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White Tiger

Jennifer Ashley

Berkley Publishing Group
2016-04-05

CHAPTER ONE

It was almost time. Addison Price slid the coffeepot back on the heater, unable to keep her eye from the clock.

The diner closed at midnight. Every night at eleven fifty-five on the dot, he came in.

Tonight, though, eleven fifty-five came and went. And eleven fifty-six, eleven fifty-seven.

She’d have to close up. Bo, the owner, liked everything shut down right at midnight. He’d come in about fifteen minutes later and start going through the accounts for the day.

Eleven fifty-eight. The last customer, a farmer in a John Deere cap he must have picked up forty years ago, grinned at her and said, “Night, Addie. Time to go home to the wife.”

He said that every night. Addie only nodded and gave him a warm good-bye.

Eleven fifty-nine. In one minute, she’d have to lock the door, turn the “Open” sign around to “Closed,” help with the cleanup, and then go home. Her sister and two kids would be asleep, school day tomorrow. Addie would creep in as usual, take a soothing shower, play on the Internet a little to unwind, and then fall asleep. Her unwavering routine.

Tonight, though, she wouldn’t be able to analyze every single thing the white-and-black-haired man said to her and decide whether he liked her or was just making conversation.

The second hand on the analog clock above the pass to the kitchen swept down from the twelve toward the six. Eleven-fifty nine and thirty seconds. Forty. Forty-five.

Addie sighed and moved to the glass front door.

Which opened as she approached it, bringing in the warmth of a Texas night, and the man.

Addie quickly changed reaching for the door’s lock to yanking the door open wide and giving him her sunniest smile. “Hello, there. Y’all come on in. You made it just in time.”

The big man gave her his polite nod and walked past her with an even stride, his black denim coat brushing jeans that hugged the most gorgeous ass Addie had seen in all her days. Because this diner’s clientele had plenty of men from all walks of life, she’d seen her fair share of not-so-good backsides in jeans or showing inappropriately over waistbands.

Her man was different. His behind was worth a second, third, and fourth look. He was tall but not lanky, his build that of a linebacker in fine training, his shoulders and chest stretching his black T-shirt. The footwear under the blue jeans was always either gray cowboy boots or black motorcycle boots. Tonight, it was the motorcycle boots, supple leather hugging his ankles.

And, as always, Addie’s man carried the sword. He kept it wrapped in dark cloth, a long bundle he held in his hand and tucked beside his seat when he sat down and ordered. At first Addie had thought the bundle held a gun—a rifle or shotgun—and she’d had to tell him that Bo didn’t allow firearms of any kind in his diner. She’d lock it up for him while he ate. They had a special locker for the hunters who were regulars.

The man had shot her a quizzical look from his incredibly sexy eyes, pulled back the cloth, and revealed the hilt of a sword.

A sword, for crap’s sake. A big one, with a silver hilt. Addie had swallowed hard and said that maybe it was okay if he kept it down beside his chair. He’d given her a curt nod and covered the hilt back up.

But that was just him. He was like no man Addie had ever met in her life. His eyes were an amazing shade of green she couldn’t look away from. The eyes went with his hard face, which had been knocked around in his life, but he still managed to be handsome enough to turn the head of whatever woman happened to be in this late. Which, most nights, was only Addie.

His hair, though, was the weirdest thing. It was white, like a Scandinavian white blond, but striped with black. As though he’d gone in for a dye job one day and left it half finished. Or maybe he simply liked the look.

Except, Addie would swear it was natural. Dyes left an unusual sheen or looked brittle after a while. His hair glistened under the lights, each strand soft, in a short cut that suited his face. Addie often studied his head as he bent over his pie, and she’d clutch her apron to keep from reaching out and running her fingers through his interesting hair.

In sum—this man was hotter than a Texas wind on a dry summer day. Addie could feel the sultry heat when she was around him. At least, she sure started to sweat whenever she looked at him.

For the last month or so, he’d come in every night near to closing time, order the last pieces of banana cream pie and the apple pie with streusel, and eat while Addie locked the door and went through her rituals for the night. When Bo arrived through the back door, the man would go out the front, taking his sword . . . and the other things he always brought.

They came in now, walking behind him—three little boys, the oldest one following the two younger ones. The oldest’s name was Robbie, and he brought up the rear, looking around as though guarding his two little brothers.

“Hello, Robbie,” Addie said. “Brett, Zane. How are you tonight?”

As usual, the two littlest chorused Fine, but Robbie only gave her a polite nod, mimicking his father. Although Addie thought the man wasn’t actually Robbie’s father.

The youngest ones had the man’s green eyes and white-and-black hair, but Robbie didn’t look like any of them. He had dark brown hair and eyes that were gray—a striking-looking kid, but Addie figured he wasn’t related to the others. Adopted maybe, or maybe a distant relative. Whatever, the man looked after all three with protective fierceness, not letting anyone near them.

They took the four stools at the very end of the counter away from the windows, almost in the hall to the bathrooms. Robbie sat on the seat farthest from the door, Zane and Brett perched in the next two seats with their dad next to them, his bulk between them and whoever might enter the diner.

Addie took up the coffeepot and poured a cup of fully caffeinated brew for black-and-white guy and three ice waters for the boys. She’d offered them cokes the first time they came into the diner but their dad didn’t like them having sugared drinks.

Considering how much pie they put away, Addie didn’t blame him. Sweet sodas on top of that would have them wired to the gills all night.

“You almost missed the pie,” Addie said to the boys as she set dripping glasses of water in front of them. “We had a run on it today. But I saved you back a few pieces in the fridge.” She winked. “I’ll just run and get them. That’s three banana creams and an apple streusel, right?”

She looked into the father’s green eyes, and stopped.

She’d never seen him look at her like that. There was a hunger in his gaze—powerful, intense hunger. He skewered her with it. Addie looked back at him, her lips parting, her heart constricting.

Men had looked at her suggestively before but they’d always accompanied the look with a half-amused smile as though laughing at themselves, or telling Addie she’d have a great time if she conceded.

This was different. Black-and-white man studied her with a wanting that was palpable, as though any second he’d climb over the counter and come at her.

After a second, he blinked and the look was gone. He hadn’t intended her to catch him.

The blink showed Addie something else. Behind the interest, his eyes held great distraction and deep worry.

Something had happened tonight, some reason he’d come here going on five minutes late.

Addie knew better than to ask if everything was all right. He wouldn’t tell her. The man was not one for casual conversation. The boys talked but kept their answers general. They had never betrayed with one word where they were from, where they went to school, what they liked to do for fun, or why their dad kept them up this late every night.

Addie simply said, “I’ll be right back,” and ducked into the kitchen to fetch the pie.

She took out the pieces, already sliced on their plates, and sprinkled a little extra cocoa powder on the banana cream ones from the dented shaker on the shelf.

Jimmy, the guy who washed dishes, wasn’t there. He liked to duck out for a smoke right at closing time, coming back in when Bo got there to finish the cleanup. Addie hummed, alone in the kitchen, her pulse still high from that look black-and-white man had given her.

If Addie marched out there and said to him, sure, she was interested—in a discreet way in front of his kids—would he break down and tell her his name?

Or would he take her somewhere and make love to her with silent strength, the same way he walked or ate his piece of pie, as though he savored every bite? Would Addie mind that?

She pictured him above her in the dark, his green eyes on her while she ran her hands all over his tight, beautiful body.

Nope, she wouldn’t mind that at all.

She picked up two pieces of pie, still humming. At the same time, she heard a scratching at the back door.

Bo? Addie set down the pie and walked over. Bo always used his key to get in—they kept the back door locked. Even in the small town of Loneview that was pretty safe, robbers passing through might seize an opportunity.

Bo often couldn’t get his key into the lock—his hands shook with a palsy that ran in his family. Jimmy often had to help him, or Addie would open the door for him. Bo was a bit early, but he was sometimes.

Addie reached for the door just as something banged into it.

“Bo? You okay?” Addie unlocked the deadbolt and carefully turned the doorknob.

The door fell inward, a heavy weight on it. Addie looked down.

A curious detachment came over her as she saw Jimmy the dishwasher, a guy of about thirty with greasy brown hair and beard stubble. He was dead, his brown eyes staring sightlessly. She knew he was dead because he had a gaping red hole where his heart used to be.

If this had been a movie, Addie would be screaming, fainting, sobbing, saying Oh my God, or running outside crying, Somebody, help!

Instead, she stood there, as though caught in treacle, unable to move, think, talk, or even breathe.

A faint noise sounded outside, and Addie raised her head. She saw the round muzzle of a gun, one of the automatic ones that shot however many rounds a minute. Her breath poured back into her lungs, burning, and she knew she was looking at her own death.

A rush of air passed her, and the door slammed shut. At the same time a pair of strong arms closed around her, propelling her to the floor, the man with black-and-white hair landing on top of her.

In the front of the diner, every window shattered as bullets flew through them. Glass exploded through the open pass between the kitchen and dining area, as did bullets, shards of cups and plates, tatters of napkins.

The kids, Addie thought in panic. Where were the boys?

There they were, huddled against the door to the freezer. How the man had gotten them in here so fast and out of sight Addie didn’t know, but her body went limp with relief to see them.

“Who’s doing this?” Addie squeaked. “What—”

The man clamped his hand over her mouth. “Shh.” His voice was a low rumble. “I need to you to be very quiet, all right?”

CHAPTER TWO

Addie, mouth dry, nodded. The man took his hand away after a few seconds but he didn’t rise or move from her, the weight of him warm.

The boys, Addie noticed, were utterly still. No panicking, no crying—they lay silently on the floor, heads down, as though they did things like this all the time. Sad thought.

The deadly barrage of bullets ceased after a few heart-stopping moments but the man didn’t lift himself from Addie. He lay full length on her on the grease-spattered floor, too strong for her to slide out from under him. His face was turned away from hers, bringing his hair and the curve of his neck in front of her eyes.

Addie smelled leather and musk, the scent of wind and rain. The color of his hair was indeed natural, she saw now, the black and white strands starting at the roots and mixing together in wide streaks across his head.

Tiger-striped.

Why the thought popped into Addison’s mind, she didn’t know. The man said nothing, did nothing, only waited. As though he’d done this before.

“Kendrick!” The shout came from beyond the broken front windows. The voice was harsh, a mean edge to it. “Get your sorry ass out here!”

Kendrick. Addison wouldn’t have pegged that name on the solidly-built guy on top of her, but then, it kind of went with his odd hair and green eyes.

To her alarm, Kendrick started to rise.

“No, don’t!” Addie whispered frantically.

The kids remained in place, eyes wide, frightened but waiting. The man called Kendrick got his feet under him but remained in a crouch next to Addie. His motorcycle boots were dusty, creased with wear. Denim stretched over heavily muscled thighs directly in her line of sight.

“If you go into the freezer and shut the door, can you get out again?” he was asking her. “You won’t be locked in?”

Addie stared at him, barely registering the question, then she nodded. Bo wasn’t stupid enough to have a freezer without a handle on the inside. He’d be the most likely person to get caught in there, and he knew it.

Bo—dear God, he’d be coming in soon, and these guys would shoot him like they shot poor Jimmy. She had to warn him . . . with her cell phone all the way across the room in her locker.

Kendrick’s voice rumbled next to her. “When I give you the signal, I want you to take the cubs and go into the freezer with them. Shut the door and stay low. Can you do that?”

Cubs? Oh, he meant the little boys. Addie cast an eye over them where they lay close together, bodies touching. Cubs—why the hell did he call them that?

“If I don’t come for you in fifteen minutes, take them out the back way and drive them toward Rock Springs. There’s a shut-down gas station just before you get to town. If I don’t meet you there . . .” Kendrick stopped, the ache in his eyes real as he cast his gaze over the boys. “Take them somewhere safe. Take care of them. Promise me.”

Addie put her hand on his arm, sinking fingers into the warm denim of his coat. “You can’t go out there. Let’s run out the back together. My car’s not far from the door.” If it didn’t go into one of its hissy fits and refuse to start, if it had enough gas to make it thirty miles down the highway.

Kendrick’s green gaze fixed on her, and he put a broad finger over her shaking lips. “Promise me, Addison.”

He’d never spoken her name before. The kids called her Addie, since Robbie had read her name tag and asked her what kind of name Addison was. She’d told them to use the shortened version. Kendrick had listened but never called her by name. Never said much to her at all, actually.

Now his deep voice around the syllables tingled through her blood, and Addie’s heart squeezed to one hot point.

She gulped a breath. “I promise. But what the hell do you think you’re going to do against a bunch of guys with automatics?”

Guys who were getting impatient. “Kendrick!” the man outside shouted. “You don’t want us coming in there. Come out and face us.”

Kendrick turned from Addie and grabbed the long bundle that held his sword. He’d even managed to bring that back here with him.

He quickly unrolled the folds of the cloth and drew from a sheath a long broadsword with a wide blade and a thick hilt. The sword looked very, very old, the blade a soft silver color, not shiny like modern steel. The hilt and blade were covered with symbols that looked like writing but no writing Addie had ever seen.

“You can’t fight guns with a sword,” Addie protested. “Are you nuts?”

Kendrick’s eyes sparkled with sudden heat. “If you mean crazy, yes I am. I’m one crazy bastard, which is what’s going to save my sons. Be ready.”

“But what are you going to do?” Addie asked in a worried whisper.

“What I have to.” Kendrick reached out and traced one scarred finger down Addie’s cheek.

Addie lost all her breath again. His touch traced fire, his eyes softening as the rest of his square face remained grim. Dark whiskers brushed his skin, the bristles also black mixed with white. Addie had a sudden, insane curiosity about whether his hair was like that all the way down . . .

The look in Kendrick’s eyes changed to one of consternation, and Addie realized she’d become fixed in place, staring at him.

“Right.” Addie broke away and quickly scrambled the short distance on hands and knees to the freezer door, sitting down next to the three boys.

“Robbie.” Kendrick transferred his hard gaze to the oldest boy and took a firm grip on the sword. “Take care of them.”

“Yes, Dad,” Robbie whispered, his gray eyes round, his look old for his age.

“I’ll take care of them,” Addie said, putting her hand on Robbie’s thin back. “You just take care of yourself.”

Kendrick sent her another long look that held a hint of smile, a feral one. Then he . . . leapt.

Excerpted from White Tiger by Jennifer Ashley. Copyright © 2016 by Jennifer Ashley. Excerpted by permission of Berkley Publishing Group. All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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