Al’s men proved she wasn’t the only one.

She’d place good money she didn’t have that these were the “guests” everyone had been preparing for and whispering about the past few days. Tensions had been tight as a rip cord around here. Crystal didn’t know who they were or what their business with Church might be, and she didn’t want to know. Ignorance—real or feigned—was a survival skill she’d honed early.

Thank God they hadn’t seen her. She didn’t want any part of whatever they were about.

Crystal was mid-sigh-of-relief when more men pushed through the door. Two of Church’s goons struggled to get a barely conscious—and badly injured—man through the opening and into the hall right in front of her. Each of the guys held one of the man’s arms over his shoulders, while the man’s feet attempted to keep up but mostly couldn’t. The poor man’s head rolled on his shoulders, revealing bruised, delirious eyes and a busted lip. Dried blood left a trail all down the front of his dingy T-shirt, probably from that lip, or maybe his nose. And she really didn’t want to know what the bundle of bloody gauze around his hand hid.

Goon Number One looked her way and did a double take when he noticed her standing there. “Bring some food. Room at the bottom of the stairs.” Without another word, they dragged the guy down the steps into the basement, cursing and complaining and puffing as they went.

What the hell had the injured man gotten himself into? Because people only ended up in one of the basement rooms when they were being held against their will. She would know.

It was better all the way around to remain ignorant of the goings-on downstairs. Crystal hated herself a little for thinking that way, but it wasn’t like she could do anything about it.

Snapping out of her thoughts, Crystal took off down the hall. Part of not being noticed around here was doing your job, doing it right, and doing it fast. It was a small price to pay for being left alone. Her rush toward the kitchen was why she didn’t notice that a man had stepped through the curtained doorway that led into the main part of the club. She walked right into him, her body feeling the hard muscle of his chest at the same time her nose registered his scent—something crisp and clean, like he’d recently showered.

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