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This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, locations, and incidents depicted in this work are of the author’s imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, locations, or events is entirely coincidental.


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Copyright © 2017 Madison Stevens


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Cover designed by Najla Qamber Designs



Zane (Allen Securities #7)


by


Madison Stevens


Security contractor Zane doesn’t have time for anything but his job, let alone women. The closest thing he allows to a relationship is the occasional one-night stand.

Even when Ellen, a woman he’s lusted after for years, calls him up out of the blue, he’s reluctant to get involved. Getting too close to a woman will just create trouble, and he lives too dangerous a life to need more headaches.

After witnessing the Russian mob killing a man, Ellen is running out of options and time. Even worse, her sister is in the clutches of her abusive boyfriend: a lackey of the Russian mobsters. The desperate woman swore years ago to give up on Zane, but he’s the only man who has a prayer of saving her.

Now Zane and Ellen have to find a way to free her sister from the mob and convince the Russians not to tie up loose ends by killing Ellen.

Their growing attraction is pulling more and more of their attention. With the deadly stakes, they’ll need to fight their lust and stay focused, as even a moment of distraction could prove fatal.

Chapter One



Ellen pulled into the casino parking lot well past midnight. Despite the late hour, bright lights lit up the entire gaudy faux-gold front. Well-dressed men and women streamed in and out. It was like some sort of wacked-out Oscar party she never wanted to attend.

She grumbled as she pulled away from the bright lights to the darker back of the building. There were far fewer lights there, and despite her feelings on the lighting situation upfront, she’d rather deal with a little gaudiness than be where she now was.

The car eased into a parking spot, and she looked around the area. No one was in sight, and Ellen wasn’t so sure that made her feel any better. At best, tonight would be unpleasant, and she didn’t even dare imagine what might happen in a worst-case scenario.

It had been a long night at the hospital. Several people had ODed on some new drug that had hit the market in recent weeks. Two patients had been admitted in bad condition, but the ER staff were able to resuscitate them.

The last patient had shaken her a bit. He wasn’t more than twenty-one and had suffered cardiac arrest. They had been able to stabilize him before she left, but it was going to be a rocky night for the next shift.

He would be lucky to make it, and even then, without serious drug counseling, he would likely be right back at it again. She hated to think that she might see him again, and they might not be able to save him.

It was exhausting. Ellen had worked so hard to get through nursing school, and she knew death was something they all had to deal with at some point. What they never talked about was the emotional toll it took seeing the same things over and over. That saving someone didn’t mean they really got better.

In the end, they were just treating the symptoms, not the problem. The city seemed like it was slowly sliding into hell.

Ellen let out a long sigh and tried to clear her head. She couldn’t solve the city’s drug or crime problems. She had to focus on the thing she could fix: her sister, Zoe.

Just thinking about her sister made her want to bang her head against the window.

Zoe had always been a handful, sneaking out at night and going to parties with friends when she thought their mom wasn’t looking. As she got older, the people she hung out with only got sketchier. Not just sketchy, dangerous.

When their mother died, something seemed to click in Zoe, and things hadn’t been the same since. Now the city wasn’t the only thing sliding into ruin.

It wasn’t all that long after the funeral that Ellen started to see the signs of addiction in Zoe. The weight loss, along with the vacant look and deep circles under her eyes. It killed Ellen seeing her little sister slip away and knowing there was nothing she could do.

Her only hope was that their brother Dean might be able to do something when he got out of the Marines, but that was still a month away. At the rate things were going, she wasn’t sure Zoe would last that long. Especially now that her new boyfriend, Billy, was involved with new dangerous people. Men that even Zoe had called thugs.

With a word like thug being tossed around, Ellen knew it was serious.

Ellen glanced over at the box of Zoe’s things her sister had asked her to bring, and she sighed. It might be late and she might be exhausted, but it was a chance to help. Maybe this time she’d be able to get through to Zoe.

She stepped out of her car and pulled the box over to her side. It really wasn’t much of anything. A few trophies from when Zoe was a kid, some photos and random things she’d collected through the years. But it was what Zoe asked her to bring.

Ellen glanced around the empty lot again and held the pepper spray on her keychain in her palm. Several years of working at the hospital at night had taught her to be better safe than sorry. It only made sense that muggers might linger around a casino where they could surprise some drunk gamblers.

She closed the door. A quick press of a button on her key fob had the doors locked with a beep.

Quickly Ellen made her way to the sidewalk and was glad when Zoe opened a side door to step outside.

“Thanks for coming,” Zoe said, beaming.

Ellen couldn’t help but smile at her. Zoe had gotten their mother’s good looks. Her shiny blond hair fell past her shoulders with a bounce that Ellen couldn’t get on her very best day. She’d always been slightly embarrassed of her own dirty blond hair that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or blond.

Zoe wore a large red sweater. Her collar bone stuck out more than it should.

As if knowing what her sister was thinking, Zoe covered the exposed skin. She took the box with ease.

“Just get off work?” Zoe asked.

Ellen nodded. “I’m on second shift mostly, but they still rotate in a few overnights.”

Zoe nodded, but Ellen could tell she really didn’t care. It was just a simple, cold fact. That was what their relationship had been reduced to.

Ellen watched as her sister searched through her things. Zoe stilled as she pulled out a framed picture.

The picture was familiar. It was one of Ellen’s favorites. It was a picture of them in high school, standing next to their mother, all beaming at the camera.

“We were so happy then,” Zoe said softly.

A lump formed in Ellen’s throat. She hadn’t expected to have such an emotional response to such a small thing. It had already been a few years since their mother passed away. People always claimed it got better, but she’d found that it was really that she got better at dealing with the pain.

“You know,” Ellen said, “there’s always room for you at the house.”

Zoe’s eyes snapped up to her, and Ellen knew instantly it was not the right thing to say. Without a word, Zoe shoved the picture back in the box.

“Don’t start,” she said.

Ellen sighed. “I just want to help.”

Zoe narrowed her eyes. “Then butt out,” she said. “You don’t understand my life.”

Ellen opened her mouth to say something when a sickening crunch came from around the building, and a pitiful cry echoed in the air.

Their eyes locked, and Zoe dropped the box to the ground as she grabbed Ellen’s arm. Her bony fingers bit into the flesh there, and her hand shook.

“You should go.”

Ellen frowned. Another loud crunch echoed around them.

She needed to go. She really did. Every alarm in her body was going off and screaming she should run, but the nurse in her said to walk toward the trouble. It was what she’d been trained for: to swallow the fear and keep going.

Ellen pulled her arm out of her sister’s grip and made her way over to the corner of the building. Her ugly nurse sneakers made no noise, and for once, she was glad to be wearing them.

Two men stood over another man bleeding on the ground. The larger of the two was holding a sledgehammer, and she could see blood on the head.

Her stomach clenched as she surveyed the man on the ground and spotted the mangled mess his hands were in. They had crushed them. Her heart beat loudly in her ears as she continued to process just what she was seeing.

“Don’t think he’s going to talk,” the large man said, his voice thick with a Russian accent. “Maybe I take care of him?”

The other man shook his head. Unlike his colleague, he was very well dressed, though not exactly business like. He wore an eggplant purple shirt. The open collar revealed way more of his chest than necessary, along with gold chains. Over that, he wore a nice gray suit jacket and slacks.

“No,” the man said and stepped over to the wounded man.

Ellen let out the breath she was holding. Maybe he owed them money or something. Beating him up wasn’t ideal, but it was better than ‘taking care of him,’ which she could only assume meant killing him. Although maybe she’d seen too many crime shows.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Before she’d even had time to process the gun being pulled out, the three shots rang out.

Ellen tried to suck in breaths, but it seemed like all the air had left her body.

“What the fuck are you doing here?”

A firm hand grasped her arm from behind, but it was the man with the gun that terrified her. She could see his cold eyes in the distance as they landed on her, and he knew she had seen it all.

Ellen turned and flipped the switch on her spray. She unleashed the contents directly into the face of the man holding her.

He flailed backward for a second, pawing at his eyes. Ellen glanced around for her sister, but she was already long gone. Zoe always did seem to know when to bail.

Ellen coughed as the pepper cloud still filled the air but knew she didn’t have time. The other two men were just down the alley. Seeing what they did to the other man, she knew they would have no problem taking her out the same way.

She turned and ran.

Someone shouted in Russian behind her. Several shots echoed in the night, and she ducked, somehow hoping that might help. One bullet hit the ground near her foot, and she was once again thankful for her ugly nurse shoes.

When she reached the car, her hands shook. She fumbled with the button on the key and ducked again as bullets struck her car door.

The lights clicked on, and she swung the door open. She slammed the door closed and put the key in the ignition. The large man slammed into the side of her car, screaming Russian at her. Ellen put the car in drive and slammed her foot on the gas.

More bullets pelted the car, and she screamed when the back windshield shattered.

Ellen ducked down and turned toward the front of the building. When no more bullets struck the car, she dared a glance into the rearview mirror. In the lot she spotted the large man and another scrambling to get into a car while the man in purple stood staring at her as she sped away.

She didn’t even have to guess what he was thinking. Ellen saw something she should have never seen, and there was no way that man was going to just let it go. Now she was going to have to do the last thing she ever wanted to do.

Call for help.

Chapter Two



The bar let out a loud clang as Zane set the weight back on the rack. He could feel the sweat on his chest as it soaked the sleeveless tank he was wearing.

Tonight’s workout had been hard. He was sure he would feel it in the morning.

Sometimes it helped him to get in late at night when not many of the men were around. The building of Reed Allen’s security firm was always open to every employee, regardless of whether or not they were in the family, especially seeing as many worked all hours of the night to provide their services. It wasn’t like security threats kept a nine-to-five schedule.

All the guys Zane worked with seemed nice enough. Many were related in some way or another, which always made him feel like more an outsider than normal, but it was still a nice enough place to work. Thus far, it was turning into probably the best job he’d ever had.

They payed well, and no one asked him to do anything underhanded or shady like he’d seen at some of his previous jobs.

Sure, the Allens bent the law a little, but no more than necessary, and only as a last resort. The truth was, working for them made him feel like one of the good guys.

Zane grabbed the bottle of water from the floor next to him and gulped it down. His arms still burned from the number of reps he’d done. He’d been so zoned out that he hadn’t even realized that he’d gone well over his normal count.

It had been a long couple of weeks. Zane hadn’t been with the Allens long, and the most recent assignment had been mostly night stakeouts. Not that he minded, but it wore a bit. Sometimes that was just part of the job.

He’d be glad to go home and get a good rest in his own bed. Just for good measure he yawned loudly.

“I second that,” Cage said from the stairs.

Zane nodded to the youngest Allen brother and watched as he made his way down the metal stairs. He’d been wounded sometime last year on the job, and the leg still wasn’t totally healed.

Not that it seemed to slow him down at all. Cage was one of the harder working in the bunch. It was like he had something to prove. Zane could understand that.

“Heard you finished the case,” Cage said with a grin.

Zane nodded and wiped the sweat off his face. “Bryce was going to send the report over to the restaurant owner,” he said. “Looks like one of the employees and his girlfriend were the ones helping themselves to a midnight feast.”

Cage nodded. “Good work,” he said. “You’re really fitting in nicely here.”

Zane opened his mouth to reply but stopped when his phone buzzed from the locker. He walked over to his bag and pulled out the phone.

He furrowed his brow. The number seemed familiar, a local one, but he couldn’t place it. It obviously wasn’t one of his contacts.

He grunted as he remembered who the number belonged to. It’d been one he used to call all the time, just one he hadn’t for a good five years.

Ellen.

Just thinking about her made his chest tight.

Zane glanced at the time and frowned. He turned to Cage. “Sorry. I’ve got to take this.”

Cage only nodded, but it was hard to miss the concerned look he was giving Zane.

Zane hit the green talk button. “Ellen, what is going—”

“They’re after me,” she said quickly into the phone.

He could hear the quaking in her voice as she spoke. His adrenaline kicked in, and his heart picked up. “Who’s after you?”

She took in a deep breath. “I saw them shoot him. I saw him die,” she said. “There’s no way they aren’t after me. They saw me.”

He wasn’t exactly sure what the hell was going on, but first of all he needed to get her someplace safe. “Where are you right now?”

“I’m on the highway at exit 26,” she said. “They shot out my back window, but I don’t think they followed me.”

Zane stifled the curse that threatened to erupt. They’d already shot her car. That meant they’d seen her car. If they’d seen her car, then they might have seen her license plate.

“I need you, Zane,” Ellen said.

Whatever was going on, they would figure it out. He would sort this shit out and keep her safe.

She wasn’t far from him. Another exit, and she’d be nearly to the firm. Zane turned to Cage, who was still standing there, concern etched on his face.

“Mind if I use the office for a bit?” Zane said.

Cage shook his head. “Whatever you need.”

Zane nodded his thanks. “Okay, you’re gonna get off at exit 27 and head east. I’m at work right now, and it’s the closest safe place.”

“I know where you’re working,” she said softly.

Zane was surprised that she knew. They hadn’t talked in years. He always just assumed that once he left town she’d forgotten all about him.

“You do?” Zane said.

“Dean told me last time we talked.”

He nodded. It made sense that her brother would mention it. With him being overseas, and there not being any responsible family nearby, he likely wanted to make sure she had someone to call.

“I’m going to stay on the phone with you until you’re here.”

Zane could hear a sigh of relief. He couldn’t blame her. Ellen wasn’t used to dealing with people shooting at her, even if she was normally a rock. Hell, it had been no surprise to him when he heard she decided to go to school to be an ER nurse.

“Do you think they will come after me?” she asked.

He switched ears and moved toward the door. Zane stared out into the darkness.

“Right now just focus on your driving,” he said. “How far out are you?”

She grew quiet, and for a moment he thought that maybe they had lost connection. Or worse.

“El?”

Lights flashed down the road as a car turned the corner.

“I’m almost outside,” she said finally.

Zane stepped out into the cool night air. “Just pull up front.” He hit the red button on the phone.

He looked all around. There was a chance that whoever had shot at her car had been able to follow her. The night was still around them, and he breathed a sigh of relief.

Zane walked over to the driver’s side door and opened it for her once the car had stopped. Ellen stepped out and instantly wrapped her arms around him. Her whole body shook.

He jumped when he felt a hand on his shoulder, ready to defend Ellen.

“Take her in,” Cage said quietly. “I’ll pull the car around back inside the garage.” He nodded toward the street. “In case,” he motioned to the back window, “whoever did that comes looking.”

Zane hated to involve anyone else in this, but she was a mess, and as much as he didn’t want to admit it, he needed the help.

“Let’s get you in,” he said in as calm a voice as he could manage.

She nodded against his chest, her soft dark blond hair concealing her face.

Zane led her inside slowly and up the stairs to his boss’s office. It was the most comfortable of them and would allow for a bit of privacy. He helped her to sit on the couch while he brewed a pot of coffee.

He watched her as she settled on the couch. She looked older than the last time he’d seen her. It had been over five years.

Ellen looked so pale and fragile sitting there. her ugly blue scrubs doing nothing to help her pallor.

Zane brought a cup over to her and watched as a small smile filtered onto her face. “You remembered.”

He quickly turned away to deal with his own coffee. “Cream and sugar,” he said. “Some things don’t change.”

He paused for a moment wondering if she’d picked up on the sadness in his voice. There were too many things that he hadn’t dealt with, and now they were all right there, smack dab in his face.

Zane locked up his rampaging emotions. They had other things to talk about. Pressing things like people shooting at her. He turned and took a seat in a chair near her.

“Now why don’t you tell me what happened.”

Chapter Three



Ellen opened her mouth to tell him about the men, but she couldn’t form the words. In her mind she could still see that poor man on the ground, his hands battered from being crushed. And then the blood. So much blood.

She’d dealt with plenty of crime victims in the ER, but that was a controlled setting, with a staff of medical professionals and brightly lit, not some dingy alleyway where she felt helpless to do anything.

The more she thought about it, the more that fact bothered her. She’d gone into nursing to help people, both sick and injured. As terrified as she was, it killed her that she hadn’t been able to save that man.

She wondered if she’d called out if she could have saved him. The thought passed. The truth was, if she’d yelled, they would have just shot her and then the man. Those ruthless, evil men didn’t seem to care about hurting people.

Ellen sighed.

Zane leaned forward and placed a hand over her wrist as she held on to the mug in her lap with both hands.

“Start at the beginning,” he said. “Tell me everything, and we’ll work up to it.”

The soft, soothing way he said it made her feel at ease, like he would handle things. Of course that was Zane. It was five years later, but he was still the same man, reliable, handled things, handled people who hurt her.

She nodded. “Zoe had called and asked if I’d bring a box over to the casino,” she said as she stared down at the coffee in her hands. “Just some old things, pictures, mementos, nothing special in terms of money, and since I don’t see her much these days, I decided to go. After Mom…” Her lip shook, and she took in a few deep breaths to steady herself. “The problem is her new guy. You see, she got this new boyfriend a year ago.” She looked up at Zane. “He’s not a good guy. Not just that, he’s a bad guy. Really bad.”

Zane didn’t interrupt but nodded. She wondered if he was worried she might break down and just start sobbing. Hell, Ellen half wondered it herself. Lord knew she wanted to.

“So I bring the box,” she said. “We argue about things, about her life, and then I hear a noise. This awful noise.” She swallowed the bile that rose into her throat. The sickening crunching sound still echoed inside her head. “She told me not to go,” Ellen said. “It was like she knew. Like this wasn’t the first time she’d heard something like that. I can’t… how can she be used to something like that?”

Zane frowned. “And what is it that you saw?”

Ellen could already feel the tears welling up in her eyes. Her sweet baby sister knew what was going on and just wanted to ignore it. Maybe Zoe was completely gone if she could do something like that.

“There were three men,” she said. “One on the ground, and two standing over.”

Zane leaned in farther. She knew this was the part he had been waiting for.

“They were using a sledgehammer to break the guy’s hands,” she said. “I…”

She closed her eyes and sucked in a breath, but all she could see was the way the hammer came down and the pleasure the two men took in it. Her stomach lurched, and she took several deep breaths to calm herself.

“The biggest guy was hammering, but there was another guy there. He was in charge.” She stared directly at Zane. “I thought they were going to let the guy go, but then the guy in charge pulled a gun, and he shot the guy they were hurting, three times. Shot him dead.” She shook her head. “I’ve seen a lot of people die in my line of work, but I’ve never seen someone murdered in front of me.”

Zane’s brow furrowed. She could see how serious it was just by looking at his expression.

“Did you know these men?” he asked after a moment of thought.

She shook her head. “I’ve never seen them before. They had thick Russian accents, and the one that did the shooting looked like he had expensive clothes on. Nice purple shirt, suit, lots of gold chains. They didn’t know I was there at first, but then they noticed me.”

“Fuck,” Zane mumbled.

Ellen didn’t like the sound of that. She took a drink of coffee, and the smooth warmth washed over her. It helped fight the cold that had enveloped her heart.

“How did you get away?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I always carry pepper spray. A guy came up and grabbed me from behind, so I sprayed him. The other two shot at me but missed.” She offered a silent prayer of thanks. “Well, mostly missed. You saw my car.”

“And Zoe?”

She shook her head. “She was gone when I turned around,” Ellen said. “Likely cleared out as soon as she smelled trouble. Zoe always was good about not getting caught.” A quiet and bitter laugh followed.

Zane leaned back and scrubbed a hand down his face.

For the first time, she realized there was stubble there. Something she’d never really seen aside from when they were teens, and he thought it was being cool. Which it was. Dark circles lined his eyes, and she could see the redness in the whites.

“How fucked am I?” she whispered.

He shook his head. “You’re a loose end,” Zane said. “They need to tie it up, or you can end up sending them and who knows what other people away if they were aware this guy was going to get killed.”

Ellen swallowed. “So I’m totally fucked.”

He stood and placed his cup in the small sink by the coffee pot. “For now you’ll come to my place,” he said. “I need a good night’s sleep and a clear head to make any decisions.”

She frowned. She didn’t have to work tomorrow, but it would have been nice to change clothes.

“What about my place?”

Zane turned back to stare at her. “Did they have a chance to see your license plate?”

She could still see the boss guy as he watched her drive away. The evil glint in his eye as he did so. Her heart dropped, and she let out a long groan. “Yes.”

He nodded and took the cup from her hand. Ellen stood as he did so.

“Then they will know where you live by now. The Russian mafia has ties everywhere these days. It’ll be easy for them to make a call and get your address.”

She froze. “Did you say Russian mafia?”

Ellen could feel her head start to spin as Zane nodded. She’d thought she was in deep trouble, but she hadn’t quite grasped how deep until just then.

“Your sister got mixed up in the wrong crowd,” he said. “And she’s put you in terrible danger. The Russians mean business, and they don’t forget. They don’t have a problem killing innocent people or women. We need to keep you off their radar until I can get this fixed.”

The world shifted around her, and suddenly Zane seemed like he was much farther away. Like he was shouting at her from down a dark hall.

“El?”

Warm arms wrapped around her, and she felt all her weight being lifted.

“El? Ellen!”

There was a comfort in those arms, and Ellen let herself slip down the tunnel until she closed her eyes completely.

Chapter Four



Ellen still lay in Zane’s bed sleeping. After all the stress the night before, she’d collapsed into his arms, her face pale from everything that had happened.

Zane took her exhaustion seriously. She wasn’t a woman who couldn’t deal with stress. She’d helped patch up who knew how many victims of violence up in the ER. This was different.

This wasn’t her world; it was his.

With Cage’s help, Zane had been able to get her down the stairs and into his car. It was only then that he had the chance to examine Ellen’s car. There were three holes on the driver’s side of the car and another four in the back, in addition to the broken windshield.

They hadn’t just taken a few pot shots at her. Ellen had been lucky. With that many bullets, they had been serious about taking her out.

He’d driven her to his small home last night and placed her in his bed. It wasn’t exactly the best situation. There was only one room in the house, and his couch was shit for a man his size, but still, it was better than trying to sleep in the car. Even before she’d shown up, he was exhausted, and if he was going to help Ellen escape the Russian mob, he needed to be well rested.

Going straight to the police was a bad idea until they knew who specifically they were dealing with. Low-level Russian enforcers were one thing, but if they were dealing with one of the big boys, Ellen could easily have an “accident” while in protective custody. The corrupt web of organized crime had spread throughout the city.

No, he needed a chance to catch his breath before the cops got involved.

Zane yawned for about the millionth time as he sucked down his cup of coffee. Normally he didn’t like the stuff, but with the schedule he’d been keeping, there was no way he’d make it through the day on his own.

He glanced at the clock on the wall. Six. Despite the late night, he’d still been up early. Likely from years of training himself to be up before the rest of the family.

A scowl slipped onto his face. It had been years since he’d thought of them. Seeing Ellen only brought back all the shit he’d been trying to forget.

She looked older than the last time he’d seen her. Her face had filled out more, and although she had always been beautiful, it only seemed like that had grown over the years.

Something tugged inside him. The same aching need that he always felt when she was around.

Zane grabbed the coffee and slammed it back like it was a shooter.

He didn’t need to be thinking about this or dragging out all the old feelings he’d worked so hard to bury. Right now she needed his help not to end up in a grave, and that was all. She’d probably only called him because she knew he was working in a reputable security firm.

He’d do the job and roll right back into his normal life, the one without a relationship for longer than a night and no complicated feelings.

Zane stood and took a deep breath. The best thing for him was a good run. It would clear his head and get him ready for the day. He laced his shoes and grabbed a hoodie from the hook by the door.

For a moment he paused, wondering if he should let her know, but shook his head. The last thing he needed was to see her sleeping face again and besides, she needed the rest.

With that, Zane headed out into the dimly lit morning.


* * *


Ellen rolled over in the bed. She breathed in deeply and sighed. Something smelled good, but she couldn’t quite place it. Maybe she’d changed the detergent she used.

She breathed in again. Something about this smell was very male to her.

Slowly she opened her eyes and was surprised to find that she wasn’t in her own room. Her brain raced to keep up with just what the hell was going on.

Suddenly, everything from the night before came crashing back.

Her sister. The dead man. The Russians. Zane.

He was the last thing she could remember. His concerned face staring at her as he talked about the Russian mafia.

Even now, just the thought made her head spin a little.

What the fuck had her sister gotten herself into? Of all the shitty men she had chosen to be with, this one took the cake. She swore if she got her hands on that piece of shit Billy, she would tear him limb from limb.

Ellen jumped when something moved nearby. She turned and found Zane pulling some clothes from the closet next to the bed. The light from the crack in the bathroom door allowed just enough light for her to see in the early morning hours.

He wasn’t wearing a shirt, and for a moment, she couldn’t really process much more than that.

Although she’d known him for years, she’d never really seen him with his shirt off. Even when they all used to go swimming in the creek, he would still wear it.

Back then she used to wonder what he looked like. It was a sort of fantasy she would play in her head. Clearly, he had bulked up over the years though. She wondered if he hit the gym every day, or twice a day.

The frame she remembered wasn’t near so wide or defined. Zane was always muscular, but this was the body of a man, full of firm muscles and hard, defining lines around those muscles.

Zane turned around, and they stared at one another.

Heat spread to her cheeks when she realized he had totally just caught her checking him out.

“Sorry,” he said quietly and stepped out of the closet.

In the light, she could see the sheen of perspiration on his chest and his damp hair.

“It’s the only bathroom I have,” he said.

Ellen swallowed and sat up a little. She glanced at the clock beside the bed. Quarter to seven.

She gave a small smile. He always was an early riser. He used to show up at their house just in time for breakfast. It was likely why she’d become an early riser as well. Just so she could be ready when he came over.

Not that Zane ever cared. Being five years younger only meant that she was invisible in all the important ways a girl didn’t want to be. To him, she was just the kid sister, and that never seemed to change as the years went by.

By the time she’d blossomed into her own woman, Zane and her brother were already out in the world, doing their own thing.

She told herself that it didn’t matter. That she’d long since gotten over her childish crush, but seeing him there with his shirt off only brought back all the same longing she’d once felt. And knowing that nothing had really changed just made the ache all the worse.

“I’ll just be a few minutes,” he said. “You might try and get some more sleep.”

She shook her head and yawned. “No use,” she said. “Once I’m up, I’m up.”

Zane gave her the same half smile that always used to melt her heart and much to her annoyance, Ellen’s thumped harder in response.


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