Hashtian, Iran – Summer
The night air was full of heat and promise as Shahram “Ram” Zare slammed his brother’s car door shut, hammering two slaps on the roof with a wide grin. He could not believe it—his brother was really married.
Even at twenty-two, Ram felt such pride at Javad’s accomplishments and success. A bride named Aveen. What a beauty, too.
A wistful kind of ache settled in Ram’s chest, wondering when it would be his turn. Not that he necessarily wanted the whole responsibility of a wife and children on his shoulders right now, but his parents wanted the whole package for him. And family ruled supreme in the Middle East, but he hoped he could put it off another couple of years. He wanted to go to medical school.
His cousin, Saied, yanked on his arm, yammering out, “Let’s go!” in Kurdish with a smile that went on forever. The guy had more teeth than a lion, and Ram followed him to his car, his step light, nearly floating.
Tonight, they were celebrating!
Other cars peeled out down the dusty road ahead of them in a furious rush with long beeps of their car horns.
Custom dictated the entire family escort the bride and groom home, but they still had an hour’s drive before reaching their destination. Not a problem. They could roll down the windows, turn up their Kurdish music, and honk their horns all the way back to Urmia.
They took off.
Yet it was minutes later when Saied slammed on the brakes, his voice filled the air with obscenities.
All the cars, which had left before them, were stopped in a deranged mess of chaos. It took Ram all of a second to realize Javad’s car was smashed up with steam wafting up into the summer air.
He leaped out of his cousin’s car, running. Adrenaline pumped through his veins, dark fear suffocating him. A million thoughts scrambled through his mind. Where was Javad? Was he all right?
Ram bypassed other family members, ignoring their dazed expressions and fierce yelling. He was only concerned about one thing: his brother.
Before he reached Javad’s car, Saleh, his uncle, stepped in his path, shooting off in rapid Kurdish, “They’re gone, Shahram. They were lying in wait for them.”
A measure of sanity stuttered through Ram’s brain, finally turning away from the smashed, empty car to look at his uncle. “Who…? What are you saying?”
“We were right behind them. Javad and Aveen were ambushed. Some men forced them out of their car with guns before we could reach them.”
Shahram did not wait for more details, shoving off the concerned voices faster than mud off his shoe. There was no time. His eyes sought the first available car, jumping in. Several family members tried to stop him, but he could not wait, and Saied slid into the passenger seat… always his wingman.
He started the car with shaky hands, peeling out, and the squeal of the tires reverberated off the cracked, potholed pavement.
Javad needed him.
Speeding down the road, his heart thundered in time with the rising car gauge…
Tampa, Florida – January
Ram jerked awake, his eyes burning against the sunlight streaming through the windows. Sweat beaded his forehead, his hair was drenched, and his heart thundered through his chest.
He had dreamed it again!
The same gut-wrenching nightmare he wished he could forget. It was the reason he was in this room, away from everything familiar. He would have thought five years would have erased the vividness, but it had not.
Ram blinked several times, willing the darkness back into the shadows. He would not contemplate the level of blood, pain, and suffering surrounding his past.
A great deal of time, money, and finagling went into creating a new existence in America, though nothing limited his nightmares from entertaining the demons dancing through his dreams. His mind was their playground, pulling him under with frequent enthusiasm.
He angled his head to the left, and red panties dangled off the lamp. He sighed. Alyssa had stayed the night.
Closing his eyes, memories of last night came crashing back to him. The club. The jackass who had pulled a knife. How he had intervened.
The night had begun pleasantly until some drunken loser thought himself king over all females, refusing to take no for an answer. Another random guy went to help, ignoring the bouncers threading through the crowd to take care of the problem. The next thing Ram knew, fists were flying right and left, tables were smashed, and a few bodies were thrown through the glass windows.
The idiot, who had started the fight, yanked a knife from his boot, and that was when Ram had stepped in. Fists were one thing, but a weapon? Not on his watch. He was not scared; he had bravery oozing from his Kurdish pores.
The loser had managed to sink his knife into Mr. Chivalrous. Then, the police had arrived, and he had needed an escape from the violence.
Alyssa had been convenient.
He knew he should not mix business with pleasure, but all his common sense bit the dust after the night’s upheaval. While he should have cared she was a barmaid at the club, he had needed a distraction, and she was definitely that.
Restless, he shifted on the bed, realizing he was barely covered. Yeah, the black sheets were in chaotic disarray. Alyssa shifted beside him, a wanton gleam in her brown eyes.
Inside a sigh, Ram glanced at the wall clock across the room. He was supposed to meet his brother, Javad, down at the club in ten minutes. There was nothing worse than catching hell from his older brother. He was rigid ever since they had fled the Middle East. Rightly so, Ram guessed. He was dealing with his own memory of that time. His nightmares proved that, but he dealt with it. Or at least, masked his ghosts with endless women.
Javad would have to wait.
Mia Phillips was late—again! Barefoot, she rushed through the apartment she shared with her mother and cousin. Her long, dark hair was a wet mess, buttoning her jeans and balancing her purse as she went.
She could not afford to be late again. Though her bosses, Steve and his wife, Vicky, were understanding enough, her sense of right and wrong made her a bit obsessive compulsive. She hated for anyone to look down on her or to criticize her work ethic. It grated on her nerves. Shamed her even.
“Whoa, where are you going in such a hurry, Speed Bump?”
Mia slammed her purse down on the breakfast bar, out of breath, not bothering to look at her cousin JB.
She pulled her scrunchy off her wrist, working her damp hair up into a ponytail. “Work and I’m late.”
JB grunted. “How many times does that make this week?”
Three. She rolled her eyes, wincing as her fingernail snagged in her wet hair, nearly scalping herself. “Can we not do this now?” Her eyes landed on his T-shirt, ‘Mad as a hatter… and twice as twisted.’ How appropriate, she mused, finally looking at him.
Jacob Broward Phillips was a great big teddy bear all wrapped up in sweetness and bright red hair. He lived with her and her mother since fall, having recently obtained his CPA license, helping with the bills and rent. JB had a quirky sense of humor and the greatest obsession for Duck Dynasty. They rarely hung out or had anything in common, but he loved his family, and Mia was grateful for his presence.
He chuckled. “You know, most people use alarm clocks to wake up on time. I should know, mine works great.”
Grabbing clean socks out of her purse, Mia twisted up on a barstool, and yanked them on. “Thanks, but that’s hardly helpful right now.”
Moving toward the front door, she shoved her feet into her red, faded Chucks, working them on over her heels.
“Yep,” he said, taking a sip of his coffee, scanning the morning paper.
Mia wished she could do that, drink coffee and read the newspaper, but JB took off Wednesday mornings to look after her mother, Natalie Phillips, who suffered from stage IV ovarian cancer. The prognosis was not good and she had a home health nurse, Susan, to care for her except for today. She had the morning off and Mia’s helpful, but often sweetly sarcastic cousin, stepped into help.
She worked for French Maid Cleaning Service for the last four years. It had started out as a part time gig, making a few extra dollars while in college, but then her dad had died in a car accident, leaving her to care for her ailing mother. She’d had two years of college under her belt when hell unloaded, and no time or money to continue her education.
Now, at twenty-two, more dreams were squashed, more goals were squandered. She could not even contemplate when the black cloud would lift. That would mean… her mother would be gone. And that was unacceptable. Mia was hoping to get her into an experimental treatment program, but she had not received word on the approval.
“Hey, is your crew still cleaning that nightclub Starzzz?” JB asked.
“Uh-huh,” she murmured, tucking her black, knit shirt into the waistband of her jeans. “Why?”
“They’re in the newspaper. They had a police raid down there last night.”
She stilled. Worry clouded her expression. “What for? Does it say?”
Mia walked closer, peering over JB’s shoulder at the paper. Her eyes scanned the headline, Starzzz and Bars? Someone had the demented wherewithal to make a joke.
“A fight between customers. Some guy pulled a knife and all hell broke loose. Be careful down there.”
Mia patted his burly arm. “Don’t worry, the place is a graveyard while we’re there.”
He tilted his head to the side, rubbing his clean-shaven face. “Still, watch your back.”
“I will. Gotta go,” Mia said, scooping her phone and keys off the bar, tossing her stuff in her purse, and moved toward the door. “God, mornings really should be moved to a more convenient time of day.”
A deep rumble filled his chest. “Dude, alarm clock.”
She gave a frustrated sigh, reaching for a jacket off the tree stand, shrugging into it. “Thanks, Mr. Helpful.”
JB peered over his husky shoulder, raising an eyebrow. “Always,” he said with a grin. “You do know that’s my jacket, don’t you?”
Mia looked down, realizing she wore his oversized, yet deliciously warm jacket. The sleeves hung over her hands and the ends hit her thighs. “Sorry, no time to change,” she said, reaching for the doorknob.
“Have a good one, Speed Bump.”
As Mia closed the door, she stilled. She had not stopped to see her mother before leaving and a quick glance at her watch revealed she was really late now. She would have to call her later.
Fishing her phone out of her purse, she hit Steve’s cell and made her way downstairs, but Vicky answered, “Hi, sweetie pie. Are you on the way?”
“God, I’m sorry, yes,” Mia said, wishing she had taken a more professional tone instead of whiny.
Granted, working for a cleaning service was not her finest moment, but she had the most understanding employers and the work was honest. She had no desire to tick them off unnecessarily.
“Hush now. Steve and I know what you’re going through with your mom. How was she last night?”
Mia hated to think about it, much less explain it. “Bad. She had another round of chemo yesterday and spent the rest of the night… you know…” she trailed off, trying to block out the memory of the sickness dogging her mother. Her blessedly sweet mom, she never thought to see suffer in such a way. “She finally dropped off to sleep around four this morning. I think I crawled into bed soon after.” Tears, she rarely allowed to fall, stung her eyes.
“Oh, hon, what can I do?”
The last thing Mia needed was sympathy. She could not hack it, not when tears were a drop away.
“Thanks, Vicky, but it is okay.” Right, nice lie. “Are you already down at Starzzz? JB read in the newspaper where they had some excitement last night.” A smooth topic change, she hoped.
Vicky sighed. “Yeah, and it’s a ruckus down here. The whole front of the club is shredded, but Mr. Zare is paying big bucks to get the repairs finished before they open tonight.”
“What happened? JB said some guy pulled a knife.”
Her voice dropped low, “The guy got his ass up over a girl, and they beat the shit out of each other. From what I heard, a few bouncers were injured, glass flew, and tables were smashed— a real free for all! Then, one guy pulled a knife, stabbing someone. Steve has been working on removing the blood stain, but I’m not sure it will come up completely,” Vicky said as if a distant afterthought.
Horror filled Mia. “Did the guy die?” she asked hoarsely.
“No, poor bastard. But the good news is, the police managed to arrest the stabber.” She sighed. “So, between us, some carpenters and new glass installation, things are pretty intense. Come join the fun, sweetie pie, as soon as you can,” she said. As if on cue, the sound of a drill lit up in the background. “Oh, you might want to come in through the back entrance to avoid the glass we haven’t been able to clean because the hot workers deemed it off limits until they’ve completed their work. A couple of the hotties are shirtless and I’m trying to contain my enthusiasm from Steve, but I’m pretty sure he saw me ogling them.”
Digging her keys out of her purse, Mia opened the door of her economic but crappy car and swung in. She laughed with her employer. “Really? Shirtless?”
She knew how proper and put-together Mr. Zare always appeared, and she could not imagine him allowing anyone to walk around shirtless. The man was a stickler for proper dress in his club with staff or workers, and she never saw him in anything but a suit—gorgeous that he was.
Though he was the ultimate sin candy for the eyes, he was completely hard around the edges. She envied the woman he found to take him on.
“Nah, not shirtless, but I wish. I have to say though, the carpenter guys have the best pecs. Hurry up before they leave. No woman should miss such a fine display of male flesh. It’s a feast, I tell you!” Vicky gushed with another peal of laughter.
“On my way. Be there in twenty.”
Mia settled into her beater mobile, cranking it up and flipping on the heat. She was lucky the heater still worked at all. Her little car was at least thirteen years old. As she moved out of the parking space, her car backfired, and she shook her head, gritting her teeth in embarrassment. She really needed a new car, but with no extra funds, this got her from point A to B. Mia hoped that by the time she arrived at Starzzz, no one was around.
However, as she pulled into the back parking lot, her embarrassment resurfaced with a hard punch, flaming her cheeks. She had to turn off her car, and when she did, two significant pops would fill the air. Her car sounded like a drive by shooting.
And there stood Ram Zare, leaning against his black Audi with his arm wrapped around a woman, and not just any woman. She was Alyssa, a barmaid at Starzzz. The woman pushed the limits, wearing a sequined bra under every shirt with a nasty disposition. Vicky started referring to her as Ms. Skittle Boobs.
Mia couldn’t be certain from this angle, but his other hand looked to be on her breast? Perfect. He was tasting the rainbow in the parking lot.