The demon incarnate laughed.
He lounged there at her bar like it was his, far too beautiful and much too dangerous, like he was still her father’s favorite weapon and it was still ten years ago, when that might have mattered.
And he laughed.
Like Sophie was still a little girl, beholden to the lawless whims and half-assed schemes of men like him, battered and rough and wild straight through, unfit for society and unwilling to change even a goddamned inch. No matter who it hurt.
He was just like her father. But her father was dead and Ajax didn’t belong here. Not anymore.
Her father. Grief and loss and that familiar, hopeless fury lashed at her like the business edge of a Louisiana rainstorm, but she beat it back. Not here. Not now.
Lombards kept their tears to themselves. No matter what that cost them. And it didn’t matter that Sophie was tired of paying that particular tax, too. She was still a Lombard. Her father had depended on her. The more he’d retreated into his back room office these last few years, the more he’d left the bar and everything else in her hands, the more she’d showed him she could live up to his notion of what it meant to be a Lombard even if she hadn’t been a member of his club of assholes and degenerates.
She’d been more than that. She’d been his blood.
I’ll always take care of you, he’d told her a million times, especially when he’d been drunk. You’re my blood, angel.
Sophie thought that meant more than a gang tattoo and a few Harleys. It had to her. She kept telling herself it had to him, too.
But then Ajax stopped laughing, and that was worse.
“You should mind your fucking manners, Sophie,” he said, quietly. Much too quietly.
To someone who didn’t know him, he probably sounded about as friendly as a huge, built, flint-eyed guy with that many tattoos and that particular way of carrying himself—like a threat on a very short leash—could sound.
Sophie knew better, and not only because she could see the impossible blue of his eyes.
“Or what?” she asked, making herself sound as bored as possible.
Behind the bar, poor Danielle was staring at her as if Sophie had lost her mind. Maybe she had. Maybe that was what this thing inside of her was.
It had started when the police had turned up yesterday to tell her the news. That finally, impossibly, Theodore “Priest” Lombard, legendary president of the Deacons of Bourbon Street motorcycle club and Sophie’s only family in the world, had taken one fast turn too many on his beloved Harley. It had fused into the crazy urge she’d had to wander the Quarter dressed like this, hiding her grief and her loss and her urge to lie down in the fetal position somewhere and never get up again in plain, gold pastie-ed sight.
And then Ajax had rolled into the Priory like he’d never been away. The gritty old bar was the only thing she had left of her father and the only thing that was really hers anyway after all these years of running it by herself. And here came Ajax with all of that old biker shit clinging to that ruthless body of his and so much like her father it hurt Sophie to look at him—and that thing inside her had simply . . . imploded.
If she stopped running her mouth, she didn’t know what would become of her.
Maybe she’d die, too.
She could feel Ajax’s gaze on her like a touch, a little bit dirty and very, very thorough, and she was fiercely glad she was practically naked. Men were simple and bikers were even more elemental than that. He’d be a lot more likely to look at her exposed skin than the pulse she could feel doing backflips and assorted acrobatics in her neck and her wrists and deep between her legs. It would give her away in an instant if he could jerk his attention away from her tits, but why would a guy like Ajax do a thing like that?
But even as she thought that, his gaze was on hers again. Hard and shrewd, and she felt a little chill of something too much like foreboding creep down her exposed spine.
“Or I might lose my patience with you, little girl. You want to see what happens then, say the word.”
She’d lost her father and she’d loved that man, for all that he’d been infuriating, hypocritical, secretive, and wholly incapable of grasping that she was a grown woman who didn’t need his permission to do as she pleased. It was beside the point that she’d wanted his approval anyway. That she’d tried to take the place of all his lost brothers over the years, as if running this bar better than he ever had could bridge that gap. Still, she’d thought she’d done it. He’d even thanked her, in his typically gruff way. This place would sink without you, he’d told her, one whiskey-infused evening when he’d been feeling uncharacteristically emotional. Maybe I would, too.
And it had been one thing to put up with biker caveman bullshit from the man who’d raised her all on his own. She wasn’t taking it from anyone else. Not even if the anyone else in question looked like her hottest fantasies made flesh and sent straight to the French Quarter to test her resolve.
But that was between her and her vibrator.
“And that means what, exactly?” she asked Ajax, not bothering to hide her disdain. Or maybe that was her temper. It was hard to tell the difference today, or separate that out from the grief for her father like a live wire burning hot in her belly besides. “You going to shout a lot and act real scary and then run away from home for ten years? Oh, wait. You already did that.”