Rome (Marked Men #3)


by Jay Crownover

CHAPTER 1

Cora, the Fourth of July

It’s my favorite thing ever to have all the people I love in one place at the same time. Pair that with a day off from work, cold beer, barbecue, and fireworks, and I couldn’t be a happier camper.

And I would have been ecstatic, if only a dark, looming, man-shaped cloud wasn’t bound and determined to rain all over my parade.

It was a long holiday weekend and everyone from the tattoo shop I worked at, plus the other boys, Jet and Asa, as well as the girls, was gathered in the backyard of Rule and Shaw’s brand-new house for a barbecue and a housewarming. Everyone had a beer in hand; Rule and Jet were manning the grill, looking slightly ridiculous while doing it. It was supposed to be fun and relaxing, only someone had missed the memo.

I was rolling my sweating beer can between my hands and trying really hard to keep my mouth shut because in a few short minutes I’d determined that Rome Archer had to be the least fun person I’d ever met. Sure, the guy had just gotten home from a war zone and was dealing with some pretty serious family drama, but that didn’t excuse the fact that he seemed bound and determined to infect the rest of the festivities with his vile mood.

Ever since he had walked in the back gate, he had been alternately scowling and sniping at anyone who got within spewing distance of that unchecked fury. He had on mirrored aviators, so I couldn’t see his eyes, but I could practically feel the disdain and dissatisfaction pouring off of his massive body. I had never met anyone who I could actually describe as “hulking” before Rome started hanging around, and like the green monster, his temper seemed to be something everyone else feared. I was getting sick and tired of watching my friends tiptoe around him and try to placate him.

Hell, he should be jumping for joy that his horn dog of a sibling had settled down and was making a real commitment to someone, that Rule had found his perfect match and was a better man for it. But no, all Captain No-Fun could do was sneer and grunt at anyone trying to make conversation.

No, I was pretty sure I was not a particular fan of Rome Archer in any way, shape, or form, be he a war hero and beloved older sibling, supposed nice guy, or not. I personally thought the man was going out of his way to be an ass hat and make everyone else as miserable as he seemed to be.

The boys who grew up with him and even my girlfriend Shaw kept repeating the litany that the ex-soldier really was a great guy and that he was just struggling since coming home. I wasn’t sure I believed it because nothing I had seen thus far indicated he was anything but a grumpy, slightly unhinged bully. Which was a shame because the guy was gorgeous, like it-hurt-to-look-at-him gorgeous. All the Archers had some kick-ass genetics, but where Rule, my coworker and best friend, was gifted with all kinds of troubled, bad-boy swagger, Rome was straight-up masculine perfection.

He was tall, way taller than the other guys, which was saying something since none of the crew was exactly petite, and he was big. He was broad and strong and strapped with muscles that looked like they had been used for survival not just show. He had short, dark hair cropped close to his head, and over the reflective lenses of the sunglasses there was no missing a jagged white scar that hooked through his eyebrow and down next to his eye. His face had a vivid intensity about it that just made him stupidly hot, even without the body that was bound to make the opposite sex dumb. I bet if he ever bothered to smile, panties across the nation would melt.

I looked up as one of my other coworkers, Nash Donovan, popped up behind me and rested his hands on my shoulders. Nash was Rule’s best friend and currently living with the mountain of doom and gloom I was sitting next to on the lawn. The camp chair he was sprawled in looked like it was going to snap under his considerable bulk at any minute. I couldn’t imagine a guy as mellow and laid-back as Nash living with someone so dour and grumpy, but considering he and Rule pretty much hero-worshiped the guy, I figured it would behoove me to just stay out of it for as long as I could.

“How goes it, Tink?”

It was a simple question, but there was a lot behind it. I recently found out my first love, the guy who was responsible for shattering my young heart into a million irreparable pieces, was getting married at the end of the summer. I was having a hard time with it and all the guys from the shop were worried about me, because I was typically unflappable.

“Oh, you know, still looking for Mr. Perfect.”

That was my default answer. In order to prevent the same mistake, to prevent myself from giving my heart away so carelessly, I was bound and determined to wait for a guy who was all in with me. I wasn’t settling for anything less than perfection, even if I had to wait forever to find it. The idea of compromising and ending up as lost and broken as I was when things with Jimmy didn’t work out was too terrifying to consider.

“Tink?” Rome’s voice was gruff and as rough as the look on his handsome face.

Nash snickered and moved to take a seat on the other side of the older Archer.

“Tinker Bell. She looks like a punk-rock version of Tinker Bell.”

A dark eyebrow lifted behind the sunglasses, and I smiled sweetly at him. I do look kind of like a cartoon fairy. I’m short, have spiky blond hair that kind of ends up all over the place, and my eyes are two different colors. I also have a riotous sleeve of flowers and filigree tattooed from the top of my shoulder to my wrist on my left arm. It’s brilliant and bright. I love the vibrant ink and often changed the stud in my eyebrow ring to match the different colors. The nickname suited me, and I didn’t hate it when the boys used it because it showed me they loved me as much as I loved them.

Rome whipped his sunglasses off and rubbed his hands over his eyes. When he was done I could see that not only were his eyes the most beautiful, clear blue that I had ever seen, but they were also rimmed in dark circles and bloodshot with lightning bolts of red. He was most definitely a babe, but he looked like shit.

“I shouldn’t have come. This is all so wrong. Everyone pretending like Rule and Shaw playing house is something to be excited about. It’s all just going to blow up, they are going to end up destroying each other, and I’m going to have to be the one to clean up the mess.”

At first I thought I heard him wrong, but I saw Nash wince and Rowdy, one of my other boys from the shop, tense up. So far he seemed to be the only other person at this ramshackle gathering who hadn’t been initiated into the Rome Archer fan club. That was a good thing because Rowdy was probably the only guy in the group who could give the soldier a run for his money physically, should he decide to be a handful.

“Dude, chill out. Be happy for Rule and Shaw. That’s your family.” Nash was always the most practical of the bunch, but I could hear the underlying tension in his voice.

I flicked the tab on the top of my beer and narrowed my eyes. I wasn’t about to let this guy rain on my friends’ day, even if he seemed determined to. Those eyes that really were too pretty to be in such a sour-looking face narrowed at Nash, and I could literally feel the heat of uncoiling anger rolling off those wide shoulders. So far I had been quiet, I had watched and judged. I had sipped my beer quietly and let everyone else try and get this guy to loosen up. I was here for fun, to enjoy having all my friends in one place, to celebrate the cohabitation of two people I adored and the recent wedded bliss of two more people I loved and considered my own. My group of friends was quickly pairing off and to me that was worth throwing a party for. I knew how hard it was to find a perfect match, and I loved that people I cared so much about were doing exactly that. Captain No-Fun better get with the program real fast or it was going to get ugly.

“None of this is good for anybody. I don’t know what I’m doing here. This is all such a joke. None of you know what you’re doing or what the real world is like.”

I saw Nash blink in surprise. I saw Rowdy climb to his feet and I knew instinctively it wasn’t Rome he was going to go after.

I narrowed my eyes just as those baby blues swung my way. Maybe he thought I was safe because I probably only came up to his breastbone. Maybe he thought I was sweet because I had on a bright pink halter top and short, white shorts and looked like I was unassuming and nonthreatening. Maybe he thought I was meek because I hadn’t bothered to say anything to him since he’d thundered in and proceeded to ruin my lovely holiday. I lifted the eyebrow that had the pink crystal in it and met him glare for glare.

Whatever he thought or was thinking, I’m sure I proved him wrong as I calmly got to my feet, leaned over in his direction, and upended the last of the beer that was in the can I had practically crushed in my fist over his head. The beer slid down his shocked face in slow motion as I got so close our noses were practically touching.

“You are such an ass**le!” I knew the volume of my voice carried all the way across the yard, and I could hear feet running in our direction. Those electric eyes blinked at me and I could have sworn I saw something break through the thundercloud lurking in there. I was about to launch into a lecture on manners and respect and being a jerk for no apparent reason, but a heavy arm locked around my waist and hauled me back against a hard chest.

The big guy climbed to his feet, but before he could make any move in my direction, Rowdy stepped between him and where Nash was hauling me bodily toward the deck and away from the soggy, frowning giant.

I pointed a finger in his direction and watched as he flicked boozy moisture out of his eyes. “We don’t need all that negative, Captain No-Fun. Why don’t you go spread your gloom and doom somewhere else? Hell, you can take that crap back to the desert, for all I care; we were all getting along just fine without you. Just because you can’t find anything to be happy about doesn’t mean you need to crap all over what everyone else is trying to do here today.”

I let out a huff when Nash gave me a none too gentle squeeze that was a warning to pipe down, so I returned the favor by jabbing an elbow into his ribs. He grunted and deposited me on the deck in the spot Shaw had just vacated. We all watched silently as Rule got up in his brother’s face. I wanted to holler at Shaw to stay out of it, but if Rule went loco, she was the only one who was going to be able to put that fire out. I felt kind of bad for stirring the pot when I didn’t even really know the guy that well.

Loud male voices exchanged ugly words, and we all held a collective breath when Rule reached up and shoved Rome back a step, knocking over the lawn chair. Rowdy scooped up Shaw and moved her out of the way and I felt a twinge of guilt for starting such a scene when we were supposed to be at a celebration.

The brothers were fairly evenly matched in height, even if I knew Rule had his older brother dead to rights in the bad attitude department, but Rome was undeniably taller and built like a beast. If he really wanted to put a hurting on Rule, it was going to get unpleasant and the other guys were going to have to get involved. I bit my lip and tried to wiggle free from Nash’s iron grip but he just squeezed me tighter.

“You poked the bear, Tink, so you better hope someone can put him in a cage.”

I gasped and fought the urge to cover my eyes when Rome simply reached out and shoved Rule to the ground with a palm on the center of his chest. He lowered his voice and said something that none of us on the deck could hear, but I saw Shaw burst into tears and turn into Rowdy’s chest. I could have sworn those blue eyes sought out mine before he turned on the heel of his heavy black boot and stormed out of the backyard. The gate he exited through rattled on its hinges, and the roar of the motorcycle engine drowned out any other noise as Rule got to his feet and collected his crying girlfriend.

Nash gave me one last squeeze and finally let me go.

“You just can’t help yourself, can you, Cora?”

I crossed my arms defiantly over my chest and took a seat next to the only member of our little group who seemed unfazed by the drama. It probably didn’t hurt matters that he was in a full walking cast and still had a whole slew of broken ribs and bumps and bruises from his epic beat-down. Asa Cross was an enigma and had enough of his own drama that ours probably seemed silly and uninteresting to him.