The kind of woman Brady McCassey usually went for was not a skinny, five-and-a-half-foot-tall hippie chick who wore hip-hugging bell bottom jeans and walked around barefoot. And never in his wildest dreams did he imagine himself being attracted to someone wearing a coronet of wildflowers around a head of long, pin-straight, dark blonde hair.
But the decades-out-of-style look fit the girl with the porcelain complexion. She read Tarot cards for the band of gypsy hippies putting on a week-long festival in Hagerstown's City Park...and looked damn sexy doing it. The booth she'd set up outside of her camper was situated perfectly. Brady had an unobstructed view of both her innocent beauty, and a personality that seemed as colorful as the hand-painted rainbows on her camper's California license plates.
It didn't say much for his integrity that he wished his hands could take the place of the rose petal patches on the seat of her pants. But because he was a McCassey, and wasn't expected to have any anyway, he was okay with justifying the stereotype just this once.
Brady had wandered into City Park earlier that morning. He'd been sent ahead by his cousins to scout the area and make sure no one was there who wasn't supposed to be. With the number of enemies the McCasseys had, they couldn't be too careful. However, once Brady had spotted the hot Tarot card reader, everything else had been forgotten. He'd been rooted to the spot where he was now standing--hidden behind the lazy, flowing limbs of a Weeping Willow tree--for a good three hours; enjoying the view as he nursed an oversized flask of his cousin Blackie's secret recipe moonshine.
The potent shine had worked its magic as quickly as it always did. Although he wasn't drunk, he was buzzed enough that the sharp edges of reality which constantly poked at him had been dulled. He was relaxed enough to feel confident about talking to the hot hippy chick, but wasn't so far gone that he was able to convince himself doing it would be a good idea. He would need an even bigger, filled-to-the-top flask for that.
Resigned to the fact he was just about out of moonshine--thereby stuck admiring the girl from afar--Brady slipped the flask into his back pocket and resumed what could be defined in some courts of law as stalking. Silently, he stood motionless in the shadows of the willow.
So intently focused on the low cut 'V' of the girl's nearly see-through shirt, Brady didn't realize anyone was behind him until he felt the slight tickle of his shirt moving against his skin. Instantly alert, he whirled around as he simultaneously reached into the back waistband of his jeans and pulled his weapon. In less time than it took to draw a breath, he had a firm hold on his assailant, and was pressing a cocked and loaded .357 Magnum--complete with a silencer--against their temple.
And in less time than that, he nearly had a heart attack.
Brady disengaged his weapon as soon as he realized who he'd almost shot. He did nothing to hide his violently shaking hands as he released his cousin Georgia and jammed the gun back into his waistband. "Jesus goddamn Christ, Georgia, I almost shot you!" he hollered in a panic, his own voice completely unrecognizable.
Brady's thoughts were all over the place as he stared at her, trying to regain his composure. Although he'd spoken a moment before, he wasn't sure he trusted himself to do it now. The more it sunk in that he'd been ready to put a bullet in his young cousin's brain, the more unsettled he became. His heart raced as he struggled to gain control of his breathing. Sweating profusely, he paced back and forth in an effort to calm down.
When he finally felt he was able to speak, he approached her cautiously. Georgia was no ordinary female. Only twenty-one years old and no taller than the hot hippy chick, she was tough as nails. Her strength from being a fast pitch softball pitcher nearly all her life rivaled that of a young man. She'd been taught to fight by not only Brady and the rest of their cousins, but by her three older brothers, Blackie, Judd, and Rebel; each one more dangerously intimidating than the next. She might be the one who was almost shot, but he would be lucky to escape this situation with all of his body parts intact.
Brady inhaled and exhaled several times. He took his time releasing his final breath, hoping the emotion churning in his stomach stayed out of his voice. "Christ, Georgia," he whispered as the breath whooshed from his lungs. "I'm sorry."
She crossed her arms in front of her chest and looked up. It was as if her royal blue eyes bored holes through him.
"I--" He what? What was he supposed to say? He had no excuse for almost killing her.
Brady would've backed away when Georgia stepped toward him, but the trunk of the old tree that had been an asset not five minutes earlier was suddenly a crippling hindrance. With her standing less than a foot in front of him, he was trapped. "Georgia--"
She sniffed loudly and wrinkled her nose in disgust. "You reek."
He'd taken a shower that morning, but knew it wasn't his scent she'd picked up. Before he could stop her, Georgia reached around and pulled the flask from his back pocket. She gave it a slight shake, then unceremoniously threw it in his face. Despite all the moonshine he'd drunk, Brady's reflexes were still quick enough to swat the container away before it made contact with his nose.
Normally, he would've retaliated against her assault. Georgia was tough; she never dished out anything she couldn't take. But he decided to let that one slide. After all, he had almost shot her.
"I'd recognize the smell of that toxic poison my brother calls moonshine anywhere."
"So?" Brady winced. So? What the hell kind of response was that? What was he, a ten-year-old kid?
"So," she drawled in the accent that gave her away as being raised in southwestern Virginia. "Public intoxication and carrying concealed weapons are a crime, Brady, and you're on probation. What's wrong with you? Are you trying to get yourself sent to prison?"
"What's wrong with me? You know better than to sneak up on one of us the way you just did. Your brothers taught you better than that."
She was obviously angry. Her eyes were wide and she looked like she wanted to hit him. He hoped she didn't. Other than it being more than wrong to lay a hand on a girl thirteen years younger than him, she was stronger than she looked, and her right hook had the potential to do some damage.
She reached out and gave him a shove that pressed his back against the tree trunk. He wasn't happy about it, but considering the circumstances, it was a retaliation he could live with.
"You know that's not what I was talking about! And for the record, Quick Draw, I didn't sneak up on you. I called your name. Twice. It's not my fault Blackie's moonshine has pickled your brain, or that you were so preoccupied with the pretty fortuneteller that you didn't hear me."
Brady's gaze followed Georgia as she pointed to the hippie chick.
She had him there. The girl certainly was...distracting.
It wasn't until after Brady's hasty, "Don't tell," that he realized how stupid it sounded. Maybe he really was a ten-year-old.
Georgia raised her brows. "What did you just say?"
He sighed. There was no way to talk his way out of this one. He was just going to have to be honest. "Look, Georgia, I'm sorry, okay? I was distracted. I wasn't paying attention and didn't hear you call me. Forget about it, all right? Please?"
He didn't think she'd go for it. Georgia was no tattletale; her brothers were so overprotective that she did her best to keep the insignificant boo-boos in her life a secret from them. But having a loaded gun pulled on her was no small thing. Even though it didn't show, his little stunt had probably scared the shit out of her.
"Are you drunk?" she asked quietly.
It was a legitimate question. She knew how potent Blackie's moonshine was...and how much he liked to drink it. He shook his head. "I wasn't drunk, kid, just feeling pretty good."
"Are you still?"
He chuckled in spite of himself; his high had disappeared the instant recognition had set in. "Hell no. Almost wasting you was a real buzz killer."
They stared at each other for a long moment. Georgia looked like she was trying to decide whether or not to stay angry. He wouldn't blame her if she did; what he'd done was stupid and dangerous. But when she said, "And you still stink," he knew they were okay.
After a deep sigh of relief, he grinned in an effort to lighten the mood. She didn't bite. "I don't know what's so funny about roaming around the park with a loaded gun, Brady."
"Shh! Is it really necessary for you to announce it to the world?"
"I don't need to announce that you're stupid. Everyone already knows."
So much for them being okay. Frustrated and beyond caring whether or not the rest of his family was going to murder him for almost killing Georgia, he changed the subject. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
That time, her brows furrowed. "What do you care?"
The tone of her voice made him feel like an asshole. Brady was known for being both careless and reckless--and apparently now...stupid, because it wasn't obvious to him until that very second that he'd really scared her. She'd probably honestly thought he was going to shoot her, and probably felt like he didn't care.
To try and comfort her, Brady reached out and tugged on a strand of dark, loose curly hair that had escaped her ponytail. Out of fear that she still might hit him, that was all the affection he was willing to attempt. "Come on, Georgia, you know I care. One of the reasons you surprised me so much is that Blackie and Rebel didn't want anyone here until I checked it out."
"Checked it out? Why? What's going on?"
"Never mind about that. Your brothers asked me to take a look around, so I'm taking a look around. Now what about you? How come you're here?"
"Missy and I were at the field. I'm working on a curve ball, and she needed batting practice. We stopped by on our way back to the garage."
"A curve ball? In softball?" Brady had his doubts about that one. It was nearly impossible to throw an underhanded pitch with a curve without killing someone.
Georgia shrugged. "It could happen. I'm still working on it."
Instead of coming right out and telling her she was full of shit, Brady politely--and silently--raised his brows.
Georgia shrugged again. "I only hit her twice."
A few feet away, Brady looked at the girl who'd been Georgia's best friend since they were five; who'd married their cousin Flynn not long after she'd moved to Hagerstown from southwestern Virginia. She raised her hand and gave him an apprehensive half-wave.
Not sure why he didn't notice her earlier, Brady now knew he was in trouble. Missy was completely pale. She'd obviously witnessed what he'd done. "Missy--" He reached out to her, but she backed away.
Terrific. There went any chance of keeping it a secret. "It was an accident," he tried to explain. Even though Missy had accepted that the McCasseys were wild and often handled things with firearms and violence, he knew she was occasionally surprised by some of the things that went on in their family. She was getting better at accepting the guys' untamed ways, but Brady had a feeling he'd just set her progress back at least a year.
Georgia looked over at her friend and winked, and Brady waited patiently as the two girls--who he finally noticed were wearing sweatpants, dusty, sweat-stained tank tops, and cleats--huddled together in a frenzy of whispers. When they separated and turned to him, he had a feeling his punishment was far going to outweigh the crime.
"We won't tell anyone what you did," Georgia said matter-of-factly.
Brady crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned back against the tree. They wanted something...he could smell it. "What's the catch?"
"You have to have your fortune told," Georgia said, and pointed to the hippy chick. "By her."
Brady mulled over the proposition and weighed his options. Having his fortune told meant having to talk to the strikingly beautiful girl he'd been watching all morning. Strangers made him nervous--especially strange women.
But the alternative to fifteen minutes of prickling discomfort in the presence of a woman was far worse. Blackie's former biker gang, the Renegades, didn't call that man 'The Devil' because he looked good in red. At six-foot-seven inches tall and over three hundred pounds of solid muscle, he'd been a dangerous man even before spending a combined total of thirteen years in prison. Now, he was a hundred times more lethal. Since they were family, Blackie probably wouldn't kill Brady for pulling a loaded gun on Georgia. But he would beat him to within an inch of his life.
And Brady hated to bleed.
"Deal," he told the girls.
Missy laughed and stepped away from them. "Well, you two have fun."
"After all that, you're leaving? Where are you going?"
"Home. I promised Flynn I'd be ready to go by noon." She paused and looked at her watch. "That was ten minutes ago. I don't want him to have to come looking for me."
"You're not going to...mention...this to him, are you?"
Missy simply smiled as she turned away.
Brady let out a long breath. "You two are killing me. You know that, right?"
Georgia grabbed hold of his wrist and yanked him forward. "If you stopped being stupid," she said as she started dragging him toward the Tarot card reader, "you wouldn't have to learn your lessons the hard way." Through clenched teeth, she ordered, "Come on," and gave another tug.
He stumbled forward; the strength of Georgia's iron grip forced him to follow. Trying to free himself would cause a scene, and he'd had enough excitement for one day. "Easy, Georgia," he protested. "Don't pull so hard; I'm right behind you."
When they reached the hippy chick's camper, Georgia released his wrist and pushed him toward the table. The beautiful girl with the long blonde hair tilted her head and smiled. Her eyes--the color of coffee mixed with too much cream--were welcoming as she motioned for him to take a seat at the rectangle table covered with a cream-colored cloth.
Mindlessly, Brady did as she instructed and claimed the chair on the opposite side of the table. Her soft, natural beauty so captivated him, he was having trouble concentrating. Although he enjoyed being mesmerized by her, it was dangerous for someone like him not to be alert.
Even as his body began to tingle when the girl took his hands in hers, Brady took a couple of deep breaths to try and clear his head. Rough, calloused, and grease-stained, he noticed that the condition of his hands were a sharp contrast to her smooth, pale skin. Once she'd turned them palm-up, she ran her index finger along each line in his hand before reaching for her deck of Tarot cards.
Wordlessly, the girl spread the cards across the table. She took her time examining each one she turned face up, every once in a while raising her head and looking into his eyes.
Her stare made him nervous; made him feel like she was looking directly into his soul...what was left of it, anyway.
Completely captivated by everything about her, Brady ignored the prickle of the tiny hairs at the nape of his neck.
"You're in danger," the girl whispered. Despite the warning, her voice spread warmth from his temples to his toes.
"I'm always in danger," he replied with a grin. It was the truth; Brady lived his life looking over his shoulder.
Seemingly unaffected by his attempt to charm her, she reiterated the warning. "Trouble--bad people--are coming for you."
Brady heard her, but wasn't alarmed. "I'm used to that."
With a very unsettled expression, the girl continued to stare. He was touched that a stranger--and a beautiful one at that--was so concerned about him. To try and lighten the mood, he changed the subject. "What's your name?"
The girl studied him for a moment before rising from her chair. In a move that shocked Brady silent, she put her hands behind her head, and in one swift motion, removed a long silver necklace from around her neck and slipped it over his head. The small silver star pendant dangling from the chain rested in the middle of his chest.
"My name is Starr," she said solemnly as she turned away. "I have to go."
"Wait!" Brady reached for her, but was too late to halt her hasty retreat.
Lost in confusion, it was several seconds before he recognized the popping sound in the background as gunfire, but he recognized Georgia's voice immediately. "Brady!" The hippy chick forgotten, Brady reached around and pulled his .357 as he dove at his cousin and knocked her to the ground.
His senses on high alert and his gun firmly in his left hand, Brady dragged Georgia, who he'd practically been lying on top of, toward a small cluster of trees. "Are you okay?"
He tore his gaze away from the now-empty center of the park, and looked down when he felt Georgia's gaze on him. "Well, are you?"
She tried to push him off of her. "No, I'm not okay! You're crushing me, Brady. Get off!"
"Sorry." Brady shifted his weight and repositioned himself to where he was no longer on top of her, but was still close enough to shield her in case of more gunfire.
"What's going on?" she asked angrily. "Did you have something to do with this?"
Still flat on his stomach and breathing heavily, Brady scanned the area in search of the gunmen, then turned his head and gave Georgia a dirty look. "What the hell kind of question is that?"
"A legitimate one, considering the fact that you're carrying a gun."
"I always carry a gun," he said matter-of-factly, not once taking his eyes off the area around them.
"Yeah, a half hour ago, all I did was touch you, Brady, and you almost shot me. Don't tell me you weren't expecting trouble."
What was he supposed to say? He didn't like to lie, especially to her. But the truth would sound ridiculous...even coming from him. "I--"
He stopped short when the loud pop of gunfire once again split the air. When he spotted movement by the trees where he, Georgia, and Missy had been standing not fifteen minutes earlier, Brady raised his gun, ready to fire.
"No!" Georgia shrieked and reached out, trying to grab his gun.
He swatted her away. "Be still, Georgia!"
"Brady!" she pleaded.
"You can't shoot into a crowd of people!"
Frustrated that she'd ruined his chance to get a shot off, he not-so-gently elbowed her. "What crowd of people, Georgia? There's not a goddamn soul out there anymore except for the assholes shooting at us!"
"You can't get into a gun battle in City Park, Brady! Dozens of people probably called the cops after those first shots were fired. I bet Sheriff Walton and his deputies will be here any minute. If he catches you with that gun, you'll go to prison!"
That thought had been in the back of his mind since he'd pulled his weapon, but hearing Georgia say it out loud made the reality of it all much more...real. Brady had fought like hell to mask his indiscretions the past fourteen years in order to keep himself out of prison. And although he had no desire to spend the rest of his life behind bars, he wasn't about to allow himself to be used as target practice. "Would you expect your brother Blackie to run and hide if someone was taking shots at him?"
"No, of course not," she answered quickly.
Brady surprised himself with the coldness in which he responded. "Then why do you expect me to?"
He watched as recognition hit her, and he felt bad. "It's okay," he assured her. "I don't take myself seriously, either."
"I do take you seriously, Brady. And I know you're as tough as Blackie. It's just that I don't want you to go to prison. I don't even understand why you're so set on finding the shooter. Why are you taking such a risk? You said this didn't have anything to do with you."
The lump in his throat threatened to cut off his air. He didn't know for sure whether it had anything to do with him or not. But he had a feeling it did. His gut never lied. "Yeah, about that--"
"Brady!" The shriek of his name had nothing to do with her being angry; the faint sound of rapidly approaching sirens had startled them both.
"It's okay," he reassured her as he jumped to his feet, simultaneously pulling Georgia with him. "Get the hell out of here; I'll handle this."
She grabbed for his gun, but he held it out of her reach. "Give it to me, Brady! I'm not on probation; I can't get in trouble with it!"
He caught her wrist in his hand and squeezed hard to keep her still. "Go home, Georgia."
He squinted and hardened his expression. "Go!"
Georgia didn't look happy, but did as she was told. As soon as she'd disappeared, Brady turned his attention to the approaching sirens. The cops were going to arrive in seconds, and here he was--a man on probation who wasn't supposed to even touch a gun, let alone own one--standing alone in a public park with a loaded semi-automatic weapon in his hand.
This just wasn't his day.
When Brady heard the police cruisers come to a screeching halt, he started searching for somewhere to stash the .357. In a bush or behind a rock wasn't going to cut it. He was a McCassey, which in this town meant he was guilty until proven innocent. Although Sheriff Walton was a fair man, he would likely assume Brady had been up to no good, and probably comb the area searching for evidence to prove himself right.
Unable to find a good place to stash his gun, Brady had just resigned himself to the fact that he was going to spend the rest of his life in prison, when he heard a quiet, "Psst."
He looked to his right and left, but didn't see anyone.
"Psst!" the sound came again.
That time, he looked behind him and saw the hippy chick peeking out the door of her camper. She motioned to his gun and clapped her hands together, then held them out like she wanted him to throw the weapon to her.
That couldn't be right. Confused, he shrugged.
When the sound of slamming car doors broke the silence, the girl frantically motioned to the gun again and clapped her hands. At that point, it didn't really matter why she was willing to help him. Her offer was going to keep him a free man, and for the time being, that was all that mattered.
Brady briefly glanced in the direction of the approaching officers, then back at the hippy chick. He disengaged the weapon and tossed it to her. She closed her camper door and he turned around just as Sheriff Walton appeared.
The look on the tall, lanky lawman's face as he approached Brady was not a friendly one. "Brady."
The sheriff extended his hand; Brady nodded and shook it. "Sheriff."
"Should I bother asking you what went on here?"
He shrugged. "Other than shots being fired, I honestly don't know what happened."
"Is there someone who can verify that?"
"My cousin Georgia. She and I were standing right here when the firing started."
Sheriff Walton turned and looked toward the trees, then back at Brady. "Where is she now?"
"I sent her home. School's over. She's back at Blackie's."
"I know where she lives," he said in an I-don't-quite-believe-you voice. "Are you armed?"
Brady held his hands in the air. "Only with a set of keys, my Buck knife, and a cigarette lighter," he answered. But because he knew what was coming, Brady turned his back on the sheriff. He spread his legs, raised his arms, and leaned his palms against the tree trunk, waiting to be patted down.
When the sheriff finally seemed convinced that Brady wasn't carrying a weapon, he holstered his gun. "Go home, Brady. The park's closed until we finish our investigation. If I see you or any other McCassey--Georgia included--anywhere near here before it reopens, you're all spending the night in a holding cell. Got it?"
Brady held both his hands in the air again and took several steps back. When he was a good ten feet away, he turned his back on the sheriff, jammed his hands in his front pockets, and slowly made his way toward the park's entrance gate.
It wasn't lost on him that that the hippy chick had saved his ass from being sent to prison.
Neither was the fact that she still had his gun.
And that in order to get it back, he was going to have to talk to her again.