Boots on the Ground

CHAPTER ONE
KENNEDY

Before salsa slipped off my taco, I shoved the entire thing in my mouth and groaned with pleasure. 

It’s better than sex. Almost.

Dishes clanged together, cooks hollered, and waitresses talked shit about the people treating them like crap, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end my shitty-ass day than to stuff my face with tacos.

Lucy’s was busy as hell, but I got to sit right next to the kitchen, away from the crowds, and eat as much as I wanted to without the judging stares from people who thought I was depressed. They just didn’t understand that I had a deep and wonderful relationship with tacos. 

“Hey, Kennedy.” Violet Ortiz appeared at the side of my table with an empty tray in her hand. “You doin’ okay?” 

“Yeah, Vi.” I smiled at her before taking another bite of the never-ending taco plate I’d ordered. “Just got off shift, you know how that goes.” 

Vi cracked a smile before shaking her head. We went to school together, even started training to be dispatchers together before she decided that she’d rather go to medical school. 

“Holler if you run out of tacos.” 

There actually wasn’t anything on Lucy’s menu about never-ending tacos. But one of my best friends was the manager, and I liked tacos. So, she hooked me up with a killer deal, and I made sure to tip the cook and waitstaff who brought them to me, too. 

Everything was going great. My tacos were hot; no one watched me eat, and I got to unwind after a particularly aggravating shift answering 911 calls. Until a shadow appeared on the edge of my table. 

“You’re going to get fat, Kennedy. You should stop eating.” 

Royal fucking Prince. Prick. Ex-fiancé. Asshole. Everything under the sun. I hated his voice more than almost anything. Except maybe for the sharp pang of terror that it sent down my spine. 

I didn’t even know how he managed to find me, but honestly, I wasn’t surprised when I looked up from my plate to see him sneering, with a pretty blonde at his side. The exact opposite of me, I might add. She had to be at least five six, and she was thin enough that I’d be able to blow at her and she’d fall over. She was also a complete and utter bitch, which I knew from experience. She was a nurse, but more like Nurse Ratched than anything else. I almost felt bad for her, but not quite.

“Wow, Mallory.” I smiled at her even though my stomach was turning, and the chances of me keeping down my food grew slimmer with every passing second. “I didn’t think you’d lower your standards to sleep with a lawyer.” Completely ignoring the fact that I’d slept with him, too, I kept the smile on my face even when my skin felt like it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

Mallory sniffed and then raised an eyebrow at me with a cocky expression on her face, smiling with her lips pressed together so she looked like a constipated duck. 

Before she could say whatever toxic bullshit she created in her head, I held up a hand to silence her. 

“I don’t give a shit what you have to say. You’re interrupting my lunch, and I’ve had a long day. Go away, and take Royal with you.” I gagged on his name, remembering the wasted year of my life I’d spent with him. 

Royal glared at me, using the same expression he’d mastered during our time together, when he tried to change me into the perfect wife. Clearly he’d failed. And I was left avoiding the disappointment I could literally feel burning into my skin with his gaze.

“I just thought you should know.” He finally broke the tension. “Mallory and I are getting married.”

She held out her hand, sticking it directly in front of my face, and I snorted. “You’re an idiot.” I’m not sure which one of them I was talking to, though, because they were both stupid. Her for getting with someone who’d abused me for a year, and him for being born. “I hope you’re happy together, but can you leave me to my tacos?” The slight waver in my voice was from hunger and irritation instead of fear, at least that’s what I told myself.

Neither person moved, and I started to weigh the option of leaving before I’d finished eating or having to deal with them standing over me, turning everything I ate into a nightmare. 

“I’m not leaving,” Mallory bit out snidely. “We came to eat, and you don’t have a monopoly on the places in this town, just because of your family.” 

My heart kicked up a beat, and my palms started to sweat. The knife sitting on the table in front of me called out silently, beckoning for me to use it. 

I picked it up, clearly losing my mind, and started tapping it against the table idly. Every single click of metal hitting the wooden tabletop, I pictured it stabbing Mallory in the eyeball, drawing out her pain and agony, without an end in sight. There wasn’t anything left to say, though. I’d already asked them to leave, and they weren’t going anywhere. 

I grabbed my purse from the bench at my side and tried to get out, but Royal was there. Too close, like always. My mouth dried up, leaving nothing but ash as I started to panic. Royal smiled down at me. 

“Move,” I croaked, my throat convulsing on the word, making it impossible to say anything else. 

Royal knew every single button to push in order to get me to react, and the proof was in my heart continuing to pound in an out-of-sync rhythm against my aching chest. Time slowed, and I felt everything in my past come running back with a vengeance. Things Royal fucking knew about, and yet he still thought it was okay to treat me like shit. 

“We’re not done talking.” Royal sneered. “I didn’t say you could leave, Kennedy. There are things we need to discuss.” 

My day couldn’t possibly get any worse at that point, so I closed my eyes and prepared for whatever he was about to say to ruin my week. Royal scared me, and my pulse hammered, echoing in my head and drowning out the background noise of the people going about their lives around us, completely oblivious to the fact that I was falling apart. 

I had nowhere else to go with Royal blocking my only exit, so I did the only thing I could think of. I called my big brother for help. I should have called him as soon as Royal appeared, but I froze. Before Royal could stop me, I pulled my phone from my pocket and dialed. 

“Remy,” I said into the phone as soon as he answered. “I need help.” 

“Shit,” he gasped on the other end. “I just arrested someone, Kenny.”

Tears stung my eyes, and I tried to ignore the way Royal snickered in front of me, even when I was staring at the ground. 

“It’s Royal,” I whispered. 

Remy cursed in the background. He didn’t know the entire story with Royal or what happened to me. But he knew that I didn’t like men, and I hated physical confrontation more than anything else in the entire world. 

“I’ll take care of it,” he muttered and hung up on me.

Shit.

Exhaustion from working a twelve-hour shift had already started to kick in before I even sat down to eat, and now it was in full force. 

“I just want to talk to you.” Royal changed tactics, his voice immediately softening. “Why don’t you go sit down, Mallory? I’ll be right there.” 

My eyes were still on the ground, but I would bet a hundred dollars that Mallory was glaring at me like she wanted me dead. 

“Why don’t you both leave?” My throat hurt from saying anything. “I don’t want to talk to you, Royal.” 

“Too bad,” he insisted, and while I tried to back up to get away from him, the back of my knees hit the bench and I wobbled. 

He grabbed my arm, no doubt to keep me from falling, but that only made things worse. I yanked it out of his grip with a whimper and crouched in on myself, needing to get as far away from him as possible. 

“Royal,” Mallory cut into my panic. “I think we should go. There’s something wrong with her.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with her,” he snapped at her. “She’s throwing a fuckin’ fit. Just like she always does when she doesn’t get what she wants.” I felt the booth flex as he slid into it, effectively cornering me. “News flash, Kennedy. The world doesn’t revolve around you. When a man wants to talk to you, you give him the time. It’s called being polite.” 

“No. It’s called being a jackass. Now leave. Before I make you.” 

My eyes flashed open, and even through the tears I knew it was him. 

“Mind your own business, Lincoln,” Royal said, exaggerating his name. “You’re interrupting a private conversation.”

“Do you want to die today, Royal?” Linc didn’t budge, and his eyes never met mine, even though I was silently begging him to. “Because I’ve got nothing going on. I’m sure I could make that happen if you don’t get the fuck out of here right now.” 

Royal stiffened, but Mallory moved between the two men like the idiot she was. “Come on, Royal; don’t waste your time on him.” 

Royal, apparently, grew a few brain cells in that moment, because he slid out of the booth without saying anything else to Linc. That didn’t stop him from staring at me with the same hard, lifeless eyes that he’d turned on me during our entire relationship. 

“We’re going to talk about this, Kennedy. Whether you want to or not.” 

“We have nothing to talk about, Royal,” I whispered. “Congratulations on your engagement to Mallory. Please leave me alone.” 

Royal couldn’t say anything else. Not because he didn’t want to, but because Linc stepped between us and said something under his breath. Something only Royal could hear that turned his face bright red, and his mouth quivering with either rage or fear. 

“Leave.” The low timbre of Linc’s voice never wavered in pitch, but danger rolled off him in waves. 

If it were anyone, anyone else other than Royal, I’d feel bad for them. But not him. Not after everything he’d done in the last year to make my life a living hell. No. He definitely deserved to feel every ounce of Linc’s aggression pointed at him. 

When he grabbed Mallory by the arm and yanked her away, I flinched. Memories flooded my mind of the last time he’d done it to me. Instinctively, I rubbed my arms and grimaced, fighting off the same helpless feeling I’d learned to live with. 

Linc stood there, with his back turned away from me, watching Royal and Mallory walk in the opposite direction. 

I took the rare opportunity to stare at him. The way he held himself hadn’t changed, at least not enough that anyone else would know. I saw the rigid tension in his shoulders that never existed before. The muscles in his neck twitched as he kept his eyes locked on Royal’s retreating back. 

His arms were crossed over his chest, and I watched the way the muscles in his biceps flexed under the edge of his shirt. He shifted, and I got just a glimpse of a black tattoo on the backside of his right bicep before he turned and his eyes locked on mine. 

I saw Linc every single day. Every day since he’d come back from the Marine Corps. And every single time I saw him, the fire that lived in my heart for him flared to life, consuming everything in its path. 

A fraction of a second passed while we stared at each other, and every year that had passed melted away. The pain, the loss, the years spent without him by my side faded until we were back in that moment. The one when everything felt perfect. When I thought we had forever. When Linc was the first and last man I ever wanted to be with. In that moment, I saw the hunger in his eyes. I saw the passion for life that he used to have. I saw Linc. 

He blinked, and the mask of indifference he carried slipped into place. Linc was gone, and in his place a stranger stared back at me. 

Tears pooled in my eyes. It wasn’t the first time, and definitely wouldn’t be the last time that I’d cry over Lincoln Hayes. 

Before he saw me embarrass myself any further, I scooted out of the booth and ran away. At least at home, I could hide under the blankets and pretend that my life wasn’t a complete wreck. 

Maybe once I got there, I wouldn’t feel like dying.

The Series