Victor Antonov has no job, no home, and no hope after a fire destroys his restaurant. Everyone believes he started the fire, mostly because he looks like someone who'd do something evil. He's got a huge scar on his face and he's built like Frankenstein on steroids. To clear his name, he must find the man who threatened to ruin him; but Victor's hunt for redemption can't begin until he finds a place to live. He promises to work at an old farm in exchange for free room and board.
Nari Chen bought the farm to provide a safe place for her troubled brother, but the old house is a disaster. Accepting Victor's help might be a disaster, too. He's unpredictable, fiercely protective, and makes her heart stutter. She can't afford another complicated relationship; she must stop her brother's downward spiral and tame her sister's wild streak. When the search for answers about her sister's lifestyle leads Nari straight to Victor, she might have to stop the formidable man she's invited into her home...but when he finally kisses her, she doesn't want to stop him at all.
Whenever Victor needs something, he gets a scar. Now he needs Nari to trust his unspoken promise: he'll protect her from any threat. But when his quest to clear his name puts him at odds with the one woman who craves his kiss, Victor has to decide what's more important: his redemption or his promise.
Two strips of caution tape stretched across the charred doorway of The Crab Trap. The fire marshal had finished going through the rubble a few hours ago. So had the cops. They said there was nothing left to salvage, but Victor Antonov had to see for himself. He stepped over one strip of tape, ducked under the other, and flattened a barbequed chunk of wood beneath his boot. Ash puffed into the air, turning the beam of his Maglite into a gray blade. The light pierced what was left of his restaurant, glinting on the twisted skeleton of a chair, a scorched table, and two bodies on the floor. A man and a woman, humping each other.
Great. Another rotten surprise.
They were naked from the waist up. The man’s back was polluted with bad tattoos. He looked old enough to know that messing around inside the burnt-out shell of a building was a stupid idea. The dumbass was sprawled on top of a blonde who looked drunk and desperate.
The dumbass stopped humping and looked up. “Who are you?”
“This place is mine. Get the fuck out.”
“Okay, okay. We’ll go.” He scrambled to his feet and tossed a shirt to the blonde. “Don’t just lie there. Get dressed.”
“Don’t yell at me. This isn’t my fault.” She shoved her arms into the flimsy blouse and looked around, panicked.
“Where’s my coat?”
“Forget about that. I’ll buy you another one. Hurry up.”
“But I need my coat, Tommy. That’s where I put my phone.”
“Whatever.” Tommy ran for the door and busted through the caution tape, winning the gold medal for Worst-Way-to-End-a-Date, Pocono Mountain Division.
The blonde burst into tears. She picked up the blanket and bottle of booze that were left behind by her crappy boyfriend. “Shit. I can’t find my coat.”
“It’s behind you. On the table.” Victor pointed his Maglite at the spot.
“Thanks.” She shoved her arms into a puffy coat and turned toward him. “Oh my God! You’re the man with the scar. Everyone talks about you.”
Everyone? God, no.
He walked away, his face on fire and his body numb. Once he got to the burnt wall, he blended right in. Black boots, black clothes, black coat. Everything dark except for the bright sting of pain in his chest.
By the time he glanced at the door, she was gone.
So was his restaurant. The fire had reduced everything to a thick layer of ash. In a few hours, a bulldozer would shove everything into a messy pile. Every melted piece of silverware, every dark lump of drywall, every last piece of his life would disappear down the greasy throat of some anonymous landfill.
This was his last chance to look around. He had to sneak in after dark because the authorities had kept him out for the past week while they searched for the cause of the fire. Even though he wasn’t an expert, he could tell the blaze had started somewhere near the stove. All that remained was a sooty block of stainless steel. A cabinet had collapsed, blocking the way to the back door. He tugged his knife out of its holster and stabbed the scorched wood. It collapsed in sooty chunks. He swept the debris aside with his foot and stepped on something hard. A crowbar. The tool had probably been left behind by one of the firefighters. Looked like some of the yellow paint had melted off the handle.
The fire had also melted the ceiling. He looked up at the hole that used to be his apartment. There was nothing there, just dark sky. His furniture, his books, his stuff was all gone. After four years of sixteen-hour days, hundreds of trips to buy fresh produce, and countless filets seared on a hot stove, all he had left was an old pickup truck, a couple of knives, and some camping gear.
Sick of the taste of burnt ash, he trudged out of the building and noticed a familiar SUV near his truck.
Damn. His brother was here.
Ivan got out of the car and slammed the door. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.” Victor strode toward him, madder than a wasp trapped in a soda can. “Get your ass back into that car and catch the next flight back to Wyoming. You’ve got five more days before your vacation ends.”
“My trip ended as soon as Gabe told me about the fire.”
“He wasn’t supposed to breathe a word of this to you.” Because as soon as Ivan heard about the fire, he’d rush home and start problem-solving. Dammit.
“So you told Gabe not to tell me what happened? God, Vic. That hurts. Why did you keep me in the dark?”
“Because the fire happened two days after your wedding. By then, you were already gone. I knew that if I called, you’d rush back. I didn’t want to be the jerk who wrecked your honeymoon.”
“That’s ridiculous. You wouldn’t have wrecked a thing.” Ivan pulled a hand down his face and shook his head. “We’ve been worried sick. Not being able to reach you is driving us nuts. You need a cell phone.”
“I hate those things. I’ll get another landline.”
“That’s not good enough. You should carry a phone all the time. You don’t have to call me every day, but you’d better let me know when something bad happens. I swear to God, the past twenty-four hours have been hell because I couldn’t find you.” Ivan yanked him into a fierce hug.
Victor hugged back, but this didn’t feel right. He was supposed to take care of his brother, not the other way around.
“You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Can’t help it. I love you, Vic.”
“Aw, hell. You don’t have to say that. I know you’ve got my back.” Whoever said love hurt was right. The feeling always sliced his heart in two. Like now. He squeezed Ivan one more time and then let go.
“Not so fast.” Ivan grabbed him by the shoulder. “If you ever need anything, big or small, call me. Bad fire? You call me. Dead car battery? You call me.”
“Okay. I get it.”
“I’m not done yet. Feel like going to a hockey game? Call me. Need to go fishing? Call me. Annoying hangnail? You call me. Understand?”
“Yeah, yeah. If I get a hangnail, I’ll call.” He laughed and swatted Ivan’s hand off his shoulder. “You’re such a pain in the ass.”
“I’m not the only pain in the ass who loves you.” Ivan waved at the car.
The passenger’s side door opened.
“Wait a tick. Is that who I think it is?” Yeah, it was. Damn. Not her. Victor grabbed the back of his brother’s neck.
“Why’d you drag Tia out here in the middle of the night?”
“I don’t go anywhere without my wife.” Ivan grinned. “I asked her to stay in the car until I finished yelling at you.”
Tia appeared near the SUV’s rear fender. Her hair was pulled back in a thick ponytail and her long legs were encased in a pair of knee-high boots, as usual. “Can we hug now?”
“Yep.” Victor crooked a finger at her. “Come here, Mrs. Antonov.”
She ran to him and flung her arms around his waist.
He pulled her in close and rested his cheek against the top of her head. Felt good. She was the only woman who’d touched him since the car accident that ruined his face. “I’m sorry your honeymoon ended early.”
“You’re worth the trip home.” She rose on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. Her lips landed on the beard he’d grown to cover the puckered skin of his scar. “Are you okay, Vic?”
“I’m fine.” That was a lie, but he didn’t want Tia to worry. He released her and glanced at Ivan. Compassion filled his brother’s gaze. There wasn’t a hint of jealousy, thank God.
Ivan wrapped an arm around Tia and nodded at what was left of The Crab Trap. “Good thing you weren’t here when the fire broke out.”
“I should’ve been.” The building’s blackened husk looked like a schooner marooned on some deserted beach. He felt like some worthless pirate who’d failed to protect his ship. “If I’d been here, I could’ve stopped the fire before it spread. I never should have gone to the lake.”
“Don’t feel guilty for taking time off. You can’t be here twenty-four seven,” Ivan said. “Where are you going to live?”
“At Gabe’s cabin.”
“That’s not good. He’s renovating. The whole place is gutted.”
“There’s plenty of room in the basement.” The floor was cold, but his sleeping bag was warm.
“Stay with us,” Tia suggested. “Our guest room is yours for as long as you want.”
“Thanks, but you live too far away. I’ve got to stay nearby. I need to find jobs for my staff, talk to my insurance agent, that sort of thing. Gabe’s cabin works for me.”
Ivan rolled his eyes. “You can’t live in his drafty basement, for crying out loud. That place doesn’t have any heat.”
“I don’t need heat. In two days, it’ll be April. Things will warm up, fast.”
“Not around here. These mountains don’t warm up until June. You’ll freeze in Gabe’s cabin.” Ivan threw a desperate look at Tia. “Tell him your idea, Boots.”
“Forget it.” Victor held up one hand. “I don’t need any ideas.”
“Sheesh, hear me out.” She grabbed his hand and held tight. “One of my friends bought an old farm that’s a few miles from here. The property is terrific, but the house is in bad shape. She needs help. Her name is Nari Chen, and she’s wonderful. I wanted to introduce her to you at the wedding, but she wasn’t able to attend.”
“She was on call,” Ivan explained. “She’s a psychologist.”
That meant trouble. A psychologist wouldn’t buy his nothing-bothers-me act. “I can’t help her. I’m a chef, not a contractor.”
“But you figured out how to install our dishwasher and you also fixed our stove. If you can do those things, you can handle some repairs for Nari. She told me that you can stay in her extra bedroom if you’re willing to fix some things on her to-do list.”
“I’ve got other things to do, like figure out why my place went up in flames.”
“That may take some time. You need a place to stay. Think about taking my friend’s offer.” Tia tucked a piece of paper into his hand. “Here’s her address. You can meet her on Monday. In the meantime, you can spend the weekend with us.”
“I can’t. I’ve got to—”
“You’re coming to our house right now.” She poked him. “You’re getting at least ten hours of sleep every night while you’re with us.” Another poke, harder than the first one. “You’re going to eat a ton of good food and you’re going to relax for two solid days.” And one more jab, right at his heart. “On Monday, you’ll talk to Nari. I promised her that you’d show up.”
“Whoa. I never agreed to this promise.” He stepped back, unwilling to be cornered into meeting some woman he didn’t know. He sure as hell wasn’t gonna live with her, either.
“We’ll talk about Nari later.” Ivan handed the car keys to Tia and kissed her. “Go home and get some rest, hon. I’ll ride with the big guy.”
“He looks hungry. So do you. I’ll bake cookies.” She opened the SUV’s door and grinned like it was Christmas Eve.
“Tell Vic about the new bed in the guest room.”
“Oh, yeah.” Ivan broke into a wide smile. “We found a four-poster bed that’s seven feet long. You’ll fit, with a few inches to spare. We’re hoping you’ll visit all the time.”
Two against one was never a problem for Victor unless Ivan and Tia teamed up against him. “Okay, fine. I’ll visit, but only for the weekend.”
“Good. We’re going to spoil you rotten.” Tia hopped into the car and drove off.
Ivan leaned against Victor’s truck and cracked a knuckle. “All right. Talk to me. What started the fire?”
“I don’t know. The fire marshal hasn’t finished his report. He’s waiting for some test results. So is the insurance company. They’re trying to figure out what happened.” He tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. His lungs felt like two knots. “The cops have been asking me a lot of questions. I think they’re trying to figure out if I rigged the fire.”
“If they think you burned everything down to collect a claim, they’re dead wrong. You’d never do something like that.”
Some of the tightness eased in his chest. No matter what, Ivan always believed in him. “The night before the fire, I was the last one to leave. I turned off every burner, oven, and fryer. I scrubbed every pot and wiped down every surface like always. The place was spotless. I’m beginning to wonder if someone broke in after I left.”
“Any idea who?”
“Ryan Horne. He was my line cook. A couple of months ago, I caught him dealing drugs in the parking lot. I sacked him right away. He flipped out and swore that I’d pay for firing him. He went on and on about how karma would kick my ass. I think he’s kooky enough to use karma as an excuse to torch my place.”
“Does the fire marshal know this?”
“Yeah, but he can’t find Ryan. No one can. Apparently, he moved out of his apartment and didn’t leave a forwarding address. I’m looking for him. I know that he likes to hang out at The Masquerade Club, which isn’t far from the lake. I went there to ask if anyone had seen him but didn’t have any luck. While I was there, the manager said they’re hiring bouncers for the late shift. I took the job. When I’m there, I’ll keep an eye out for Ryan.”
“What if you can’t find him?”
“I’ll come up with Plan B.” It was possible that someone else started the blaze. He’d made plenty of enemies when he’d served in the Marines. Karma might send one of those bastards back to haunt him. “I need to figure out why my place burned down. I can’t rebuild until I’m sure another fire won’t happen.”
“You need a decent place to stay while you look for answers. Living with Nari might be your best option. She could use your help.”
“Hell, no. I’ve got enough problems. I don’t want hers, too.”
“Hold on.” Ivan pulled a phone out of his back pocket and swiped a finger across the screen. “Look at this. Come on, humor me.”
Victor grabbed the phone. The bright display shot a prick of pain into his left eye, but he didn’t want to admit that screens had been giving him trouble since the car accident. He tilted his head and squinted at a picture of Tia sitting next to a very pretty woman.
“That’s Nari Chen,” said Ivan. “It was her idea to offer you room and board. I know her, Vic. She’s great. You should meet her.”
She had long hair, pretty eyes, and a gorgeous face. She was stunning. He shoved the phone back into his brother’s hand. “I’ll see her on Monday like Tia promised, but that’s all.”
He didn’t have to worry about coming up with an excuse to turn down Nari Chen’s offer. As soon as she saw his wretched face, she’d send him away.