Staking His Claim(A Line of Duty Novel)By: Tessa Bailey
The studio audience inside Lucy Mason’s head gave a collective, sympathetic awww.
“This was supposed to be our week, Sasha.” Lucy picked up her iced coffee and plunked it back down, never taking her gaze off her best friend. “Ill-advised exploits, questionable fashion choices. Educational museum trips.” She mumbled that last part, since it hadn’t exactly been part of their monthlong discussion. “I can’t believe you’re blowing me off for a dude.”
Sasha winced. “I know. I know. It’s just…Carter.”
“Carter.” Lucy’s brow wrinkled. “Is this the same Carter who made a pass at your mom when she came to visit?”
“That was a misunderstanding.”
“I’ll just bet.” She moved her drink in jerky circles on the table, letting the tinkling ice cool it even further, hoping a sip would cool the fire in her throat, brought on by the need to shout. Minutes before she and her roommate were set to depart Syracuse University, where they’d both, at long last, completed their respective master’s programs, and her plans were being crushed by a guy who’d once pissed himself on their couch after too much tequila. Unacceptable. As if this violation of the “chicks before dicks manifesto” weren’t bad enough, her brother, Brent, who’d been their designated ride to New York City, had bailed at the last minute.
God, I’m sorry, Luce. Something came up with Hayden’s family. She’s presenting her father with some fancy-ass award and if I don’t go, she’ll castrate me.
Her brother wasn’t one to hold back. Even if it meant talking to his sister about his balls. Going to live with him in their childhood house in Queens at the age of twenty-five was going to be a real scream. Until she became gainfully employed and found her own place, that is. Thanks to her growing list of potential employers alphabetically arranged in an Excel spreadsheet, it wouldn’t be long. In the meantime, she’d have to set some ground rules, like no testicular talk. Or making out with his fiancée anywhere her eyeballs might encounter it.
In his place today, her brother had sent his friend Matt Donovan. Another cop. One she’d never met, but based on Brent’s suggestion to bring oodles of reading material for the drive, she gathered Matt was not a sparkling conversationalist. It hadn’t bothered her much, knowing she’d have Sasha to chat with in the backseat, but now that option was no longer on the table. Truth be told, she felt a little slighted.
Okay, a lot slighted. Her brother and best friend making for greener pastures within twenty-four hours of each other didn’t do fabulous things for her ego. They hadn’t meant it that way, she rationalized. They loved her. Still, it was two more instances she could add to her list of times she’d come in second place. Lucy Mason, salutatorian. First runner-up at the debate team finals as an undergrad. Hell, just this week she’d been named second in her class, among the other language majors. While these were certainly accomplishments, sometimes it felt like no matter how hard she tried, someone always beat her by an inch. Sasha and Brent ditching her for their respective lovers was no different.
Pity party of one, your table is ready.
Trying to dispel the useless feeling, she took a long pull on her iced coffee. Sasha had a healthy glow to her deep-brown skin, excitement shining in her eyes that hadn’t been there this morning. Just because she hadn’t had sex since Lost was on the air didn’t give her the right to be a begrudger. “So what are your plans instead? You better be doing something amazing. Seriously, I want goose bumps.”
Sasha did a little dance in her seat, accompanied by a squeal. “We’re borrowing his cousin’s house at Cayuga Lake. Just me, Carter, and a handful of naughty DVDs.”
Lucy perked up. “What? Like porn?”
“No. Like Cruel Intentions and Wild Things. Movies where girls make out so as to guarantee a good evening for yours truly.” Sasha tilted her head. “By the way, you have never looked as enthusiastic in your life as you just did when porn entered the equation.”
“Lower your voice,” Lucy whispered.
“Porn-o-graph-y!” Sasha belted out, opera-style, drawing every eye in the coffeehouse.
Lucy shook her head. “I’m so not going to miss you.”
“Liar. You will pine for me.”
“If you drown in Cayuga Lake, I will clear out your sex toy stash as promised, but that’s all I can guarantee you. Not a single line of poetry will be penned in your honor.”
“At lease I’ll die happy.” Sasha rose and came to join Lucy on the bench, where she crushed her in a tight hug. “Hey, I’m really sorry. You know that, right?”
“Yeah,” Lucy murmured into her friend’s hair. “Now go on. Get.”
Sasha pulled back to study her. “Listen, if I die in an unfortunate water skiing accident or too many orgasms—”
“Or both.” Sasha nodded. “Don’t dump my stash. I hereby bequeath all manner of pleasure machines to you, my pasty, studious little friend.”
Lucy feigned surprised pleasure. “Me? I-I don’t know what to say.”
“Say you’ll put New York on its knees this week.” Her friend’s expression suddenly turned serious. “Don’t use my bailing as an excuse to hole up with a stack of books. You’ve earned some fun, graduate. Have at it.”
Lucy stared after Sasha thoughtfully as she exited the coffee shop. Her friend knew her too well. Initially, when Sasha canceled on her, there had been a tiny little punch of relief in her chest that she was off the hook. That she wouldn’t have to put herself out there as planned, but could continue her two-year streak of hiding from the unknown. Safe in her self-imposed introversion. She hadn’t always been this way. No, no. Her first four years in college had been spent exploring the Mason daredevil gene she’d inherited. Right up until she’d organized an on-campus bonfire in protest of censorship in their textbooks, landing her in jail overnight. Hello wake-up call. Needless to say, her brother had lost his shit and been forced to re-mortgage his house to bail her out. Not to mention covering the fines she’d incurred.
Since her night in the big house, she’d spent her days and nights busting her as**s to make her family proud, instead of inspiring ceaseless rounds of head-shaking every time her name came up. Making sure Brent knew she didn’t take for granted the tuition he worked two jobs to provide. In the very near future, she would have a job that would finally ease the pressure from his shoulders. She could finally pitch in to support her parents and her other older brother’s family while he fought overseas. Her family would take pride in her, instead of taking cover every time she entered the room.
That staunch dedication to success hadn’t left room for much more, and she’d allowed her social life to dwindle until Sasha’s recaps of Saturday nights were her main source of entertainment. As soon as she had a steady income and a place to call her own, she’d been planning to remedy that oversight. Then again, maybe Sasha had a valid point. What better place to kick off her new lecture- and homework-free life than a week in New York City?
The bell tinkled over the coffee shop door, drawing Lucy’s attention. Had Sasha changed her mind? Or maybe she’d forgotten someth—
Lucy’s thoughts drained, as if her brain had turned into a colander. Every muscle in her body coiled tightly as a man stepped right out of every woman’s fantasy and somehow materialized in the coffee shop. Before anything else registered, she noticed the way he walked. He moved like he was walking toward a lover. A lover he planned on thoroughly roughing up before making her scream obscenities into a pillow. The sensual, detached movement of his hips was a complete contradiction to his eyes and jaw, however. They were set firmly, making him look ruthless. Unmovable.
Dark hair, dark expression, dark clothing. He was just…several shades of dark. Except for his eyes, she amended as he coolly scanned the shop. His eyes were light gray. In the midst of all that darkness, they stood out like silvery marcasite.
She couldn’t stop her gaze from tracking downward, over broad shoulders, a wide chest, and a heavy leather belt that rode low on his waist. As if a good stretch would reveal his happy trail and that cut vee leading into his jeans. Speaking of jeans, good Lord, the man’s as**s was a bona fide work of art. As he strode toward the nearby counter to place his order, his work boots not making a single sound, those tight buns set off a choir of rejoicing angels in her head.
Then he opened his mouth to address the barista and the angels’ mouths snapped shut.
“Can you tell me where 39 Juniper Street is located?”
Huh? Lucy’s spine went rigid. That was her address. Perhaps he was looking for someone else in her building? She and Sasha shared a two-bedroom in an off-campus dwelling, in which there were at least twenty other apartments. That had to be it. This work of male perfection could not be the boring, stuffy ex-military sniper her brother had sent to squire her down to the city. Brent’s description could not have painted a different picture. No, this guy had to be looking for someone else.