Theirs to Protect - Julia Sykes

Chapter One


It took every ounce of my very limited restraint to stop myself from killing the creep who was stalking my sweet girl. I felt his eyes on us like an itch beneath my skin, a prickling awareness of a threat that’d become instinctive during the dark, ugly years I’d spent in the mafia. I thought I’d left these survival instincts behind when I’d been exiled from New York. Ashlyn was supposed to be safe here, returned to her normal world at Harvard.

I rubbed the back of my neck, attempting to scrub away the maddening sensation of the man’s sinister focus. I couldn’t confront the bastard until Joseph arrived. My best friend would watch over Ashlyn while I dealt with the threat.

For now, I couldn’t so much as glare at the guy, even though he’d seated himself only three tables to our left in the bustling café. He’d folded his lanky body into a cozy armchair tucked in the far corner, masking his attention on Ashlyn by idly flipping through the pages of a heavy textbook.

But I’d noticed him watching her ever since she’d left her lecture hall twenty minutes ago, where I’d been waiting outside to escort her home from class. The fresh white lettering on his Harvard sweatshirt was too bright, and the Red Sox baseball cap pulled low over his heavy brows was too crisp. The clothes were brand new; this wasn’t scruffy apparel that might be pulled on by a guy who’d snagged the first semi-clean items he’d found while rushing to class.

I’d tested him to ensure my instincts weren’t pure paranoia. Rather than taking Ashlyn home, I’d suggested a spontaneous date at her favorite café on the outskirts of campus. While she’d texted Joseph with the invite to join us, I’d clocked her stalker changing course to follow us to our new destination.

Now, he sat only a few yards away from her, and the mounting impulse to kick his teeth in drew my muscles taut. It would take mere seconds to close the distance between us and haul his ass outside. I wouldn’t risk Ashlyn getting caught up in a brawl. It would be so easy to separate him from her, to crush his bones beneath my fists until he confessed why he was stalking my babygirl. Until he begged for mercy and swore he’d never again attempt to so much as breathe the same air as her.

I rolled the mounting tension from my shoulders and forced my clenched fists to unfurl.

Not yet, I reasoned. Not until Joseph gets here.

He could shield Ashlyn from what I had to do. Neither of them needed to know about this threat. About the brutal way I would handle it. Handle him.

If the creep knew what vicious scenes were playing through my mind, he’d get the fuck out of this café and never come near my princess ever again. But I needed to question him before I eliminated him as a threat. If anyone from our old life had followed us to Boston…

I tried to swallow down a growl, but a low grunt caught in my throat.

“Are you okay?” Ashlyn’s soft concern ensnared my attention, her voice a soothing balm that calmed the itch to punish her stalker.

Her sapphire eyes peered up at me, and her lush lips pursed with worry. Long, slender fingers brushed over her laptop, moving to close it so she could turn her full focus on me.

I caught her dainty hand in mine, redirecting it to rest on the small table that separated us. “I’m fine, princess.” I took a breath and smoothed the gruff edge from my tone. “Keep working on your paper.”

A small furrow appeared between her delicately arched brows, and she glanced down at the open book in front of me. “Are you bored? You don’t have to read my coursebooks if you don’t enjoy them. Your art is already amazing.”

I smoothed my free hand over the slightly glossy page without looking at it, keeping my gaze locked on her. I’d been staring at the images of Edgar Degas’ nineteenth-century nude drawings for at least five minutes already, not really seeing them. My mind had been fixed on detailed scenes of how I’d punish the man who dared to watch my sweet girl, even though I’d managed to keep my narrowed eyes glued to the drawings instead of glaring at him. I couldn’t risk spooking him before Joseph arrived.

“I know I don’t have to. I want to.” My tone came out deep and