I KNOW YOU’RE IN THERE
Was it so wrong?
One year ago.
The only thing Mike Holley knew for sure was that every single, solitary minute of life was for living today. A dead fiancée does that to a guy. A heart so broken for so long you can’t feel it anymore does that to a guy.
Mike sat in the courtroom all stretched out and waited for Judge Breznek to bang his gavel and order him to the bench. Mike knew what came next—community service. Hell, he’d cleaned and worked on damn near every public trail within a hundred miles, and he’d enjoyed every minute of it. Not only did he love his little piece of this Colorado mountain, but kicking the shit outta assholes was worth it.
His looks and ass-kicking ability were God-given gifts. He knew it, and so did everyone else. Everyone also knew Mike was happy to take a little pounding himself if it got him into a good scuffle. Who doesn’t love a good fight? Especially a righteous one.
Bea was sitting right beside him on the aisle at the back of the courtroom. She grinned at him, and, swear to God, wiggled without moving a muscle.
He’d never fought in defense of Bea—his date with her right after court was an added perk of a rep for standing up for folks. Yeah, he had his enemies, but he had his fans too.
No one really understood Mike’s mission. People knew why he defended the helpless; they just had a little trouble with the brutality involved in his method of meting out justice. That was because they’d never been on the losing end of a beating.
Mike had a peculiar itch for justice, but there were laws that were worth obeying and laws that weren’t. People thought he had issues, and things did have a tendency to get out of hand around him. Those same folks had opinions about why his strong feelings ended in so many broken bones and bashed heads. Thank God Randy is alive. In one of Mike’s bouts of righteous indignation, he had kicked Randy’s ass a year ago and put him in the hospital.
Randy hadn’t pressed charges either, but only because Mike had taken pictures of June’s bruises and black eyes. Randy deserved to die, but Mike didn’t really want it to be at his hands.
It was depressing how many people or critters needed his help. People underestimated Mike’s ferocity, usually because of his long hair, the natural strength hidden by his lean body, and his easy-going manner until they stared into his eyes. Mike knew how to use his eyes to send chills of fear or waves of lust, depending on the target.
Truth was, Mike didn’t need to know why to know he was right. And if he thought too much about it, he’d have to delve into the darkness of Anna’s death. She’d been more than a fiancée. She’d been everything to him. Can’t go there again.
The judge banged his gavel, and Peter, the bailiff, called Mike forward. Mike’s lip curled and he breathed out a little laugh as he stood slowly and swaggered across the courtroom. He was dressed in jeans, boots, and a green-and-black-checked, flannel shirt. He hadn’t tied back his long hair, and he hadn’t tamed the wildness he knew his dark looks projected. He didn’t even try to hide the gratified sparkle of I’m above the law that he knew shined in his eyes—the look his father had always hated because it meant Mike had quit listening.
He didn’t bother to wipe the grin off his face. Women called it crooked and engaging, devastating and sinful. Men called it shit-eating and disrespectful.
He smiled and nodded at Peter and waved at his mom’s best friend; Nancy had been the court reporter for as long as Mike had known her. Peter had been the bailiff most of Mike’s life.
He well knew the law took a dim view of his passion for evening up the score, but he was still grinning and feeling cocky when he reached the bench and said, “Hello, Judge Breznek, sir.”
The judge huffed out a breath as a smirk of his own spread across his face. Mike understood concern and could wring a whole lot of forgiveness out of it. He didn’t do so well with the feeling of justified revenge that arose when others smirked at him, but he held his tongue and stilled his fists—it didn’t seem prudent to punch out the judge.
“Mike, I understand you’ve had a lot of heartache in your past, especially for such a young fellow. I understand you think you can save the world, one distressed damsel at a time. I know you like to fight. But you are not judge, jury, and executioner around here.”
Mike’s grin faded as he listened. This doesn’t sound like community service.
He couldn’t believe he’d do jail time for a fight. It’d been a heck of a Halloween party, and all he’d wanted was the girl in the pink bunny suit. What he’d gotten was an up-close view of the flying fist of that wife-beating SOB, Jules Nowlin.
Mike had instinctively ducked when he’d seen the fist coming, and had immediately heard a scream right behind him. He’d slammed his fist into Jules’s nose, and blood had splattered into a spectacular pattern on the wall. When Mike turned toward the scream, he saw that Jules’s fist had smashed pink bunny’s nose and eye, and she was on the floor crying.
A split-second before, the narrow hallway to the kitchen and the keg had been a jam-packed flow of people, a kaleidoscope of music, laughter, color, perfume, and soft bodies.
That’s how Jules had snuck up on him. Mike was checking out the boob his arm had just brushed. He’d kicked Jules’s ass a couple of weeks ago, revenge for Mandy Nowlin because she was Mike’s friend.
Before Mike got to help pink bunny up off the floor, there was a high-pitched, maniacal roar. Then a scratching, screaming Jules jumped on Mike’s back and wrapped his arm around Mike’s neck. He held tight until Mike banged him into the wall. The little bastard took part of Mike’s ear with him to the floor.
Mike picked him up and punched him so hard he fell out the front door. People had scattered and cheered them on.
Jules dove for the ground and smashed a rock against Mike’s shin. Mike fell, barely deflecting the fisted rock coming for his head. When he stood up, playtime was over.
Maybe he shouldn’t have thrown Jules into the street. Maybe he shouldn’t have rolled Jules’s ugly head up in the car window. Maybe he shouldn’t have started the car and put it in drive. But all Jules had to do to save his scrawny neck was run. A lot more chance than he’d given Mandy. Wuss. But the fight hadn’t really been about Mandy. It was to show everyone else why they shouldn’t pick a fight with Mike Holley.
The judge was still talking. “Son, I’m tired of seeing you in my court, so I’m throwing you out of my county. You got two weeks.”
Mike’s head jerked back. “What? You can’t do that!”
“I just did, son. I’m giving you eight hundred hours of community service cleaning up around the Abuse Hotline office out of Gunnison. Finish your degree while you’re there.”
Mike was flabbergasted, and he could feel the rage flushing his face as he yelled at the judge, “What? Eight hundred hours! In an office?”
“I can make it more, Mike,” the judge said calmly as he looked Mike dead in the eye.
A buzzing cloud of disbelief was clogging up Mike’s brain. His body drooped like his muscles were suddenly noodles as the ground fell out from under him.
Shit. I’m moving to Gunnison.