Last Call

by

Shelli Stevens

Aleck McLaughlin has three major reasons to keep his hands off Delonna. One, he’s her boss. Two, she’s ten years younger. Three, he’s sworn to never again leave his heart vulnerable. But then her ex boyfriend steals her money and skips town, leaving her with his gambling debt and a loan shark determined to collect. Aleck’s protective instincts kick in and he realizes he’ll do anything to keep Delona safe, even if that means moving her into his house and whisking her away to his ancestral home in Scotland.

Delonna’s parents’ spendthrift ways taught her to work hard for her financial independence. She loves being a bartender on Whidbey Island and hopes to open her own pub one day. When her boss–her very hot and sexy boss–steps in to save her from themess and danger her ex left behind, Delonna says no. She’s as used to calling her own shots as she is pouring them…Too bad Aleck doesn’t take no for an answer when Delonna’s safety’s involved.

But just as Delonna starts to say yes, they both find themselves in trouble that has nothing to do with a skipped debt.

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Where the hell was her money?

Clothes flew into the air and out of her closet as Delonna cleared out every little inch of stuff, just in case.

In case what? In case she’d somehow misplaced the Folgers coffee container that was held shut by a large rubber band, stuffed in a pillowcase and surrounded by old T-shirts to hide it? Not fucking likely.

Panic and rage mixed now and she sank back onto the pile of clothes she’d just created. She stared into the closet, unblinking.

Tears of fury and frustration filled her eyes and she shook her head. Blonde hair spilled from her haphazard ponytail, falling in front of her face. She shoved it aside.

Her money was gone. Nearly six thousand dollars—in cash—that she’d saved over the years from her tips at the pub was gone. It had been there last night. She’d seen it when she’d gotten off shift and done her usual ritual of adding in her tips.

Which meant it had been taken today while she was working. And there was no more denying it, it had been taken. It didn’t matter how many times she checked the house, or searched her closet, the money wasn’t going to suddenly reappear.

Fuck.

The possibility that this was a random robbery fleeted through her head, then right back out. It didn’t make any sense. Nothing else in the house had been touched. Whoever had taken the money had known exactly what they were looking for.

And the only person who knew about her tips was Kenzie. Kenzie and… Oh, God. Realization sank in.

James.

Her boyfriend of over a year who hadn’t visited, called, texted or really given any indication he was alive in over two weeks. Her boyfriend who had a key to the house.

Shock took her breath away and froze her tears. He wouldn’t have done this to her, though. He couldn’t have.

But if not him, then who?

A door slammed, followed by rushed footsteps.

“Delonna? Are you okay? I got your text.”

Her friend and roommate appeared in the doorway a moment later. Kenzie just stared at her, before approaching slowly.

“Oh, honey, what’s going on? Are you crying?”

Delonna couldn’t even blink and her lower lip began to tremble. “Yeah. Actually, I’m pretty much on the verge of a full-scale breakdown.”

“What happened? Is it that arse James?”

Most likely. Though her mind was having a hell of a time wrapping around that idea. What did sink in was that Kenzie had apparently never cared much for James if she’d just referred to him, in her very Scottish way, as an arse.

She managed a half nod, tried to explain and then gave a dry sob. Kenzie was at her side in an instant, kneeling in the pile of clothes and frowning with concern.

“Did the son of a bitch break your heart? Because you know I’ve three oversized brothers who probably wouldn’t hesitate to break his face.”

This time a watery laugh escaped as tears flowed freely down her cheeks now. She didn’t doubt for a moment that Kenzie would sic the protective, intimidating McLaughlin men on James.

And Aleck, Kenzie’s oldest brother, might be a little more inclined than any of them to take a personal interest in the situation. Only because Aleck was Delonna’s boss, of course. Not because of one crazy day in summer where she’d lost her mind long enough to suck face with him.

Dumping that memory—that never seemed to vanish for long—she focused again on James and her stolen money.

He’d stolen her money. Not penny change, but a substantial amount. The thought circled around her head again, sinking in and growing more outlandish and shocking by the moment.

“My…” She drew in a ragged breath and glanced up at Kenzie. “My money is gone. I don’t suppose you’ve seen it?”

“Your money?” Kenzie frowned and then her eyes went wide. “Oh shite! Not the tips you’ve been hoarding for years?”

Delonna nodded, not even cracking a smile at the use of the term hoarding. It had been their running joke since Kenzie had moved in almost a year ago. Kenzie was well aware of Delonna’s super-tight budget and determination to save as much as possible. She’d always joked that Delonna was as stingy with her money as the Scottish.

“I’ve been at Brett’s house,” Kenzie murmured, guilt flushing her cheeks. “I’ve not been home in days. Maybe even a week. I suck, I know.”

“You don’t suck. You’re in love,” Delonna muttered absently.

No matter where she stayed, Kenzie always paid her rent. Though she’d finally admitted over the summer that she would be moving out in January to live with her fiancé. She’d been nice enough to give plenty of notice, unlike Delonna’s last roommate who’d bailed immediately when she’d gotten a serious boyfriend.

They all left eventually, and usually for a guy.

“I need my phone.” Delonna pushed herself to her feet, moving blindly through the house as she scrubbed the tears from her eyes.

She pulled it from her purse a moment later and opened a blank message, loading James’s name into the contact. Drawing in a deep breath, she hesitated and set her phone down on the table.

“You think it was James who took your money?” Kenzie had approached quietly from behind.

“You two were the only ones who knew about my tip stash. And I know you didn’t take it.”

“No,” Kenzie agreed grimly. “I certainly didn’t. Maybe you should call the police? I can text Colin.”

“Don’t get your brother involved. I don’t want to involve the police. Yet.” Delonna pursed her lips. “I only reported half of my tips to the IRS and if I report that kind of money missing… I just don’t want to get into any trouble. And I don’t have any proof James took it.”

“Are you going try and get it back?”

“I’m going to sure as hell try.”

“How?” Kenzie pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and urged her to sit down. “Is he dangerous? I don’t know James very well. I’ll admit it. Every time he’s around he keeps to himself quite a bit.”

“I don’t think he’d ever hurt me, if that’s what you mean. And he’s not much of an extrovert.” An understatement.

Delonna sank down into the chair. The standoffish, angry, dangerous vibe about him was what had drawn her to him in the first place. The sex had been really good, but their relationship—though lasting over a year—had functioned on a shallow level.

And yet you gave him a key to your house.

“Are you going to call him?”

“He’s not going to answer my calls or texts if he’s guilty of taking my money.”

“So you’re going to see him? Show up at his door?”

“I don’t think I can. Not today at least. I have to be at work in two hours, and I couldn’t get to Seattle and back by then.”

Getting to Seattle meant either driving the length of the island, taking the ferry and then some more driving, or heading over the Deception Pass Bridge and driving for almost two hours. Either way, she didn’t have time.

Or enough gas money now. What she had was the $180 in tips from last night and a pretty depressing checking account that she used mainly to pay bills.

“Call in sick.”

Delonna snorted. “Your brother would kill me for leaving him hanging. It’s Saturday night.”

“You wouldn’t leave him hanging. There’re at least two other bartenders who’d love to take your shift and make some weekend money.”

“You think?”

“I know. Call CJ. He’ll cover, I’m sure of it. He was just telling me how he wanted to pick up some extra shifts.”

“You’re working tonight, right?”

Kenzie nodded. “Aye.”

“Will you back up my bullshit story about being sick?”

With her expression grim, Kenzie gave another nod. “Definitely. That teriyaki chicken you ate at lunch gave you an absolute nightmare case of the runs.”

Delonna let out a crack of laughter. “Do not tell your brother I had the runs, or so help me God—”

“Vomiting is preferable?”

“Slightly. Oh damn, whatever. Just, whatever you go with, make it convincing.”

“Oh, aye. I’m fantastic at this kind of thing.” Kenzie paused. “I wish you’d bring someone with you, though. A man, preferably. Just to be safe.”

James wouldn’t hurt her. He wouldn’t be that fucking stupid.

“I’ll be fine,” she said resolutely. “Besides, if something does happen to me, you’ll point the police in his direction.”

Kenzie’s eyes widened. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

“No. Just being a realist.”

Folding her arms over her chest, Kenzie huffed. “Well I don’t much care for your realism.”

“I’m sure. How about I text you and check in throughout the night so you know I’m okay?”

“You’d bloody well better… Maybe I could have Brett go with you—”

“No.” Delonna stood. “I’m going alone.”

Kenzie sighed. “All right. Don’t do anything stupid.”

“Would I do that?”

“Actually, knowing you, aye. You just might. You think with your emotions, sometimes, not your brain. And you’re young and impulsive.”

“I’m twenty-four, and now you’re just being mean.” Delonna grimaced, grabbing her purse.

“Don’t get pissy, you know I’m right.”

“I do,” she agreed softly and hugged Kenzie. “Thanks for covering for me. I’ll call CJ on the way.”

Driving off the island a half hour later, she couldn’t help but think about how right Kenzie was. The reason she was in this situation right now was because she hadn’t been using her head, but her heart. Okay, maybe not heart. Vagina was more accurate.

Shaking her head, she knew she might just try to kick James square in the junk when she saw him. They were close in height—so what if he had fifty pounds of muscle on her?

If he really had taken her money, she was going to make sure as shit he regretted it.

Aleck glanced around the pub, which was only moderately busy this time of night. Fewer than half the tables were occupied and a few regulars lingered at the bar counter, sipping their beers and watching the game on the flat-screens.

It was the calm before the storm. He knew this town, and his pub, well enough to realize it would be standing room only in a few hours.

By then he’d be out of here. Off at nine and out to dinner with a pretty lady. What was her name again? Melissa? Michelle? Shite, did it really matter? By the end of the night they’d likely be shagging their brains out.

She was a regular at the pub and had been coming on strong for months now—making it plain and clear she wouldn’t mind bringing him back to her place.

Though she was pretty enough, he wouldn’t have been interested had she not made the first move. But seeing that it had been several months since he’d been with a woman, it was probably damn well time to break the dry spell.

“Evening, boss.”

He glanced over to see CJ striding up to the counter, a shit-eating grin on his face.

“CJ.” Aleck nodded and arched a brow. “Tell me you haven’t come to spend your free evening at your place of employment?”

“I’m working.” CJ stepped behind the counter. “Delonna asked me to cover her shift.”

Aleck blinked as he digested that shocking statement. “Delonna did?”

“Yup. She didn’t call you?”

His jaw flexed. “No. I’ve not heard a word from her.”

Delonna never called in sick. Never failed to show up for a shift.

“Did she happen to say why?”

CJ shrugged, not appearing altogether concerned. “Said she was sick or some shit. Doesn’t matter to me. I just heard dollar signs.”

The bigger crowds on the weekends tended to bring in bigger tips. Friday and Saturday night shifts were always sought after by his employees. For Delonna to have given up a shift must’ve meant she was truly sick.

Concern flitted through him and he bit back a curse. For the first time in months he was going to have a bit of fun, and yet now that thought was replaced with the vision of Delonna violently ill.

Across the room, he spotted Kenzie making her way into the pub for her shift, which began in a half hour. Setting down the bar rag, he strode toward her.

“Kenzie. A word?”

His sister glanced toward him and gave a brief smile. “Sure.”

She kept walking to the back, not appearing worried or curious about why he was asking to talk. Then again there really was no reason he’d pick a fight with her—not anymore. Over the summer they’d butted heads more than once over the man she’d begun dating. The man who was now her fiancé.

Brett Craven was a good man, and now that Aleck had gotten to know him he could admit the two were not only well matched, but also deeply in love.

Closing the door to the back office, he turned to face her.

“And how are you this evening, big brother?” She grabbed a pen off his desk and began tapping it against her palm.

“Just lovely. It’s Delonna I’m concerned about.”

“Oh, you’ve heard she’s sick then?”

“Aye. What’s wrong with her?”

Kenzie didn’t miss a beat. “I’ve just told you. She’s sick.”

“You’ve seen her? How is she?”

“We had teriyaki chicken for lunch. Some dodgy place that just opened near the Navy base. Unfortunately it hasn’t sat well with her.”

“She’s got food poisoning then?”

“Aye. Quite terribly really. She’s still being sick, last I heard.”

“Sounds bloody awful. How did you avoid getting poisoning too if you ate at the same place?”

Kenzie’s gaze slid away. “She had the chicken, whereas fortunately I chose the shrimp skewers. Sadly, she couldn’t have known that decision would change her plans from working a busy shift to hugging a porcelain god.”

Aleck’s scowl deepened. “And you left her alone?”

“I have to work, Aleck.” Kenzie gave an amused laugh. “It won’t do to have us both short of rent next month.”

“Delonna’s short on rent?”

She stared at him for a minute, and he could see her mentally backtracking. The wheels in her head spinning.

“She’s fine. I was just making a joke, since she’s missing work tonight.”

Maybe. But he knew his sister well enough to know she’d just admitted more than she wanted. Was Delonna struggling financially? That seemed impossible. The woman brought in more tips than any other bartender or waitress who worked here. She was funny, sexy and personable. The customers adored her. She shouldn’t have been hurting for money. Was she blowing it somewhere?

The pressing urge to check on her only grew. Perhaps he could swing by before his date with Melissa. Or was it Michelle? Hell. He would really have to figure out her name before he saw her tonight.

“Ah, well the poor lass. Maybe I’ll pop by and bring her a couple cans of ginger ale and some soda bread.”

There was silence and when he glanced up Kenzie just blinked at him.

“Don’t do that.”

Baffled, he shook his head. “And why the fook not?”

“Why would you do that? She’s just your employee. It would be weird,” Kenzie said tersely. “Would you bring CJ ginger ale and soda bread?”

“Aye. Maybe.” Not a chance in hell, actually.

“She’s in no condition to be seen, Aleck. Probably looks like arse, smells like rotten eggs—”

“You don’t eat shrimp.” He stared at her, that realization hitting quite suddenly. “You hate all shellfish. Always have.”

That same look of backtracking flashed across his sister’s face. “Time for a hearing aid already? I didn’t say shrimp, I said beef.”

“The fook you did.” He scrutinized her and reached his conclusion. “You’re lying. Covering for her. Where is Delonna really?”

Kenzie folded her arms across her chest and tossed her red hair. “I’ve told you already. She’s sick.”

“All right.” He nodded. “Fine. Well I’ll still be dropping by to wish her well then.”

He turned and moved to the door. Clearly she was trying to call his bluff, because only when his hand touched the handle did she call out, “Wait!”

End of Excerpt