Her Forbidden Hero

a Heros novel by New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Laura Kaye

She’s always been off-limits…

Former Army Special Forces Sgt. Marco Vieri has never thought of Alyssa Scott as more than his best friend’s little sister, but her return home changes that…and challenges him to keep his war-borne demons at bay. Marco’s not the same person he was back when he protected Alyssa from her abusive father, and he’s not about to let her see the mess he’s become.

…but now she’s all grown up.

When Alyssa takes a job at the bar where Marco works, her carefree smiles wreak havoc on his resolve to bury his feelings. How can he protect her when he can’t stop thinking about her in his bed? But Alyssa’s not looking for protection—not anymore. Now that she’s back in his life, she’s determined to heal her forbidden hero, one touch at a time…

 

Information:

Title: Her Forbidden Hero (Heros)
Author: Laura Kaye
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Length: 240 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62266-924-0
Release Date: May 2012
Imprint: Brazen
 
Her Forbidden Hero - Laura Kaye
 
 
 

Praise for Her Forbidden Hero:

“A lovable heroine, a sexy hero, and writing so delicious you’ll want to savor every word.”
- Susan Meier, author of The Tycoon’s Secret Daughter

 

Excerpt:

© 2012 Laura Kaye

Chapter One

With seventy-five dollars and a maxed-out credit card to her name, Alyssa Scott sat in the driver’s seat of her beat-up Corolla and stared at the building where she hoped all her dreams would come true.

Whiskey’s Music Roadhouse might not be the stuff of other girls’ dreams, but it was the biggest event venue in Western Maryland. Between Alyssa’s love of music and her weeks-old degree in restaurant management and event planning, it was exactly the kind of place she wanted to build a career. That Marco Vieri, her brother’s best friend and the man she’d loved for as long as she could remember, also worked there made Alyssa feel like today’s interview was bigger than just a possible job—it felt like the beginning of the rest of her life.

She opened the car door and stepped into the sticky heat of the late May sun. Her car was one of the few in the giant parking lot—not surprising for eleven a.m. on a Thursday morning. According to the website, Whiskey’s wasn’t open for lunch except on Sundays when they held two shows, one in the afternoon and another in the evening.

Huge interlocking neon signs in the shapes of a curving keyboard, electric guitar, and bottle of whiskey stood dark along the length of the roof. She bet that at night, they illuminated the whole parking lot with a rainbow of flashing colors. As she made her way to the front doors, Alyssa’s imagination took off and placed her in the center of a packed show—the frenetic energy of a charismatic band, a pounding bass beat throbbing through her bones, great music setting her soul on fire, and the heat and excitement of the audience all around her.

Alyssa tried the door handles but found them all locked. She walked over to the side, but it appeared a long way to the rear of the building, and she didn’t feel comfortable poking around  by herself.

Back at the double doors, Alyssa leaned in close to peer through the glass, humidity pressing down on her shoulders. Inside, a wide lobby sported black and white posters on the walls of upcoming bands, and a ticket booth with a shuttered window sat to the left. A thrill of excitement shot through her. One day, she’d be responsible for organizing events like those.

She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead and fished through her purse for her cell phone, trying to avoid thinking about not just how much she wanted this job, but how badly she needed it. Her intended roommate had gotten engaged a week before they’d been set to move into their new apartment, forcing Alyssa to forfeit her share of the security deposit until her roommate could pay her back. If she paid her back. That deposit represented most of what she had to her name, and the only people who had answered her last-ditch Craigslist ad were total creepers.

No way was she taking a chance.

Alyssa had debated scrapping her plans to return to Frederick, but it was the only place in the world she had any roots, and she couldn’t afford to accept the unpaid internship offer she’d received from a previous employer in DC. As a teenager, she’d always thought of Whiskey’s as the place where she could pursue all her interests. Once she landed the interview, knowing Marco worked there, it just seemed…right. And definitely too good to pass up.

So she’d thrown all her chips into Frederick, and now she really needed this job. And she intended to get it. The alternative was not an option.

Finally, she found her phone and dialed. The manager’s number rang once, twice, and she glanced into the lobby—

Right into an older man’s face.

She gasped and bobbled her phone, unable to catch it before it clattered to the pavement.

The man fumbled with a key ring for a moment, then unlocked the door and pushed it open a few inches. “Can I help you, miss?”

Taking a deep breath, she stooped to retrieve her cell. Pull it together, Alyssa. “Oh, uh, yes. I have an interview. My name is Alyssa.”

“Ah, yes. Come on in. It’s already blazing out there.” He pushed the door wider and waved her in. “I’m Pete Wilson, the manager of this joint.”

Alyssa stepped into the lobby, the air-conditioning setting off tingles over her skin after those long minutes outside. “Alyssa Scott.” She held out her hand and he smiled as he shook it, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Well, Miss Scott, let’s grab a seat so we can talk. How ’bout it?”

Alyssa followed Pete across the lobby and past the large, dim bar area where her brother had mentioned Marco worked. Her heart gave a weird little skip at the thought of him. “Is Marco Vieri here?” she asked.

Pete slid his hands in the pockets of his slacks and turned to her. “Yes, ma’am. You know Marco?”

“We grew up together. He’s my brother’s best friend.”

“Oh, is that right? Marco’s a good kid.”

“Yeah, he’s the best.” Alyssa chuckled. Never once had she thought of Marco Vieri as a kid. Tall, dark, and nearly five years older than her, “kid” was the least likely description she’d ever use for him. He was the cutest, most loyal guy she’d ever known, and her chest ached with the desire to see him again. It had been so long. Too long. But now that they’d both come home—her from college and him from the army—maybe she could finally have the chance with him she’d always wanted.

They stepped into the venue’s cavernous rectangular space. A row of lights illuminated the entryway and first group of tables. “Have a seat. I’ll go grab my paperwork.”

As soon as Pete disappeared down a hallway off to the right, Alyssa sank into the worn wood chair, dropped her purse to the floor, and looked around. She’d never seen a show there, and in the darkness, she couldn’t make out the far end of the space. The floor was tiered so the room was higher in the back and tables formed a horseshoe around the stage. She imagined that created an exciting intimacy with the performers.

“Here we are,” Pete called.

Alyssa forced herself to focus as he pushed the place setting out of her way. She handed him her résumé and accepted the application he asked her to complete. She was so filled with nervous energy—over the job and at the thought of seeing Marco—she couldn’t keep her foot from shaking. Deep breaths, Aly. She took her own advice—twice—and managed a bit more calm. At least the application was straightforward.

As he reviewed her materials, he asked her to tell him more about her degree and internships. Landing this job would really help everything fall into place, so Alyssa shoved her nerves aside and detailed her coursework and experience for him, her confidence growing as she spoke.

When she finished, Pete nodded. “This is an impressive résumé, Miss Scott. You’re obviously qualified. Maybe too qualified.” He dropped her paperwork on the table. “This is a family-owned business, and the owners believe strongly in employees working their way up from the bottom.”

“I understand, Mr. Wilson. I’m willing to work hard and learn all parts of the business. And I’ve worked as a waitress for four years.” She leaned forward. “I hope it’s not too much to say, but I’m good at it. I’d be an asset to you.”

He stared at her for a long moment. “Pluck. I like it. Never be afraid to sell yourself, kid. No one else will do it. And call me Pete.” He glanced down at her application and a slow grin brightened his round, friendly face. “You’ll work any shift? And you’re available immediately?”

Alyssa smiled at the enthusiasm in Pete’s voice. “Yes, definitely.”

Her spirits lifted even higher when he told her about the hourly wage and great tips many of the waitresses pulled in. Man, if she could make that kind of money, she’d be able to find a little apartment all her own and not worry about another unreliable roommate. And maybe even put something in the bank.

“I need to check these references, but assuming everything works out, I’d like to offer you the job, Miss Scott. I’m shorthanded and the summer is always crazy around here. I need good help, like, yesterday. And if you live up to the potential I see here, there’s no reason you can’t work your way up through the business.”

Yes! “You can count on me, I promise.”

He smiled. “When could you come in for training? Read the manual, spend some time with the menus, take the tour. All that good stuff. It’s paid time, of course.”

“As soon as it’s convenient for you. My schedule is totally free.”

“Now?”

“Yes.” No sense beating around the bush. Not with only enough money for one night’s hotel stay in her wallet.

“In that case, sit tight and I’ll go grab an employee manual.”

Alyssa clasped her hands together and released a deep, relief-filled breath. Holy crap, she’d done it! Take that, universe! After the debacle with the apartment, she’d really needed this to go her way.

Pete returned with a soft-covered binder and several forms. “This is the employee manual. Why don’t you read through it and fill out the tax information while I call your references. Just need to dot my Is and cross my Ts.”

When Pete left, Alyssa settled down with the lists of policies and procedures. The adrenaline rush of the almost-job stirred up the flock of butterflies already doing loop-the-loops over the possibility of seeing—

“Hey, Pete?” a voice called out from the bar’s darkened archway.

Alyssa’s breath caught. She’d know that voice anywhere. She heard it in her dreams.

“Pete?” he shouted again.

Turning in her seat, she could feel her heart racing as Marco stepped into the light. Her gaze drank him in. He carried a cardboard box in his hands, heavy enough to pop out the biceps under his short-sleeve T-shirt. The last time she’d seen him, he’d been on leave between deployments and he’d been wearing camouflage—“drop-dead sexy” was the only way to describe him in uniform. Now, his brown hair was longer and messy on top, as if he’d run his fingers through it, but he still looked every bit the soldier he’d been. He hiked up the box and it pulled at the hem of his shirt, exposing a thin slice of lean abdomen. Her eyes trailed down over a pair of black jeans that hugged him in all the right places.

Her chest swelled with everything she felt for him until it was hard to breathe. Alyssa shoved up out of her chair, his name hanging on the edge of her tongue, but her throat was too dry to speak.

“Sorry, I didn’t see…” He trailed off and his brow furrowed. Walking into the room, he studied her, then his eyes went wide. “Alyssa?” He kicked out a chair with his boot and put down the box. Smiling big enough to show off the dimple on his left cheek, he came right up to her, blue eyes bright with surprise. “I’ll be damned. Look at you.”

Nearly dizzy from his proximity, his dazzling grin, and the clean male scent of his skin, Alyssa struggled to reply. “It’s great to see you, Marco,” she finally managed. God, he was even more gorgeous than she remembered.

He held out his arms. “What, no hug? It’s been two years, right?”

“Almost,” she said, her throat tight as she stepped into his embrace. The instant her chest came in contact with his, she knew she was in trouble. His arms wrapped around her and hugged tightly. He kissed her hair, and Alyssa squeezed right back. And, good God, had he always been this muscular? This tall? This broad? His body totally encompassed hers, and every ounce of attraction and affection she’d ever felt for him came roaring forward until she was sure he must feel her heart thundering against her breastbone.

“How are you, Aly-girl?” he asked, still hugging her.

“I’m good,” she said, both loving the term of endearment and feeling disappointed at the proof they’d simply slipped right back into their old patterns. She shoved the thought away. The important thing was that Marco was here—healed from the injuries that had gotten him discharged from the Army Special Forces and out of harm’s way. “I was so worried about you. I’m glad you’re home.”

Marco pulled back, and Alyssa couldn’t help but notice the scars that twisted over his left arm and hand. She forced herself to look away before her gaze turned into a stare, and she found him watching her. He crossed his arms, his unblemished right covering his left.

Before her eyes, his grin and the happiness she’d seen in his eyes melted into discomfort so thick, it choked the air around them.

Marco’s jaw ticked, telling her he felt it, too. “So…what are you doing here?”

“Oh, um, I applied for a job.” She forced a smile, hoping maybe he’d smile back so she could stare at his dimple again.

He didn’t.

“Here?”

She shifted her feet and her scalp prickled. Crossing her arms, she struggled to catch up with his mood change. She became suddenly aware that her body posture mirrored his, as if discomfort was contagious. “Uh, yeah.”

His gaze narrowed and the angles on his face sharpened, highlighting dark circles under his eyes. “Oh, no, Alyssa, not here.”

Her stomach dropped at his disapproving tone. “Why not?”

“It’s too rowdy here for you. This is not the place for a girl.”

Alyssa huffed, that final word chasing away the last of her happiness and stirring up a hornet’s nest inside her. “I’m not a girl, Marco. I’m a woman.”

Scoffing, he braced his hands on his hips. “Look, there has to be a better place. What would Brady think if he knew you worked here?”

“He knows.” He just doesn’t approve. She hugged herself tighter. “And what does my brother have to do with anything?”

“I just…” He shook his head and seemed to struggle for words. “I get too busy behind the bar to be able to keep an eye on you,” he said, frustration and exasperation turning his tone harsh.

Her mouth dropped open. She was looking for a job, not a security detail! Why was he being like this? And had he ever spoken to her that way before? One of the things that had drawn her to him when they were younger was how kind he always acted toward her, when surely the presence of a friend’s kid sibling must’ve been a drag.

She needed this job. Heck, she wanted it. “You know what? I don’t need you to worry about me. I can take care of myself.” The only good thing about his harsh tone was that it fueled her resolve, which kept those threatening tears at bay.

An emotion she couldn’t name flashed through his eyes. “Alyssa, you’re too damn—”

Pete’s voice sounded from down the hallway. Marco pressed his lips into a line and ran a hand through his hair. Pete stepped into the venue, phone pressed to his ear and a big grin on his face. “Thank ya much,” he said.

Alyssa looked from Marco’s scowl to Pete’s smile, and the contrast on top of the unexpected fight nearly left her dizzy.

Pete pressed a button on his phone and dropped it into his pocket as he joined them. “Well, I’m delighted to report that everyone had only glowing things to say about you.” Pete extended his hand toward her. “You’re hired, starting immediately.”

 

 

Chapter Two

Marco watched Pete and Alyssa shake on her new job with a sense of foreboding sinking through his gut. Whiskey’s wasn’t the place for an innocent girl to work—he’d seen how the patrons sometimes treated the waitresses as if they were part of the show. Alyssa was sweet, shy, young—someone who would need taking care of around here.

So what the hell was Brady thinking giving her the okay? He would kick Marco’s ass if something happened to Alyssa.

Marco had first promised to look out for her back when his parents’ house was all that stood between the Scotts’ drunk father and the foster care system. After he and Brady graduated high school, they’d moved into an apartment and brought Alyssa with them, specifically staying in Frederick until she was off to college. Then, as if that ancient history wasn’t enough, Brady had gone and saved his ass in Afghanistan last year. So any way he cut it, Marco was honor bound to his best friend to protect his little sister. Even from her brother’s stupidity.

Problem was, Marco could barely take care of himself. And the last time he’d tried to save another, it had gone to shit.

“Alyssa says you two grew up together,” Pete said, drawing Marco from his thoughts.

Marco dragged his gaze from his manager to Alyssa, and guilt flooded his stomach when she wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Yeah, we did. Lot of good times, too,” he added, hoping she’d take the olive branch and look at him again. It worked, but he almost wished it hadn’t. Those deep browns had lost the sparkle that had made them so pretty when she’d greeted him before.

Pretty?

Oh, goddammit.

All at once, he saw her through new eyes. And what he saw very particularly wasn’t a little girl. Not anymore. She might’ve been small in stature, but between the long chocolate waves of her hair, the way her V-neck shirt shaped over her breasts, and how those damn jeans hugged her, there was no safe place to look and not think woman. And it was a short trip from that thought to wondering how she would feel under his hands, in his arms. He was a man, after all. A man who had been without the pleasure of a woman these long months while he fought tooth and nail to get back to a shadow of his old self.

But the beautiful girl, er, woman standing before him wasn’t just any woman. She was his best friend’s little sister. Strictly off-limits. That was guy code 101.

And even if she weren’t, it wouldn’t be fair of him to expect anyone to shoulder the big pile of screwed-up he’d become, especially someone just starting out in the world like Alyssa.

“So,” she said, turning away from him again, “would you like me to finish the employee manual or…”

“Yeah,” Pete said. “Go ahead and do that and let me know when you’re done. I’ll answer any questions you have, then give you the ten-cent tour. Oh, and I need to make a copy of your driver’s license for proof of age.”

“Sure.” She bent and retrieved her purse from the floor.

Marco barely restrained a groan. Those jeans were going to be the death of him. “I, uh…” He scrubbed a hand over his face. “I’m gonna get back to inventorying.” He crossed the room, seeing the box that had brought him in here looking for Pete in the first place. “Oh, and this case wasn’t on the list.”

“Just leave it there,” his manager called. “I’ll look at it after I’m done here.” Pete accepted the license from Alyssa and she returned to the seat where Marco had first seen her.

Marco retreated to the barroom, stepped around the boxes he had scattered on the floor behind the long bar, and retrieved his clipboard. On a sigh, he dropped it with a clatter to the lacquered surface and braced his hands against the edge.

When he’d first walked into the dining room, he’d been so surprised to find someone sitting there, he hadn’t realized who it was. And then she’d looked so much older than the last time he’d seen her two Christmases ago that it took his brain a moment to connect the dots.

Older, but still too innocent, especially for this place.

He stifled a groan and threw himself back into counting and stocking bottles of wine, beer, and liquor. But his mind kept returning to the too-cute-for-her-own-good brunette sitting just around the corner.

Why had she come back to Frederick? It wasn’t like she had family here. Brady was still in the Special Forces, deployed God knew where, and Marco had only run into Joseph Scott once since he’d returned to town. Their father hadn’t changed one iota as far as he could see. He might’ve felt sorry for the guy if he hadn’t seen firsthand how Joe’s heartbreak over his wife’s death had hurt his kids, literally. Brady and Alyssa had shown up at his house with more than one bruise or cut over the years. He sincerely hoped she wasn’t planning to visit the old man.

Marco crouched down and sliced the blade of the utility knife along the seam of the next box.

The Scotts’ experience, wanting to stand up for other people who couldn’t stand up for themselves—that’s what made him want to join the military. Now who did he stand up for?

“Aw, hell.” A headache flared up under his left ear. He sank to his knees and closed his eyes, concentrating on the breathing exercises he’d been taught. In for two. Out for two. Over and over until his head stopped swimming. Opening his eyes, he found himself kneading at his left arm, the one that had been torn apart from bicep to wrist by a booby-trapped explosive he barely remembered. Surgeons had rebuilt his arm as good as could be expected, especially since the nerve damage was so extensive they’d initially doubted he’d have coordinated use of his hand, but the tendon transplant never healed right. His fingers remained weak, and his elbow was stiff as hell.

But the shit with his brain was worse. It blanked out a big spot in his memory and tormented him with haunting nightmares and frustrating apraxia, the occasional inability to say a word and communicate his thoughts. And surgeons didn’t have a fix for those.

All of which gave him a one-way ticket to separation and retirement.

Do not pass go.

Do not collect two hundred dollars.

Marco ripped the box open and removed the bottles, lining them up next to him. Seeing Alyssa again made him feel trapped between two worlds but not fully a part of either. In those few short moments they’d spoken, her very presence had pulled him back in time to when he knew who he was and what he wanted. When he believed he could do or be anything.

And then she’d said how glad she was that he was home, and it was like a sucker punch to the gut—because all he’d wanted for ten long months was to be back out there, doing what he’d trained to do. Which was never going to happen.

Letting go of that man and those dreams… He’d never find his way to being okay with that.

On a curse, Marco tossed the empty box behind him.

This right here was the problem. Twenty minutes of Alyssa’s presence had him all up in his head, thinking about things he really didn’t want to be thinking about. Stack. Count. Beer. Wine. On tap. By the bottle. Red. White. These were the thoughts he could handle. These were the thoughts he wanted to handle.

Not how he could barely stand the sight of his own reflection.

Not how he’d succumbed to the pain and weakness.

Not how every fucking thing had changed.

And sure as hell not how three deaths lay at his feet.

Hands pounded a rhythm on the bar top. “Hey, lunch break?”

Marco spun on his heel and darted up, braced for battle. His knee smacked into the neck of a bottle sticking out of the recycle bin on the floor beside him. Like an avalanche, the bottle and two others careened over the edge. He flinched at the crash and spray of glass. “Shit. Sorry,” he said, looking sideways at Pete on the far side of the bar.

“No worries, kid. I’ll grab the broom.”

Marco started collecting the big pieces, heart racing ridiculously in his chest, and tossed them one by one into the bin. If this was what her presence was going to do to him, he’d rather she—

“Here, I’ll help.” Alyssa crouched in front of him, reaching around a box to retrieve a shard.

“Don’t,” he snapped.

She jerked back.

Marco clenched his fists, hating his jumpiness, his short-fused temper, his loss of control. “Why are you here?”

Alyssa brushed her hands on her thighs as she stood, then retreated from behind the bar.

He rose and faced her. She eyed him like he was an unpredictable animal. Good. “I just meant, what are you doing now? Why are you still in the bar?” He pressed his fingers into his temple. “I know Pete has you doing…” The word paperwork sat clear as day in his speech center but couldn’t find its way to his lips. He swallowed a lump in his throat. “So I didn’t think…” Damn, he couldn’t even manage to talk to her, could he? He raked a hand through his hair and sighed.

Alyssa wrapped her arms around herself. “Pete invited me to have lunch with some of the other employees so I’d be able to recommend things on the menu. Since I’m here and all.”

Pete stepped back into the bar area, a cell phone pressed to his ear and a broom in his free hand. “Why don’t you show Alyssa to the break room?” he whispered to Marco. “I’ll get this.”

Wiping his hands on a bar rag, Marco nodded. “This way.” An awkward silence weighed heavily on him as he led them through a series of halls to the break room located near the kitchen. Guilt and a ten-months-old sense of failure made his gut clench. He could at least try to make small talk, couldn’t he? “Heard from Brady?”

Alyssa looked at him, her brown eyes wide and uncertain. “He called the day I graduated. From somewhere. He sounded okay.”

What Marco wouldn’t give to be out there with him. But that life was done and over, and he had no one to blame but himself. “Good.”

“Yeah.”

Hell. He needed to fix this. Brady might’ve been his best friend, but Alyssa was still one of his oldest friends. He hated this awkwardness between them. “Still playing the guitar?”

She tucked a thick curl behind her ear. “Yeah, actually. And Brady sent me a new one for graduation. Wait till you see it.”

He loved that she was still into something he’d taught her years ago but hated himself a little more for not having sent something himself. Damn. “My little Aly-girl, a college graduate. Hard to believe.”

She rolled her eyes, but her lips held the hint of a smile.

They walked into the break room and found a table of food and three guys already digging in. Everyone looked up from their plates and their collective surprise at his appearance in the break room was nearly a tangible thing. Making friends hadn’t exactly been his main objective. Then the men’s attention shifted and everyone gave Alyssa an appraising glance that made Marco want to put his arm around her. Was the V-neck cut of her shirt a little low or was it just him? He just barely resisted the protective gesture and instead forced himself to make introductions. “Guys, this is Alyssa Scott. Pete just hired her as a new waitress. Alyssa, this is Tommy, Eric, and Van.”

She grasped the back of the chair next to Eric. “Hey.” Eric rose and gestured to the chair. She stepped away and he pulled it out for her, both of their cheeks pinking as she sat.

Marco eyeballed Eric, groaning internally as he saw the awe settling onto the younger man’s face. Fucking perfect.

“Thanks,” she said. “So…what’s good?”

“Everything,” Van said, passing her a mixed plate of appetizers. “But then I’m biased.”

“Why’s that?” she asked as she accepted the plate.

“Because I’m the chef.” He winked at her.

She grinned. “That either means your opinion should receive extra weight or none at all.” She looked at the other guys. “Which is it?”

Her question hung in the air a moment, and then everyone started laughing and ribbing Van in turn.

It was totally amazing to watch, but Alyssa’s willingness to jump right into the fray with this group of men who had known one another for a long time broke the ice, and the food and conversation flowed freely afterward. She asked them about their jobs at Whiskey’s and answered their questions in return—much more comfortably than she’d answered his, he noticed regretfully. Pete finally joined them and her thoughtful questions about how the business worked clearly won him over. She treated Van’s dry humor, which put some people off, like a challenge, until it almost seemed they were in a competition of one-upmanship that had everyone chuckling and eyeing her in a new way—including him.

Who was this confident, quick-witted woman?

The Alyssa he knew was shy, reserved, often timid and uncertain—exactly what she’d had to be to survive in her father’s house. Pride flowed through him that she’d achieved this transformation once she’d escaped the abuse, but his gut also twisted. He’d seen a little of that old Alyssa out by the bar when he snapped at her.

Part of him wanted to pull her out of the room to apologize. Part of him said this was exactly why he was no good for her right now. For anyone.

Just one more piece of evidence he wasn’t any goddamn hero.

He pushed his plate away.

Alyssa wiped her mouth and dropped her napkin to her empty plate. “Well, Chef, I have to give credit where it’s due. Everything was great, and I’m stuffed.”

Van grinned. “Pete has me put out a spread like this most days, so we’ll do it again soon.”

“I’ve never met free food I didn’t like, especially when it’s this good. So, I’ll be here as much as Pete puts me on the schedule. You’ll be sick of me in no time.”

“I doubt that,” Eric said in a quiet voice. He flinched the moment the words left his mouth, like he hadn’t meant to speak out loud. Marco cut his gaze to the other man and found himself again fighting the goddamn frustrating urge to lean to the right and drape his arm over Alyssa’s shoulders.

Pete stood. “Little lady, you can have as many shifts as you want. Like I said, I’m short-handed.”

Everyone else rose from the table, and Alyssa pitched right in cleaning up, asking to be shown where the dirty dishes went.

“Come on, we’ll make this the first stop on that ten-cent tour I promised. It’s all very glamorous.”

Chuckling, Alyssa grabbed a stack of plates and utensils. “Great to meet you, guys. See you later.” She threw a small smile at Marco.

A chorus of good-byes sounded out as she left. Pete’s voice chattered down the hall as he bent Alyssa’s ear about the business.

Van rounded to Eric’s side of the table with a big shit-eating grin on his face, and smacked him on the shoulder. “Down, boy.”

Eric threw Van’s arm off and scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Van laughed. “Play it that way if you want, but maybe next time you should keep your tongue in your face.”

The two of them scuffled and fake-punched their way out the door, laughing and taunting as they went. Marco sat heavily against the edge of the table as that damn ache planted itself behind his ear once again.