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Kept, Page 9

Maya Banks

  violin for them. After nervous hesitation she agreed. What shocked her the most was the obvious appreciation for her talent in their eyes and expressions.

  Granted, no one should be judged on their appearance, but still, these men did not look like classical music fans at all. They were a rung or two above street thugs, no doubt. Not to mention a hell of a lot sexier and more badass. But they looked like they’d prefer heavy metal or hard rock over Tchaikovsky or Bach.

  When they applauded her last number, she flushed to the roots of her hair and peeked shyly up at them as she bent down to secure her violin in its case. Unable to help herself, she ran her fingers over the glossy wood one more time, marveling for the one hundredth time that this was hers.

  God, it had cost Silas a small fortune! She knew exactly how expensive the violin was. God knows she’d spent enough time mooning and pining over fine instruments, looking but never touching. Never in her life would she have imagined owning such perfection. What exactly was it that Silas and his partners did anyway?

  Silas certainly wasn’t the older retired gentleman she’d imagined owning the apartment building. And surely even owning the entire building wouldn’t allow for him dropping thousands of dollars on a whim to replace her broken violin that cost a mere fraction of what her new one did.

  She studied the men’s manner of dress with a thoughtful expression. Definitely higher than a rung or two above street thugs. She wasn’t even sure why that had popped into her mind. Their clothing was impeccable and very expensive. At first she hadn’t noticed the designer clothing because the men who wore it weren’t flashy in a GQ, preppy, polished manner. They were all gruff, with big bodies and bulging muscles—that just happened to be adorned in very expensive, exclusive clothing from designers she couldn’t afford even in a secondhand shop.

  And there was the fact that Silas had said he’d be out of town on business. After she’d awakened from her nap, Jax had gone out for supper while Thane and Maddox took turns asking her questions. One of which had been where she was from. Thane had said he’d noticed her southern accent—as if it were that hard to miss—and said that he too was from the south and hadn’t realized how much he missed it until Evangeline had dropped into their lives.

  At the mention of Evangeline, Hayley had gone completely rigid. Maddox had shot Thane a fierce look of reprimand that Hayley pretended not to notice but was definitely intrigued by. Did they know about Evangeline after all? This was getting more humiliating by the minute.

  When she’d very nonchalantly and in a very innocent voice asked who Evangeline was and if she was from the south too, Thane had mumbled, “No one important.” All the while Maddox had been glaring him down.

  She’d never been so tempted in her life to blurt out, What the fuck? Why was everything such a huge freaking secret around these guys?

  It was a big relief when she walked into her living room the next morning and saw an all-new hot-guy babysitting squad camped out waiting for her. She issued a shy wave.

  “I guess Maddox, Jax and Thane have been relieved of duty. Or more likely just relieved in general that they didn’t pull back-to-back babysitting gigs. I’m Hayley,” she announced, determined not to react to their presence as she had yesterday when Maddox, Jax and Thane had scared the ever-loving crap out of her.

  “Zander,” one of the men rumbled as he rose.

  Hayley stared as he seemed to go up and up and kept going. Good grief, the man was tall, not to mention barrel-chested and broad-shouldered. Geesh, and to think she’d been afraid of the others. Zander was kind of scary but in an “oh thank God he’s on my side” way.

  To her surprise Zander approached her and tipped her chin up with his fingers as he inspected her face.

  “It’s looking a lot better,” he rumbled. “The others told me how bad it was. Glad to see you’re recovering so well. You’re a fighter.”

  Approval gleamed in his eyes and then, without another word, he turned and walked back to where he’d been sprawled on her too-small couch. Alrighty, then. Apparently he was almost as short on words as Silas.

  “I’m Justice,” one of the other men said as he stood, smiling. He winked at her and she was instantly charmed.

  “And I’m Hartley,” the third chimed in. “But I won’t be around for long, sugar. I’m only standing in for Maddox for a few more minutes. He should arrive by the time you roll out for school.”

  Hayley frowned. “How come he’s going to be here again? He said you all would be rotating shifts around me.”

  Hartley shrugged. “Silas was adamant that Maddox stick with you like glue, so unless all hell breaks loose somewhere else, Maddox will be with you until Silas returns.”

  Hayley’s heart sank a little more. She hadn’t heard a single word from Silas, and she’d consoled herself by telling herself that she doubted he would check in with anyone. He was just too . . . solitary and independent. But evidently he was checking in with his men on a routine basis. At least long enough to give them orders.

  Get over it already. Not like you ever had a shot at him anyway.

  She was saved their scrutiny when her door burst open and Maddox hurried in.

  “Ah good, I made it on time,” he said.

  To her surprise, he gathered her shoulders with one arm and gave her a quick squeeze followed by an affectionate kiss on her forehead.

  “I’m rolling out, then. Gotta run by and get Evangeline,” Hartley said.

  This time it wasn’t only Maddox who glared at whoever brought Evangeline’s name up. Justice and Zander both sent Hartley glacial stares that had him grimacing. Hayley’s stomach churned with jealousy and she didn’t even know the woman. This so wasn’t like her! But they all seemed so protective of Evangeline. They spoke of her with affection in their eyes. Well, unless Hayley was around. Then they clammed up tight like they were guarding national treasure or something.

  She pretended not to have even heard Hartley say Evangeline’s name. Instead, she lifted an eyebrow and with complete innocence asked, “Whatever are all of you scowling at poor Hartley for? Wow, somebody didn’t get out of bed on the right side this morning.”

  She shook her head for exaggerated emphasis and then turned as though she weren’t expecting a response. But she hoped . . . Good thing she hadn’t set her hopes up too high because she would have been disappointed once more as the room fell silent while she gathered her violin and purse.

  “Shall we?” she drawled out. “Though I’m going on record how stupid this whole thing is. I don’t need anyone to drive me to school and pick me up.”

  Maddox ignored her. But then what else was new anytime she said or did anything they didn’t approve of?

  “What time do you get out of class, Hayley?” Justice asked as he fell neatly into step beside her.

  She was amazed at how easily the three men encircled her, all the while making it look completely natural and not at all planned. Maybe personal protection was the business they were in. It would certainly make sense given all the locks on Silas’s door and his many paranoias, though with Silas it seemed more . . . ingrained. More a part of who he was rather than what he did for a living. All of his men wore power like a second skin and were obviously used to being in absolute control, but with Silas she sensed it extended far beyond his career choice and was a necessity. Like food, water and air were for everyone else.

  “Usually by one in the afternoon. Sometimes earlier, though.” She shrugged. “And sometimes later. It really depends on how long we stay and practice.”

  “Okay, then what time should we be there to get you today?” Maddox interjected.

  “Wow, you mean you all aren’t staying at the school? You know, in case there’s a bomb threat?”

  “Silas didn’t say she was such a smartass,” Zander said, amusement heavy in his voice. “I like her.”

  Maddox rolled his eyes. “You would. And no, Hayley. We aren’t staying the entire time. We have a few things we have to wrap up, bu

t we will be there no later than twelve thirty. If for some reason you get out before then, I want you to stay in the building and call one of us. I’ve already programmed all our numbers into your cell phone. Use them. And don’t go anywhere without us. Got me?”

  She resisted rolling her eyes again. Barely.

  Instead she saluted him, which sent Zander into another round of laughter.

  “Do I need to clear any side trips with y’all?” she asked as she slid into the back of a very sleek, luxurious car.

  Oh heaven, but the leather was covered in the heady aroma of new-car smell. It had to belong to Silas because surely no one else he associated with was such a neat freak. She couldn’t see a single speck of dust anywhere. She was almost afraid to touch anything.

  “What kind of side trips?” Justice asked warily.

  “Market on the way home? I need groceries.”

  It was a lie, but then again it wasn’t. She technically did need groceries, but not the kind she planned to buy. She wasn’t in the least bit domestic and her father had never minded a single bit. He did all the cooking even though she’d tried time and time again to get him to teach her so she could take over the preparation of at least some of the meals they shared in the evenings.

  But twice now she’d overheard conversation between Silas’s men, when they had no idea she was within hearing distance, and they’d gushed on and on about how awesome Evangeline’s cooking was. How it was manna from heaven, a gift from the gods. Blech. There was only so much Hayley could stand. The damn woman, whoever she was, was perfect. The men revered her and put her on a pedestal.

  And apparently Silas was dating her. Lucky him.

  Her sarcasm was starting to burn even her. God, she sounded—and acted—just like a jealous bitch. It was an emotion that until now had been utterly foreign to her, and it left her bewildered by the power of the feelings Silas stirred within her.

  Again, why couldn’t she be attracted to any of his six business partners? Six hunky, drool-worthy alpha males. Most women would kill to be surrounded by so much testosterone on a daily basis, and yet she was pouting and sulking like a child because the one man she was attracted to obviously didn’t return her attraction.

  No, she might not be a goddess in the kitchen, but there was at least one meal she could kick that was guaranteed to rock their world. Then maybe they’d quit running out for takeout every single night. It made her feel guilty that they were forever paying for her meals when she couldn’t afford to eat out every day.

  “Hayley? You with us?”

  She shook herself from her dour thoughts and retrained her gaze on Justice.

  “I was asking why you needed groceries,” he explained patiently.

  “Because I don’t have them and I need them to eat?”

  He sighed, but then conceded. “All right. We’ll run by the market on the way home. Although if you want, you could just tell me what to pick up and I’ll run by and get it on our way to pick you up this afternoon.”

  She considered his offer for a moment. Since it did take a while to prepare the meal in question, it would be good if she had all afternoon to soak the fish.

  “I’ll text it to you,” she said.

  He grunted as if surprised he’d actually won an argument with her for once. As if she ever won when they had their minds set on something.


  As soon as Hayley started down the steps of the school, she immediately saw Maddox, Justice and Zander standing by an illegally parked car. Not that they gave a damn. Someone would have to be a fool to tell them to their face they had to move. Before she hit the bottom step, Justice was beside her, his hand cupping her elbow while Zander reached for her violin case.

  “Seriously, guys. It’s sweet of y’all to hover over me the way y’all do, but this really isn’t necessary. I feel like a helpless Barbie doll with the way y’all treat me. Like I’ll break or something.”

  “You did break something,” Maddox growled as they approached the car. “Or do you forget those bastards breaking your ribs and doing their best to break every bone in your face?”

  “Oh yeah. That,” she muttered. Then she glared back at him. “Do you ever lose an argument or fail to have the last word?”

  His smug smile told her his response without him having to say a single word.

  “Y’all may be hot, but you’re also annoying as hell,” she said under her breath.

  She heard Justice and Zander choke beside her while Maddox just laughed.

  “Hot? Did she say we were hot?” Justice asked between wheezes.

  “Just don’t say that in front of Silas,” Zander rumbled.

  “What is with warning me not to talk about y’all’s hotness in front of Silas?” she asked in exasperation. “First, he doesn’t care who I find hot or not and second, he doesn’t get to decide who I say is hot.”

  The three men stared at her with open mouths, and then they burst into laughter until tears rolled down their cheeks.

  “Oh man, this shit’s going to get really interesting,” Zander choked out.

  “Where are my groceries?” she demanded, sending Justice a quelling stare.

  “I brought them to your apartment and put everything away.”

  She nodded and slid into the car. Arms crossed over her chest, she continued to stare them down all the way back to her apartment building.

  As soon as she let them all into her apartment, she went into the kitchen and did inventory, making certain Justice had gotten everything she had requested. To her surprise, he’d been very exacting, as exacting as she had been in making her list. He’d gotten every single item down to the nitpicky details.

  She prepared the buttermilk marinade for the fish, guaranteed to take all the fishy smell and taste from the flesh, and then set it back in the fridge to soak for a few hours. Then she laid out everything she needed for the fries, homemade hush puppies and homemade coleslaw, including homemade tartar sauce.

  It was the extent and full range of her culinary skills aside from baking. Desserts, she kicked ass at. But actual meals? Not so much. So she and her dad had a deal. He made dinner and she took care of desserts. Except for her grandmother’s secret fish fry recipe that had been handed down over several generations. Even her father hadn’t been privy to it, and so Hayley had been forced to learn it on her own and eventually she perfected it. It was a meal her dad asked her to make at least once a week. They even went down to his favorite fishing hole to catch their own catfish. Although Hayley drew the line at cleaning them. That was her dad’s job.

  She surveyed the ingredients on hand and then decided on an absolutely delicious Mississippi Mud sheet cake. She would have to remember to ask if Thane would be back the following morning so she could save him a piece and see if she measured up to a Mississippian.

  After popping the cake in the oven to bake, she opted to go shower and change her clothes. It had been more humid than usual today, but then tomorrow was supposed to be rain, rain and even more rain, hence the dense humidity that reminded her all too much of the constant humidity in the south.

  She breezed past the guys in her living room, smiling when they called after her, demanding to know what she was cooking, accompanied by groans and comments of “whatever it is smells damn good.” She hoped so. As childish as it was, just one time, she didn’t want to be treated to someone’s recitation of all Evangeline’s virtues. And if the food didn’t work and they hated it? She’d kick them all out of her apartment and no matter what Silas ordered she’d never let them back in again.

  Satisfied with her plan of vengeance, she hurried through her shower, excited to get dinner started. New Yorkers were notoriously late dinner eaters, but she was too accustomed to eating early. Six was considered a late dinner where she was from. So she and her father always ate between five and five thirty.

  She was delighted that she moved far easier today without the residual stiffness and discomfort she’d suffered since the night of her at
tack. Oddly enough, she’d suffered no nightmares. In fact, she didn’t even think about that night. But then she had stayed with Silas the first few days. She’d slept in his bed, in his arms. She refused to feel guilt, because at the time she didn’t know he was seeing another woman. That was for his conscience to bear because he should have told her. And well after Silas had left on his business trip, his men had rotated in and out, keeping her busy and occupied. She wondered if that was why Silas had asked them to sit on her—so she wouldn’t be completely alone to deal with the fallout of her attack. She had to at least give him credit for that, because if that had been his plan, it had certainly been successful.

  She flashed a smile at the three guys lounging on her ridiculously small furniture—but then they were ridiculously large men—watching a baseball game on the big-screen television mounted to her wall. The TV had amused her when she’d moved in, but after meeting Silas, it made sense that he would have furnished his apartments with things that pleased him.

  “How long is it going to be?” Justice asked, his voice suspiciously whiny.

  She grinned. “Not for a while yet. Y’all hungry?”

  “We weren’t until we started smelling whatever’s in the oven,” Maddox grumbled.

  She flashed another serene smile in his direction and then disappeared into the kitchen, determined to torture them more.

  Three hours later, the guys had obviously decided to take turns walking into the kitchen to ask her the same question, over and over. When will the food be ready? Every fifteen minutes. Each time she merely smiled and said, “Soon.”

  Hastily she set the small dinner table that was stuck in the in-between area between the kitchen and the living room and then eyeballed the chairs suspiciously. They didn’t look like they’d accommodate men the size of Maddox, Justice and Zander. She could just let everyone eat in the living room like they had for the past two days, but cooking her father’s favorite meal had made her homesick and made her miss her dad more keenly than ever. Setting the table for the others gave her the illusion of the family dinners they used to share.

  As she set the table, she let her finger run over the plates, aged but still in perfect condition, that had belonged to her mother and, before her, Hayley’s grandmother. Tears welled in her eyes, and she hastily wiped them away with the back of her hand when she heard the sound of one of the men approaching.

  “Hayley?” Maddox said in a low voice.

  “It won’t be long,” she said brightly. “As soon as I finish up setting the table, the food will be done and I’ll have it out for everyone.”

  “Sweetheart, why were you crying?” he asked in a gentle voice.

  To her mortification, his caring tone made her nose draw up and tears stung her lids even more sharply.

  “It’s nothing,” she said shakily, refusing to face him. “I was just thinking about my . . . dad. I miss him so much. I know it seems silly to set the table when y’all would probably be much more comfortable in the living room, but this reminds me of my meals with him. And I guess I’m just missing him more than usual tonight.”

  To her surprise she found herself enfolded in Maddox’s massive arms as he hugged her gently to his chest, still mindful of her healing ribs. He didn’t say anything. He simply stood there and held her until she was finished sniffling into his shirt.

  Embarrassed, she pulled away, wiping at the evidence of her tears.

  “Do you think the others will mind?” she asked, looking back at the table.

  “They won’t mind at all,” Maddox said softly. “I’ll go round them up while you grab the food. Take your time, sweetheart. We have all night and no other place we’d rather be.”

  As soon as Maddox withdrew, she hurried back into the kitchen to splash water on her face and remove the evidence of her cry fest. It was mortifying enough to have been caught out by Maddox. No way she wanted the others to see her cry too.

  Satisfied she had regained her composure, she dished up the food, arranging it artfully on the serving platters that matched the plates she’d inherited from her mother. It wasn’t an expensive set of dinnerware for certain, but there was so much love in every single memory associated with it.

  Hearing the scrape of chairs being drawn out from underneath the table, she carried the platter of fish in first, only to nearly run into Maddox, Justice and Zander. Maddox took the platter from her and then motioned for her to sit.

  “We’ll get the rest,” Justice offered. “You’ve been on your feet all afternoon. The least we can do is bring the food in for you.”

  She smiled, nearly tearing up again, and settled in the chair Maddox pulled out for her. Seconds later, Justice and Zander returned carrying the last of the dishes filled with food, and then they all sat around the table with her.

  Her smile lit up the entire room as she watched them squabble and fight over portions and who got the most, but they were also careful to pile Hayley’s plate full, just giving her a stern look when she laughingly protested, saying she couldn’t possibly eat that much.

  “This is so damn good,” Zander groaned in ecstasy.

  “You got that right,” Justice said around a mouthful of food. “And shit, did you see the dessert she has in there? That must have been what she’s been torturing us with all day.”

  “This was my father’s favorite meal,” she said softly. “Thank y’all for making it special for me.”

  Maddox reached over to cover her hand with his, squeezing gently. “Thank you for including us, sweetheart. Your father was a very lucky man to have a daughter like you.”

  She smiled. “I was the lucky one to have grown up with so much love.”

  She looked at each of the men, questions burning her tongue. They all seemed private, maybe not to the extent Silas was, but still very reserved, and yet they’d embraced her quickly enough.

  “What about you all?” she asked quietly. “Do you all have family here in the city or is this even where you all are from? Thane told me he was from Mississippi but never said what brought him here.”

  Shuttered looks folded across their faces and her pulse leapt in dismay. What a complete idiot she was for ruining what had been an otherwise perfect evening by prying into things that were none of her business.

  “Most of us don’t have family,” Maddox said in a low voice. “Except each other. These are my brothers. Not by blood but by choice. Choice is better, if