Eight months ago, you were just a soldier about to be deployed and I was just a waitress, sneaking you free pancakes and hoping you wouldn’t notice that my gaze was lingering a little too long.
But you did notice.
We spent a “week of Saturdays” together before you left, and we said goodbye on day eight, exchanging addresses at the last minute.
I saved every letter you ever sent, your words quickly becoming my religion.
But you went radio silent on me months ago, and then you had the audacity to walk into my diner yesterday and act like you’d never seen me in your life.
To think … I almost loved you and your beautifully complicated soul.
Whatever your reason is—I hope it’s a good one.
Maritza the Waitress
PS – I hate you, and this time … I mean it.
“Welcome to Brentwood Pancake and Coffee. I’m Maritza and I’ll be your server,” I greet my millionth customer of the morning with the same old spiel. This one, a raven-haired, honey-eyed Adonis, waited over seventy minutes for a table by a window, though I suppose in LA time that’s the blink of an eye.
He doesn’t so much as acknowledge me.
“Just you today?” I ask, eyeing the empty chair across from him. The breakfast rush is about to end, and lucky for him, I only have one other table right now.
He doesn’t answer, but maybe he doesn’t hear me?
“Coffee?” I ask another obvious question. I mean, the diner is called Brentwood Pancake and Coffee for crying out loud. Everyone comes here for the coffee and plate-sized pancakes, and it’s considered a Class-D felony to order anything else.
Placing his mug right side up on his saucer, he pushes it toward me and I begin to pour. Waving his hand, he stops me when the cup is three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he adds two creams and one half of a sugar packet, but the way he moves is methodical, rigid. With intention.
“Ma’am, this really can’t be that interesting,” he says under his breath, his spoon clinking against the sides of the porcelain mug after he stirs.
“You’re standing here watching me,” he says. Giving the spoon two final taps against the rim of the mug, he then rests it on the saucer before settling his intense amber gaze in my direction. “Isn’t there another table that needs you?”
His eyes are warm like honey but his stare is cold, piercing. Unrelenting.
“You’re right. There is.” I clear my throat and snap out of it. If I was lingering, it wasn’t my intention, but this I’m-sexy-and-I-know-it asshole didn’t need to call me out on it. Sue me for being a little distracted. “I’ll be back to check on you in a minute, okay?”
With that, I leave him alone with his menu and his coffee and his foul mood and his brooding gaze … and his broad shoulders … and his full lips … and I get back to work, stopping at table four to see if Mr. and Mrs. Carnavale need refills on their house blend decafs.
By the time I top them off, I draw in a cleansing breath and head back to Mr. Tall, Dark, and Douche-y, forcing a smile on my face.
“We ready to order?” I ask, pulling my pen from behind my ear and my notepad from my Kelly-green apron.
He folds his menu, offering it to me despite the fact that my hands are full, but I manage to slip it under my arm without dropping anything.
“Two pancakes,” he says. “Eggs. Scrambled. Rye toast. Butter. Not margarine.”
“I’m so sorry.” I point to a sign above the cash register that clearly reads ONE PANCAKE PER PATRON – NO EXCEPTIONS.
He squints, his expression calcifying when he reads it.
“So that’s one pancake, scrambled eggs, and buttered rye toast then,” I recite his order.
“What kind of bullshit rule is that?” He checks his watch, like he has somewhere to be.
Or like he doesn’t have the time for a rule that I entirely agree is pure bullshit.
“These pancakes are huge. I promise one will be more than enough.” I try to deescalate the situation before it gets out of hand because it’s never pretty when management has to get involved. The owners of the diner are strict as hell on this policy and their day shift manager is even more so. She’ll happily inform any and all disgruntled customers there’s a reason the “pancake” in Brentwood Pancake and Coffee is singular and not plural.
I’ve seen many a diner walk out of here and never return over this stupid policy and our Yelp review average is in the dumps, but somehow it never seems to be bad for business. The line is perpetually out the door and down the block every weekend morning without fail, and sometimes even on weekdays. These pancakes are admittedly as delicious and more than own up to their reputation, but that stupid rule is nothing more than clever marketing designed to inflate demand.
“And what if I’m still hungry?” he asks. “Can I order a second?”
Wincing, I shake my head.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” He sits up a little, jaw clenching. “It’s a goddamned pancake for fuck’s sake.”
“Not just any pancake,” I say with a practiced smile. “It’s a Brentwood pancake.”
“Are you trying to be cute with me, ma’am?” he asks, directing his attention at me, though he isn’t flirting. His nostrils flare a little and I can’t help but let my mind wander the tiniest bit about how sexy he looks when he’s angry—despite the fact that I would never so much as entertain the idea of getting down and dirty with an asshole like this.
He’s hot AF but I don’t do jerks. Plain and simple.
I’d have to be drunk. Like, really drunk. And I’d have to be desperate. And even then … I don’t know. He’s got some kind of chip on his shoulder, and no amount of sexiness would be able to distract me from that.
“Let me put your order in, okay?” I ask with a smile so forced my cheeks hurt. They say good moods are contagious, but I’m starting to think this guy might be immune.
“As long as it’s the full order, ma’am,” he says, lips pressing flat as he exhales. I don’t know why he keeps calling me “ma’am” when I’m clearly younger than he is. Hell, I couldn’t legally drink until three years ago.
I am not a “ma’am.”
“The cook won’t make two,” I say with an apologetic tone before biting my bottom lip. If I play it coy and helpless maybe he’ll back down a little? It works. Sometimes.
“Then it’s for my guest,” he points to the empty seat across from him. His opposite hand is balled into a fist, and I can’t help but notice his watch is programmed in military time, “who happens to be showing up later.”
“We don’t serve guests until they’re physically here,” I say. Yet another one of the restaurant’s strict policies. Too many patrons have tried to use that loophole over the years, so they had to close it. But they didn’t just close it—they battened the hatches with hurricane-proof glass by way of a giant security monitor in the kitchen. They even make the cooks check the screen before preparing orders, just to make sure no one’s breaking the rules.
The man drags his hand through his dark hair, which I’m realizing now is a “regulation cut.”
I bet he’s military.
Has to be. The hair. The watch. The constant swearing juxtaposed with the overuse of the word “ma’am.” He reminds me of my cousin Eli who spent ten years in the U.S. army, and if he’s anything else like Eli, he’s not going to let up about this.
Exhaling, I place my palm gently on his shoulder despite the fact that we’re not supposed to put hands on the guests for any reason, but this guy is tense and his muscled shoulders are just begging for a gentle touch.
“Just … bear with me, okay?” I ask. “I’ll see what I can do.”
The man serves our country. He fights for our freedom. Despite the fact that he’s unquestionably a giant asshole, he at least deserves a second pancake.
I’m going to have to get creative.
Heading back to the kitchen, I put his order in and check on the Carnavales one more time. On my way to the galley to refill my coffee pot, I pass a table full of screaming children, one of which has just shoved his giant pancake on the floor, much to his gasping mother’s dismay.
Bending, I retrieve the sticky circle from the floor and place it back on his plate.
“Would you like the kitchen to fix another?” I ask. They’re lucky. This is the only time they’ll make an exception, and I’ll have to present the dirty pancake as proof.
The child screams and I can barely hear what the mother is trying to say. Glancing around the table, I spot five little minions under the age of eight, all of them dressed in Burberry, Gucci, and Dior. The inflated-lipped mother sports a shimmering, oversized rock on her left ring finger and the father has his nose buried in his phone.
But I’m not one to judge.
LA is lacking child-friendly restaurants of the quality variety, and it’s not like Mr. Chow or The Ivy would welcome their noisy litter with open arms. I don’t even think they have high chairs there.
“I don’t want a pancake!” The oldest of the tanned, flaxen-haired gremlins screams in his mother’s face, turning her flawless complexion a shade of crimson that almost matches her pristine Birkin bag.
“Just … just take it away,” she says, flustered, her palm sprawling her glassy, Botoxed forehead.
Nodding, I take the ‘cake back to the kitchen, only I stop when I reach the galley, grabbing a stack of cloth napkins and hiding the plate beneath it. As soon as my military patron finishes his first pancake, I’ll run this back to the kitchen and claim he accidentally dropped it on the floor.
“Order up!” one of the line guys calls from the window, and I head over to see my military man’s breakfast is hot and ready—though I may have accidentally moved it to the front of the ticket line when no one was looking because I don’t have the energy to deal with him freaking out if his breakfast is taking too long.
Grabbing his plate, I rush it out to him, delivering it with a smile and a sweet, “Can I get you anything else right now?”
His gaze drops to his food and then lifts to me.
“I know,” I say, palm up. “Just … trust me. I’ll take care of you.”
I wink, partially disgusted with myself. He has no idea how difficult it is for me to be accommodating to him when he’s treating me like this. I’d love nothing more than to pour a steaming hot pitcher of coffee into his lap, but out of respect and appreciation—and only respect and appreciation—for his service, I won’t resort to such a thing.
Plus, I work for tips. I kind of have to be accommodating. And lord knows I need this job. I may be living in my grandmother’s gorgeous guesthouse, but believe me, she charges rent.
Free rides aren’t a thing in the Claiborne family.
He peers down his straight nose, stabbing the tines of his polished fork into a chunk of fluffy scrambled egg.
He doesn’t say thank you—not surprising—and I tell him I’ll be back to check on him in a little while before making my way to the galley where another server, Rachael, is also seeking respite.
“That table with the screaming kids,” I ask, “that yours?”
She blows her blonde bangs off her forehead and rolls her eyes. “Yup.”
“Better you than me,” I tease. Rachael’s got three of her own at home. She’s good with kids and she always seems to know the right thing to say to distract them or thwart a total meltdown.
“I’ll trade you,” she says. “The family for the dimples at table four.”
“He has dimples?” I peek my head out, staring toward my military man.
“Oh, God, yes,” she says. “Deep ones. Killer smile, too. Thought maybe he was some model or actor or something, but he said he was an army corporal.”
“We can’t be talking about the same guy. He hasn’t so much as half-smiled at me and he’s already told you what he does for a living?”
“Huh.” Rachael lifts a thin red brow, like she’s wondering if we’re talking about two different people. “He asked me how I was doing earlier and smiled. Thought he was real friendly.”
“That one. Right there. Dark hair? Golden eyes? Muscles bulging out of his gray t-shirt?” I do a quick point before retracting my finger.
She takes another look. “Yeah. That’s him. You don’t forget a face like that. Or biceps like that …”
“Weird.” I fold my arms, staring his way and wondering if maybe he has a thing against girls like me. Though I’m pretty ordinary compared to most girls out here. Average height. Average weight. Brown hair. Brown eyes.
Maybe I remind him of an ex?
I’m mid-thought when out of nowhere he turns around, our eyes catching like he knew I was watching. Reaching for a hand towel in front of me, I glance down and try to act busy by wiping up a melted ice cube on the galley counter.
“Busted.” Rachael elbows me before heading out to check on the Designer family. I swat her on the arm as she passes, and then I give myself a second to regain my composure. As soon as the warmth has left my cheeks, I head out to check on him, relieved to find his pancake demolished, not a single, spongey scrap left behind. In fact, his entire meal is finished … coffee and all.
Reaching for his plate, he stops me, his hand covering mine, and then our eyes lock.
“Why were you staring at me over there?” he asks. The way he looks at me is equal parts invasive and intriguing, like he’s studying me, forming a hard and fast opinion, but also like he’s checking me out which makes zero sense because his annoyance with me practically oozes out of his perfect, tawny physique.
“I’m sorry?” I play dumb.
“I saw you. Answer the question.”
Oh, god. He’s not going to let this go. Something tells me I should’ve taken Rachael up on her offer to trade tables. This one’s been nothing but trouble since the moment I poured his coffee.
My mouth falls and I’m not sure what to say. Half of me knows I should probably utter some kind of nonsense most likely to appease him so he doesn’t complain to my manager, but the other half of me is tired of being nice to a man who has the decency to ask another waitress how her day is going and can’t even bring himself to treat his own server like a human being.
“You were talking about me with that other waitress,” he says. His hand still covers mine, preventing me from exiting this conversation.
Exhaling, I say, “She wanted to trade tables.”
His dark brow arches and he studies my face.
“And then she said you had dimples,” I expand. “She said you smiled at her earlier … I was just thinking about why you’d be so polite to her and not me.”
He releases me and I stand up straight, tugging my apron into place before smoothing my hands down the front.
“She handed me a newspaper while I waited. She didn’t have to do that,” he says, lips pressing flat. “Give me something to smile about and I’ll smile at you.”
The audacity of this man.
The heat in my ears and the clench in my jaw tells me I should walk away now if I want to preserve my esteemed position as morning server here at Brentwood Pancake and Coffee, but it’s guys like him …
I try to say something, but all the thoughts in my head are temporarily nonsensical and flavored with a hint of rage. A second later, I manage a simple yet gritted, “Would you like me to grab your check, sir?”
“No,” he says without pause. “I’m not finished with my breakfast yet.”
We both glance at his empty plates.
“More eggs?” I ask.
I can’t believe I’m about to do this for him, but at this point, the sooner I get him out of here, the better. I mean, at this point I’m doing it for myself, let’s be real.
“One moment.” I take his empty dishes to the kitchen before sneaking into the galley and grabbing that kid’s dirty pancake. My pulse whooshes in my ears and my body is lit, but I forge ahead, returning to the pick-up window and telling one of the cooks that my customer at table twelve dropped his ‘cake on the floor.
He glances at the plate, then to the security monitor, then back to me before taking it out of my hands and exchanging it for a fresh one. It’s a verifiable assembly line back there, just a bunch of guys in hairnets and aprons standing around a twenty-foot griddle, spatulas in each hand.
“Thanks, Brad,” I say. Making my way back to my guy, I stop to check on the Carnavales, only their table is already being bussed and Rachael tells me she took care of their check because they were in a hurry.
“Here you are.” I place the plate in front of my guy.
He glances up at me, honeyed eyes squinting for a moment. I wink, praying he doesn’t ask questions.
“Let me know if you need anything else, okay?” I ask, wishing I could add, “just don’t ask for another pancake because I’ll be damned if I risk my job for an ingrate like you ever again.”
“Coffee, ma’am. I’d like another cup of coffee.” He reaches for his glass syrup carafe, pouring sticky sweet, imported-from-Vermont goodness all over his steaming pancake, and I try not to watch as he forms an “x” and then a circle.
Striding away, I grab a fresh carafe of coffee and return to top him off, stopping at three-quarters of the way full. A second later, he glances up at me, his full lips pulling up at the sides, revealing the most perfect pair of dimples I’ve ever seen … as if the past twenty minutes have all been some kind of joke and he was only busting my chops by being the world’s biggest douche lord.
But just like that, it disappears.
His pearly, dimpled smirk is gone before I get the chance to fully appreciate how kind of a soul he appears to be when he’s not all tense and surly.
“Glad I finally gave you a reason to smile.” I’m teasing. Sort of. And I gently rub his shoulder, which is still tight as hell. “Anything else I can get you?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll take my check.”
I can’t get it fast enough. Within a minute, I’ve punched my staff ID into the system, printed his ticket, shoved it into a check presenter, and rushed it to his table. His debit card rests on the edge when I arrive, as if I’d taken too long and he grew tired of holding it in his hand.
He’s just as anxious to leave as I am to get him out of here. Guess that marks the one and only thing that puts us on the same page.
“I’ll be right back with this,” I tell him. His card—plain navy plastic with the VISA logo in the lower corner and NAVY ARMY CREDIT UNION along the top—bears the name “Isaiah Torres.”
When I return, I hand him a neon purple gel pen from my pocket and gather his empty dishes.
“Thank you for the …” he points at the sticky plate in my hand as he signs his check. “For that.”
“Of course,” I say, avoiding eye contact because the sooner I can pretend he’s already gone, the better. “Enjoy the rest of your day.”
Glancing up, I spot our hostess, Maddie, flagging me down and mouthing that I have three new tables. Great. Thanks to this charmer, I’ve disappointed the Carnavales, risked my job, and kept several tables waiting all within the span of a half hour.
Isaiah signs his check, closes the leather binder, and slides out of his booth. When he stands, he towers over me, peering down his nose and holding my gaze captive for what feels like a single, endless second.
For a moment, I’m so blinded by his chiseled jaw and full lips, that my heart misses a couple of beats and I almost forget our little exchange.
“Ma’am, if you’ll kindly excuse me,” he says as I realize I’m blocking his path.
I step aside, and as he passes, his arm brushes against mine and the scent of fresh soap and spicy aftershave fills my lungs. Shoving the check presenter in my apron, I tend to my new tables before rushing back to start filling drinks.
Glancing toward the exit, I catch him stopping in the doorway before slowly turning to steal one last look at me for reasons I’ll never know, and it isn’t until an hour later that I finally get a chance to check his ticket. Maybe I’d been dreading it, maybe I’d purposely placed it in the back of my mind, knowing full well he was going to leave me some lousy, slap-in-the-face tip after everything I’d done for him. Or worse: nothing at all.
But I stand corrected.
“Maritza, what is it?” Rachael asks, stopping short in front of me, hands full of strategically stacked dirty dishes.
I shake my head. “That guy … he left me a hundred-dollar tip.”
Her nose wrinkles. “What? Let me see. Maybe it’s a typo?”
I show her the tab and the very clearly one and two zeroes on the tip line. The total confirms that the tip was no typo.
“I don’t understand. He was such an ass,” I say under my breath. “This is like, what, five hundred percent?”
“Maybe he grew a conscience at the last minute?” Her lips jut forward.
I roll my eyes. “Whatever it was, I just hope he never comes here again. And if he does, you get him. There isn’t enough tip money in the world that would make me want to serve that arrogant prick again. I don’t care how hot he is.”
“Gladly.” Her mouth pulls wide. “I have this thing for generous pricks with dashing good looks.”
“I know,” I say. “I met your last two exes.”
Rachael sticks her tongue out before prancing off, and I steal one last look at Isaiah’s tip. It’s not like he’s the first person ever to bestow me with such plentiful gratuity—this is a city where cash basically grows on trees—it’s just that it doesn’t make sense and I’ll probably never get a chance to ask him why.
Exhaling, I get back to work.
I’ve worked way too damn hard to un-complicate my life lately, and I’m not about to waste another thought on some complicated man I’m never going to see ever again.
Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon bestselling author Winter Renshaw is a bona fide daydream believer. She lives somewhere in the middle of the USA and can rarely be seen without her trusty Mead notebook and ultra portable laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s living the American dream with her husband, three kids, and the laziest puggle this side of the Mississippi.And if you’d like to be the first to know when a new book is coming out, please sign up for her private mailing list here —> http://eepurl.com/bfQU2j
A bottle of tequila
10 lime wedges
1 sexy blonde
Add in a crazy Vegas weekend
Lick and Swallow.
What do you get? A recipe for disaster.
Last night I got married.
I’m not exactly sure.
I was drunk off my ass, so it’s not exactly crystal clear.
But, I woke up with a ring on my finger, a marriage certificate, and a sneaking suspicion I had a wild wedding night.
Oh, and a bride who is long gone.
Apparently, what happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay here. Sometimes it takes off running.
But a runaway bride is the least of my problems.
Now I’m chasing after my runaway bride with divorce on my mind.
What could go wrong?
This is book 3 in the series, but is self-contained and can be read as a standalone.
HEA inside and absolutely no cheating of any kind.
I whimper when the damn ping of my phone won’t hush. I squint, opening one eye—and one eye only.Sweet Jesus on a turnip truck, I drank way too much last night. I warned Hope I didn’t do weddings. I hate them. She was in Vegas, everyone knows you do the deed at a quicky drive-thru chapel somewhere and get it done—if you are ever crazy enough to say “I do.”
I won’t… ever.
Slowly the room begins to come into a focus… it’s a blurry focus, but still.
The first thing I notice is everything hurts.
Even my hair.
Definitely had too much to drink. The second thing I notice is I’m not in my one-room apartment, lying on my broken-down, never comfortable, probably ruining my back forever, futon.
I’m in a bed. A really soft bed. I’m also in what appears to be a very fancy room. A room with entirely too much sunshine coming in through the windows. My gaze immediately goes to the open glass doors that lead out to a balcony. When I look around I can see I’m not only in a strange hotel room, I’m in one that costs bank.
Lots of bank.
Then, I just happen to notice the crumpled wedding dress on the concrete floor of the balcony.
That’s when panic begins, as memories flood through my mind.
Memories of the night before.
Of course, it might not be the crumpled dress that brings those back quite as much as the huge leg—not that leg—wrapped over mine, the arm currently wrapped across my stomach and the third leg—yes, that “leg”—pushing against my ass.
I look down at the milk chocolate beast of an arm and I swear the female bits between my legs tingle as memories of the night before flood through me. Memories of… Titan. I have the strongest urge to wiggle against the semi-aroused cock pressing against my ass, but I don’t. I hold myself really still.
Because I’m in the middle of the biggest panic attack ever.
I can’t remember all of what I did last night. It’s a blur of devil’s juice, eating the worm—disgusting, by the way, and I may never drink tequila again—and sex… so much sex.
Sex everywhere. Bed, floor, shower, closet—don’t ask—and against the wall. Sex against the floor-to-ceiling window with my ass mooning the strip, but… sex on that balcony after I was stripped of my wedding dress is the one that sticks in my mind. Sex where I hung over the concrete balcony screaming, “Fuck me, harder, Big Daddy,” while Titan did indeed fuck me harder for everyone and anyone to see. There are other balconies close by. I can’t be entirely sure who saw us… or who we may have scarred forever.
Because, let’s face it, sex in real life is never like the porn movies.
I slide out of the bed an inch at a time—panic making my heart slam against my chest so loud I want to cry, because my head hurts like hell. Titan grumbles but flops over on his back, still asleep. I stand there looking down at him and I can’t move.
He’s that beautiful.
His arms are slung out on each side of him, his head turned to the side, his well-trimmed goatee and beautiful, thick lips making my knees weak. The sheet is tangled in his feet and his dick is obviously alert, even if the rest of him isn’t.
The sight of his dick makes me glad I was drunk last night.
Lord have mercy on me, a poor sinner girl… He’s huge. I take a step toward it before I can stop myself. It’s bobbing up in the air like it’s nodding at me. It’s wide, as in—thick as hell. How many women has this man sent running from the room in fear—that kind of thick. I’ve seen a few dicks—I’m not a whore or anything—not counting last night—but I have, and this one is in a class all by itself. And he’s long. I don’t have a tape measure on hand, and I wouldn’t risk waking Titan up for it, but this man could be the pink unicorn of dicks. He could actually be a foot long. He might not be, but it would not surprise me. I back away when Titan grunts in his sleep. Each step I take hurts, only adding credence to Titan’s dick. Damn, I might not walk right for a month.
I run bare-ass naked to the balcony. It’s early, the sun is shining, but the Vegas heat hasn’t raised its evil head yet. I’m definitely going to have to soak my poor abused body soon, however. I can feel where Titan has drilled—so to speak—with each step. I grab the wedding dress and step into it, trying to remain bent over so I cover my body. I might not have been shy last night in my tequila haze, but I don’t have that luxury today. I shove my hands through the dress, rising up so I can zip it—when I hear a throat clearing. I look behind me and see a man standing on a balcony behind me, grinning.
He’s older, as in probably Uncle Jansen’s age, and he’s wearing a cowboy hat. He’s sexy, but not my style.
“Morning,” he smirks, his Texan accent strong.
I give him a tight smile over my shoulder and then reach behind me to zip up the dress and hide my ass from the guy—even if it is a little too late. Walking back into the room, I look around for my shoes. I see some empty condom wrappers—thank you Jesus! I also see an empty bottle of tequila and Titan’s clothes.
Titan Marsh… pro football player, a hell of a good time in bed, and … my husband.
That last part makes me cringe. I don’t want a husband. He didn’t want a wife. We discussed that numerous times while drinking tequila and gambling the night away. How we ended up in that all-night Elvis wedding chapel, I don’t remember exactly. But I clearly remember saying “I do” and twirling my hips like Elvis when he proclaimed us husband and wife. I also remember turning to Titan and demanding—in my best Meg Ryan voice—to take me to bed or lose me forever.
He did take me to bed, but he didn’t get the whole Top Gun reference. I get the feeling Titan isn’t a big movie buff.
I look around for a few more minutes and pick up my veil, looking at the white converse tennis shoes and frowning. I wore tennis shoes to my wedding?
I put them on and lace them up quickly. Just as I’m heading out the door, I find a blue flowered garter. It’s on the entry table. I pick it up and start to stuff it into my pocket, but the dress doesn’t have pockets.
I look back at Titan and then down to the gold band on my hand. I walk back toward him, still feeling him between my legs with each step I make. I clutch the garter tightly in my hand. As I look down at the sleeping man, with the dick that apparently never sleeps, I only know one thing. I don’t want to be married.
He’s damn good in bed, though.
Decision made, I toss my garter toward his dick. It snags on the wide head, and lands at an angle. Titan’s hand comes down and he cups his balls before scratching them. I watch, my mouth falling open and my eyes widening in shock.
When the garter decides to fall down the long shaft of his dick I have to fight back a giggle. Then I hightail it out of the room. I don’t stop to think, I don’t stop to take in the strange stares I’m getting from the people in the elevator or in the lobby. I head straight for the door.
A QUIRKY WRITER GOING WHERE THE VOICES TAKE HER.
USA Today Best Selling Author Jordan Marie, is just a simple small town country girl who is haunted by Alpha Men who talk in her head 24 hours a day.
She currently has 14 books out including 2 that she wrote under the pen name Baylee Rose.
She likes to create a book that takes you on an emotional journey whether tears, laughter (or both) or just steamy hot fun (or all 3). She loves to connect with readers and interacting with them through social media, signings or even old fashioned email.
Irony – when life f@cks you over.
She’s the one girl I can’t forget.
She’s as innocent as a saint, with the mouth of a sinner.
After taking her virginity, it’s taken me four years to get rid of the guilt.
I used her while she was at her lowest and she’s never forgiven me.
Watching my best friend die a little every day, and not being able to do anything about it, kills me.
I should’ve seen it coming. The second I hit rock bottom, she walks back into my life.
The f@cking irony?
She might be the only one who can save Marcus.
The life of the person who means the most to me lies in the palm of the girl I screwed.
Hate is a strong word, but it’s one I’ve really considered when it comes to Jaxson West. But I’ve settled for intensely disliking him. It’s similar to the way I feel about visiting the dentist.
Asking me to forgive Jaxson, is like asking me to willingly sit through a root canal.
He’s heartbreakingly gorgeous, emphasis on heartbreakingly.
He’s an amazing friend, just not to me.
He’s supportive, understanding, caring and loving, just not to me.
No, for me he reserves his dark scowls and low growls.
I’ll do everything I can to save Marcus, but I’m not doing it for Jaxson.
Jaxson West & Leigh Baxter ~ Book 3 in the Enemies To Lovers Series
This is a Stand Alone book in the Enemies To Lovers Series. Each book in the series is about a different couple. To get the full experience of their friendship I’d recommend that you start with Heartless.
Five years ago…
The bottle slips from my fingers, clinking as it lands on top of the small pile of empty beer bottles already gathering underneath the hammock I’m relaxing on.
“It’s your turn to get beers.”
Drowsily, Marcus closes his eyes. “I’ll go get some in a minute.”
I melt into my own hammock and sigh sleepily.
“This was the best idea you’ve ever had. I’m going to park my ass right here the entire weekend.”
During the week, Marcus came home with five hammocks. So far we’ve only put up two of them, which was an accomplishment in itself, if you ask me. The three leftover hammocks are still lying in the living room.
“Do you think you’ll be able to fuck while keeping your balance on this thing?” I ask, without opening my eyes.
Damn, this is the life. Me and Marcus, all the beer we want, and the sun all fucking day long.
“Don’t know. You can try it out sometime and let me know. It takes ten minutes just to get my ass settled in this thing,” Marcus murmurs.
Yeah, it’s only a matter of minutes before he’ll be fast asleep. Come to think of it, an afternoon nap isn’t such a bad idea. It will give me more energy for the party we’re having tonight.
I glance over at my best friend and grin. He’s lying with both legs hanging off on either side of the hammock.
“Dude, you look uncomfortable, lying like that,” I laugh.
He doesn’t answer at once, and I’m starting to think he’s asleep when he mumbles, “Free-Fucking-Balling. There’s a nice breeze on my balls.”
“Cool,” I grin, as I move slowly so I don’t tip the damn hammock. When I have my legs hanging off the sides, my grin grows. “Fuck, you’re right.”
Marcus laughs lazily. “The wind’s blowing us, dude.”
Everything is about sex when it comes to my best friend. Not like I’m one to talk. It’s as if our minds have a direct link to the gutter.
We’ve been friends since diapers. Our moms were best friends as well. At least, they were until Mr. Reed killed Mrs. Reed. That was one fucked-up day. Marcus was only ten and his sister, Summer, had just turned six the previous month. To this day, no one knows the reason Marcus’ dad lost his shit and shot his wife, daughter, and son, before turning the gun on himself.
Fortunately, the bullet missed Marcus’ heart by a ball hair. Summer and Mrs. Reed died instantly. It happened during our summer vacation so luckily, I could stay with him every day until he got released into Mom’s custody. He had no other family and besides, she was his godmother.
Logan might be my twin, but after the shooting, Marcus and I became inseparable. We might have been close before he lost his family, but during his stay in the hospital, it was as if I became everything in his life.
Those first few weeks he wouldn’t talk to anyone but me. Mom made him see a psychologist, but that didn’t help much either. He became detached from everyone and everything. I was the only one allowed to see behind the walls. I was the only one he didn’t pretend with. I comforted his broken heart suffering from the loss of his mom and sister. I held him as he cried because he didn’t understand what had happened. I took the blows when he was overcome with anger at his father. I took it all – the good, the bad, the broken – without fail. I took it all, so he didn’t have to carry the full weight of his fucked-up past alone.
After the shooting, Mom changed as well. The horror that took place in the Reed’s home rocked the whole community, but after a while, things slowly returned to normal, and people stopped talking about it. Where Marcus turned into himself, Mom seemed to be all over the place, as if she lost her balance in life. The friendship between her and Mrs. Reed reminded me a lot of what Marcus and I had. After Mrs. Reed died, Mom unraveled right before our eyes. She’d gone from mother-of-the-year to fucked-up mess at breakneck speed.
At first, it was little things. She’d spent entire nights sitting outside while finishing a bottle of wine or three. She grew impatient with us, her once loving demeanor being replaced by a snapping tone and cold glare.
It got worse after our thirteenth birthday. I was the first one to go through a growth spurt. Knowing I couldn’t go to Mom about the hair making its appearance on my face, I went to Mr. Hayes. He was the only father any of us had. Even though he worked his ass off, he always had time for us. Honestly, we spent more time at Carter’s house, than anywhere else.
Mr. Hayes was amazing. I mean, fucking amazing. He was never too busy for us. He’d go out of his way to show every single one of us how much he cared. He never missed any of our firsts. The first day of school, first games, first driving lessons—he was there for everything. He was the only solid in our constantly changing lives.
The memory of how he taught us to shave will always be one of my favorites.
It was early one morning after Mom had left for a well-deserved day at the spa after a night of heavy drinking. I was relieved to find that Mr. Hayes hadn’t left for the office yet. After I asked him if he could show me how to shave, he took off his tailored suit jacket and proceeded to roll up the sleeves of his expensive shirt. When he had the five of us standing in front of the mirror, he placed razors and shaving gel in front of us. He made sure to remove all the blades from the razors so we could practice first.
He started with Carter, spending time with each of us, making sure we knew what to do. I was last in line, for which I was grateful because it gave me time to watch as he showed the others. I still remember Mia sitting on the side of the tub, pulling her face as she watched us.
Rhett and Mia were the first to move in with Carter and Mr. Hayes after their parents died. That was a blow to us all. Rhett and Mia had the best parents, and their sudden death caused Marcus to have a setback as well. It was a reminder of what he had lost, opening up his scabbed over wounds.
Mom wasn’t close to Mr. and Mrs. Daniels. She didn’t have any sympathy for Rhett, who she always referred to as that friend.
I don’t like that friend of yours.
You’re spending too much time with that friend.
I don’t want that friend here. You’re all working on my last nerve.
That only led to Logan, Rhett, and Carter spending all their time at Carter’s place, and avoiding our house at all costs.
I was doing my best to help Marcus deal with the nightmares that had started again. He wasn’t confused and angry like he was at the age of ten. Hell no, he was bottling it all up, and I was scared what he’d do the day he exploded.
That’s when the verbal abuse started. I wasn’t sure why she targeted me. Maybe it was because I was the first one to show signs of becoming a man. I’m just thankful she hadn’t set her sights on Logan or Marcus. I never fought back out of fear that she would lay into them instead.
She walked in on me while I was shaving and the usual blank stare she gave me quickly turned to one of rage.
“You look just like him,” she whispered, her voice sounding as tight as a piece of string that was about to snap.
Logan and I weren’t identical twins. We had the same dirty blonde hair and brown eyes, but that was it. I was taller than him, and my features were harsher. Logan was the pretty one with the killer smile where I was abrasive and argumentative. Logan was the friendly, light-hearted brother, and I—I was the careless, cynical one.
That’s another reason why Marcus and I were such a great fit. Marcus was ruthless and at times downright derisive towards others. He was the oil to my fire.
“You’re the spitting image of your father.”
I’d gotten used to the cold and vacant look in her eyes, but I’ll never forget how her mouth pulled down that day. She looked at me with disgust.
“You think I don’t see it, but I do. You and Marcus are narcissists, just like your fathers. You’re poison. Your father killed me, and Robert killed Stella. It’s sickening to know there will be a day you will both do the same to some poor girl.”
The words didn’t hurt half as much as the gleam in her eyes. I’ve been on the receiving end of disappointed and angry looks, plenty of times in my life, but never the ‘I-wish-you-were-never-born’ glare. It felt like I stopped being her son that day.
After that, she took a swing at me every chance she got.
You’re just as spineless as that good-for-nothing father of yours.
I should’ve gotten rid of you when he left. Now I’m stuck looking at your face every day as a reminder that he left. One day you will leave too.
It’s weird how things played out after that.
I should’ve seen it coming, but hell, I had just discovered the magical effect a pair of tits had on my dick.
Mr. Hayes wanted to take us all to New York for the summer break. He was taking over a business there. I’ll be the first to say I was worried about it. If he decided to move, it would pretty much leave me, Marcus, and Logan screwed. It would tear the group in half.
He invited Mom over for dinner so he could discuss the trip with her. After dinner, they walked to the study so they could talk privately, while we went outside to swim. It was hot out already, and it was only the start of summer.
After spending some time in the pool, I needed to use the restroom. Mr. Hayes wouldn’t be too happy with me if he caught me watering the garden, so I dried off and ran inside the house.
I should’ve stayed outside. You never hear anything good when you eavesdrop. As I walked past the study, Mom started yelling.
“How can you sit there, looking so calm as if it didn’t happen? Your wife and my husband ran away together, leaving us with the kids. I’ve spent the best years of my life raising those boys. I’m almost forty, and I have nothing to show for my life! I’m done sitting at home, watching as my life passes me by.”
I felt a weird mixture of shame and anger brewing in my chest. I was embarrassed that my mother was talking to Mr. Hayes like that, and I was pissed off that she was so selfish. Then the part of my father running off with Carter’s mother sunk in, making me feel sick.
I heard a chair scraping over the wooden floor, but no footsteps came towards the door, so I kept listening.
“Are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth, Judy? You have two amazing sons. What about them?”
“I don’t care. Your wife ran off with my husband. If you had kept an eye on her, it wouldn’t have happened. I have my trust fund. You can keep your monthly allowance. I don’t need it. I’m done wasting away in this pathetic town.”
“You’re really going to abandon your sons? What about the promise you made to Stella that you’d always take care of Marcus?”
“She’s been dead for six years. I was a different person when I agreed to be his godmother. They’re sixteen, Christopher. You can either take them or they can take care of themselves. I’m done playing mother to those boys.”
I heard Mom’s high heels on the hardwood floor and ran for the restroom. Just as I slipped inside, the door to the study opened.
“I won’t stop you, Judy, but make it a clean cut. Walk away right now. I’ll keep the boys here tonight and take them home tomorrow to pack their stuff. I want you out of that house by the time I get there with them. I won’t make this harder for them than it already will be.”
“I’ll be gone first thing in the morning.” She didn’t storm off like I expected she would, but instead whispered, “You’re a good man, Christopher. They’ll be happy with you.”
I leaned my head back against the wall as I listened to her footsteps die away.
She left without saying goodbye.
The next day Mr. Hayes took us home to pack our stuff, after having told us that Mom was okay with us spending the summer with him.
I never told anyone about the things she said to me, not even Marcus. I wasn’t sad that she had chosen to leave us. Actually, it made it easier for me to hate her. It made it easier to pretend around Logan.
A few weeks later, Mr. Hayes sat us down and explained that our mother wouldn’t be coming home soon. She was taking some time to travel. He really did his best to break the news to us gently. Marcus and I got up and went to shoot some pool. To me, it was just another day.
Logan, on the other hand, took it hard. He looked like a zombie as he walked out of the office. Mia smiled when she saw him, took one look at his face and hugged him. I left Logan with Mia so she could comfort him.
It was during our senior year that I struggled to control my anger. I joined a gym so I could punch the shit out of a punching bag and lift weights until I was too tired to care.
That’s when Marcus started the Screw Crew list. He made it his mission to add as many names as he could to it.
So for the last few years, Marcus has been doing his best to fuck his demons away, while I’ve been trying to exercise mine away.
“Seriously! You do know what it means to take a break, right?” Willow watches me with her hands on her hips, her blonde hair piled on top of her head in a messy bun.
We could’ve been sisters, instead of best friends. We both have blonde hair and brown eyes. Willow is a head shorter than me and has a heart-shaped face which you can’t help but stop to admire. I’ve been told I’m pretty but being skinny and tall with an oval-shaped face, I’m not drop-dead gorgeous. Looks never bothered me, though, because I’ve always been a bookworm.
“I am taking a break,” I mumble while keeping my eyes on my laptop’s screen.
Saying I’m a bookworm might be scaling it down a bit. I’m addicted to the written word, although my passion lies with cardiac surgery. I inherited the obsession from my parents. Being the only child of two of the most admired cardiothoracic surgeons in the states, it was a given that I’d follow in their footsteps.
Willow plops down next to me and leans closer so she can see what I’m busy reading.
“You call this taking a break?” she asks, giving me a look that clearly says our definition of the term break is vastly different.
Willow’s the only person who’s been a constant in my life. I have an amazing relationship with my parents, but with their busy careers and my studying, we don’t get to spend a lot of time together. Willow keeps me grounded.
When I graduated school at thirteen, Willow was determined to stay friends with me even though I’m a year younger than her. During my first year at Boston, we kept contact by facetiming at least three times a week. What I love most about Willow is that she never treats me any different just because I have a high IQ. I still think if it weren’t for the fact that Willow and I were neighbors before I started at Boston, I never would’ve made a friend. Being privately tutored at home didn’t exactly give me many opportunities to interact with other kids, and there wasn’t any time to make friends once I started school. I did my best to try to break the record of becoming the youngest doctor in the US, but I missed it by two years. Now my heart is set on becoming the youngest cardiothoracic surgeon.
Dad and Mom forced me to take a six-month break before starting my six-year integrated cardiothoracic surgery residency program at USC. I’m only halfway through my forced vacation, and I’m already feeling antsy. The thought alone of starting my residency makes my heart race with excitement.
“I’m reading an article on postoperative physiotherapy. It’s interesting. It’s like when you read those fashion magazines you love so much.”
She slowly shakes her head, giving me a look that closely resembles pity.
“Only you would think boring medical articles can compete with the latest fashion trends. You, my friend, are in desperate need of fun.”
“But –” I glance from my laptop screen to her, then back to the really interesting article about a survey they did in Sweden rating the effectiveness of physiotherapy after cardiac surgery. “This is fun.”
She shakes her head again, and her facial expression clearly says my relaxation time is up.
“I’m afraid all the studying might have done permanent damage to the fun section of your brain.” She shakes her head, really getting into her role as the doctor. “You, Miss Baxter, are in dire need of a party. I prescribe a full forty-eight hours of drinking and dancing.”
I scrunch my nose, certainly not in the mood to go to parties the entire weekend. Before I can argue she holds up her pointer finger.
“No arguing. It’s of utmost importance that we immediately start with treatment, before the fun section of that genius brain of yours, shrivels and dies.”
I can’t help but grin at her. “You should’ve gone into medicine with me. You’d make a great doctor.”
She pulls a face, shaking her head.
“Hell no, I’d kill all my patients. Fashion is my passion. While we’re on the topic of fashion…”
Willow grabs the laptop and closes it before pulling me up along with her.
“Go shower and put on the dress I made you. Don’t you dare put up your hair in that god-awful bun. It makes you look like a nun who escaped from a convent.” She pulls a face as my eyes dart to the messy bun on top of her head. “I’ll curl it for tonight. You’re nineteen, not ninety.”
“You’re really going to make me go, aren’t you?”
She grins, a wicked gleam in her eyes which promises no sleep in my near future.
“I only have you for another three months before you start your residency. I get a feeling I won’t see you for the next six years. Hell, I’m taking full advantage of my time with you.”
Willow is right. I’ll be working my butt off over the next six years. I want to make a difference in this world, especially when it comes to heart transplants.
I go through the motions of showering and washing my hair. While I leave the conditioner in for a few minutes, I quickly shave. I can’t wear the gorgeous dress Willow made when my legs are so hairy. After rinsing the conditioner out, I grab a towel and pat my body dry before wrapping my hair in it. When I rub lotion all over my body, I inhale deeply. I’m addicted to the sweet, rich fragrance of jasmine.
Walking back into the bedroom I share with Willow, I’m not surprised to find her waiting.
“Let’s do your hair. I’ll shower while you’re putting on your makeup.”
There’s no use in arguing with her, so I take a seat at the vanity. Willow gets busy blow-drying layer by layer of my hair. As I sit and watch her hands move, I think about how lucky I am to have her as a friend.
She shares the apartment with two other girls. I’ve spent some time with Evie, whom I get along with. I can definitely see myself staying friends with Evie once I leave. I haven’t seen much of Della, but she seems nice.
When Willow is busy massaging styling wax into my hair so it won’t go frizzy, I ask, “You mentioned a party? Will Evie be going as well?”
Willow wipes her hands on the towel I had around my hair while admiring her handy work.
“Yeah, she’s already at Carter’s place. We’ll meet her there.”
“Carter? He’s friends with Rhett, right?” I’m still trying to remember names, never mind who fits in where in their social circle.
“Yep, you’ll meet all of Rhett’s friends tonight. Carter is an asshole, so just make sure you stay out of his way.”
My eyebrows almost dart into my hairline. The fact that Willow thinks the guy is an asshole says a lot. She’s the kindest person I know.
“Okay,” I agree, although I’m curious why she doesn’t like him.
“Come to think of it, just stick to my side tonight. I don’t want any of the Screw Crew getting their hands on you.”
“Why are we going then? If you don’t like any of them, we can do something else.”
Like, stay at home.
I can think of a couple of things I’d rather do than go to a party.
“We’re going because it will be fun. Besides, it’s not that I don’t like them. They’re just too wild and tactless for you. They’re fun to hang out with, but you seriously don’t want to end up in bed with one of them. Believe me when I say they will try. They have this thing going to see who can screw the most girls.”
Worry lines instantly cover my forehead.
“I really don’t think I should go. You know I have zero experience with guys. I wouldn’t know who’s being nice and who’s playing me even if my life depended on it.”
“You’ll be okay. We’ll stick together, and they won’t try anything with you as long as I’m by your side.”
Curious to find out more, I ask, “Have any of them tried to get you into bed?”
Willow scrunches her nose. “Only Marcus has tried. Ugh, he’s the worst of the group.”
I don’t miss the blush creeping up her neck as she quickly leaves to go shower. There’s definitely a story there.
We’ve been here twenty minutes, and I’m ready to go.
I can’t dance so I avoid the makeshift dance floor at all costs. The living room is packed with students, some drinking while others are already drunk, and most are in various stages of making out.
Suppressing a yawn, I decide to go outside for some fresh air. I avoid going near the pool which is surrounded by party-goers. The last thing I want is to be thrown in the pool. It would ruin the beautiful dress Willow made me. I smile as I look down at the pale green, silky fabric. She made me a shift dress which might be a little too short for my taste, but it fits perfectly otherwise.
I spot a table with drinks and make my way over to it. I’m surprised the table isn’t crowded with students. When we got here, we couldn’t even get into the kitchen where the drinks were.
When I notice only sodas on the table, I understand why it’s practically deserted. I pour coke in a red solo cup and watch as the tiny bubbles fizz to the top.
“You want ice?” a deep, gravelly voice says from behind me, which startles the hell out of me. I drop the cup, and it falls to the ground, causing soda to splash all over my legs and sandals.
“Damn it,” I groan as I step away from the mess at my feet. I bend to pick up the now empty cup, seeing as the contents are all over me when I hear the voice behind me again.
“And here I thought it would take some foreplay to get you wet.” From the laughter in his voice, it’s clear he thinks my accident is hilarious.
“You must be one of the assholes, thinking it’s funny that I messed all over myself,” I snap as I place the cup on the table and turn around, getting my first look at the guy.
I freeze like a deer in oncoming traffic as I take in the perfect specimen of everything that’s male, standing in front of me. Even though his smug smile makes my anger grow, I can’t help but drink in the sight of his dreamily carved, scruffy face. Don’t even get me started on his hair which is a few shades darker than mine, disheveled and sexy.
Ugh. Double shit.
“You must be one of those bitches, unable to take a joke,” he says as the smile around his full mouth curves into a wicked grin which only makes him hotter.
Damn it. Why does he have to be so incredibly attractive? It messes with my ability to think, which has never happened to me before.
“I can take a joke,” I say, clearing my throat.
“Could’ve fooled me.”
I watch as he pours soda into a cup. He holds it out to me, one eyebrow raised. Not even thinking, I take it from him and as our fingers touch briefly, a shiver races over my body.
To make matters worse, as I’m about to take a much-needed sip, he takes hold of the hem of his shirt and yanks it off his body in one smooth motion.
My mouth drops open as my eyes dart over his chest, wildly trying to drink in every inch of tanned skin and muscle. Damn, he might have a shitty attitude, but his body sure makes up for it.
He grabs a bottle of water which he pours out over my legs and feet. My brain is screaming at me to slap the smirk right off his gorgeous face, but my traitorous body won’t move a muscle.
“Sit,” he says. His voice a mixture of playful and raspy, making flutters erupt in my stomach.
Placing his hand on my shoulder, he pushes me lightly back, and my body, ever the traitor, goes where it’s being guided. The back of my knees hit the edge of a chair, and I sit down.
I want to say something clever that will put him in his place, but my mind has clearly taken a hiatus, leaving my hormones in control of this situation.
He reaches for my left leg, and slipping the sandal from my foot, he starts to dry my leg with his shirt.
I can’t stop myself from staring at his well-toned back and broad shoulders, fascinated by each muscle rippling when he moves. When he’s done with my left leg, he repeats his actions with my right leg. Only, this time his left hand slips up until it reaches the back of my knee while he keeps drying my already dry leg.
I clear my throat to get his attention. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get my voice back with all the tingles zapping upwards to my lady parts, from where he’s touching me.
“There you go, all dry,” he says as he stands up. He looks down at me as he throws the shirt over his shoulder. “Run along now, your mother must be worried.”
“Huh?” I grunt as if my IQ dropped to a miserable zero.
“Pretty little things like you shouldn’t hang out at parties. Isn’t it past your bedtime?”
Finally, a flicker of my intelligence returns along with my temper. I push myself up from the chair, not that it helps as I barely reach his shoulder.
He flashes me a confident grin, his eyes dropping to my feet before slowly making their way up my body. I don’t miss how they rest on my hips and breasts for a few seconds too long before they settle on my face.
I’ve never been so blatantly checked out in my life before, and it makes a dreaded blush creep over my cheeks.
“That’s right, my eyes are up here,” I say so he’ll know that I know he was ogling me. “Not that it’s any of your business, but I’m nineteen. I’ve practically been living on my own since I was thirteen. Also, I do not appreciate you calling me a pretty little thing. Women aren’t things.”
Feeling proud of my ability to string a few sentences together, I smile triumphantly.
“Jax, stop harassing my friend,” Evie suddenly says behind me, which makes me swing around from surprise. I recognize Rhett, but I haven’t met the other guy with them.
“Your friend?” Mr. Too-hot-to-have-a-personality asks. Thanks to Evie, I now know his name is Jax.
I feel him move behind me and I hate that my body is aware of him. His arm presses against my shoulder and my sandals appear in my line of vision.
I do my best to ignore the fact that I almost forgot them, and snatch them from his hand. I drop them to the floor and quickly slip them onto my feet.
“Yeah, my friend, which means she’s off limits.” Evie hooks her arm through mine and pulls me closer to where Rhett’s standing. “You’ve met Rhett, and this is Carter Hayes. They live here.”
Smiling, I reach out a hand to Carter. “Leigh Baxter. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
We shake hands as Willow joins us, followed by another guy who looks like he’s about to kill someone.
“Sorry, I leave you alone for ten minutes and the wolves descend.”
“Wolves?” Rhett asks with a playful smile on his face.
“Yeah, wolves. Leigh’s parents would kill me if any of you corrupted their daughter.”
“You’re carrying on as if the pretty little thing is fucking royalty?” Jax says from behind me, sounding a little offended. I also don’t miss how he accentuated ‘pretty little thing’ as if he’s already caught onto the fact that I hate it whenever he says it.
“You could say that,” Evie says. She looks to Carter. “Dr. Baxter, your dad’s heart specialist, is her father.”
Instantly, a cloud moves over Carter’s face as if Evie just spat at him instead of introducing me.
“In that case, she’s off limits,” Carter bites out. He grabs my hand and starts to pull me away from the growing crowd gathering around us. “I’ll take her back to the apartment. Willow, are you coming?” It doesn’t sound like a question but more like an order.
More common sense seems to return to my frazzled mind, and I yank my hand free from his grip.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I seethe as my anger quickly burns through my body now that my focus is no longer on Jax.
“You shouldn’t be here, Leigh. Your father will kill me. I’ve heard him talk about his little girl. I’m not pissing off the man who might have his hands inside my dad’s chest one of these days.”
I throw my hands in the air, actually dumbfounded by how quickly the night went downhill.
“You know what,” I say as I start to walk towards the side of the house, “I don’t want to be here. Why the hell I’m torturing myself like this is beyond me.”
I keep walking, not looking back to see if Willow is coming. I’d rather sit outside the apartment for the entire night than spend another second here.
Michelle Horst is a Bestselling Romance Author who likes her books hot, dirty, and with a touch of darkness. She loves an alpha hero who is not scared to fight for his woman.
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ONLY BOUNDLESS LOVE CAN SILENCE THE WHISPERS OF THE PAST . . .
A broken woman.
A damaged man.
A free spirit intent on saving them both.
Elysia ‘Sia’ Willis lives a solitary life. The only person in it is her big brother, Ky, vice-president of the infamous Hades Hangmen. She loves him, but she has absolutely no love for the outlaw MC he belongs to.
Raised in secret by her mother, Sia grew up separated from her brother and distant father. No one knew she even existed.
After the tragic murder of her mother, Sia spiraled into a rebellion against the rules of the Hangmen. A rebellion with dire consequences that now, years later, she still can’t escape.
As she lives once again in secret, happy on her own at her secluded ranch, a devil from her past comes calling. A devil who wants to possess her once again and take her from the simple life she never wants to lose.
And he will stop at nothing to collect what he believes is his: her.
Valan ‘Hush’ Durand and Aubin ‘Cowboy’ Breaux have finally found a home in the mother chapter of the Hangmen. The notoriously private Cajun twosome have, for now, put aside what chased them from their beloved Louisiana. But as threats toward the club build, Hush and Cowboy are given a task—protect Elysia Willis at all costs. Cowboy welcomes the job of watching over the blond-haired, blue-eyed beauty.
Hush fights against it.
Scarred by events from his past and a secret that plagues his everyday life, Hush refuses to let anyone else get close. Only Cowboy knows the real him. Until a certain sister of the club’s VP begins to slowly knock down his defenses, shattering the heavily built walls that guard his damaged soul . . . with his best friend leading the charge.
As lost and open hearts begin to meld, taking each other from indescribable pain to the never-before felt relief of peace, the newly-mended threesome must first endure one more rocky path.
Only then will they finally shake free of the shackles of their pasts.
Only then will they shed the bonds that have for too long held their happiness captive.
And there is only one way to survive that path . . . together.
Dark Contemporary MFM Romance. Contains scenes of violence and explicit sexual situations. Over 18’s only.
High Ranch, Austin, Texas
“Steady . . . steady . . .”
Sandy’s ears flicked back and forth as she heard me soothe her from my place in the center of the ring. I kept my newest mare’s training rein loose as she trotted on the sand. Her coat was lathered with sweat; so was my forehead. The sun was burning a hole in my jean-clad ass.
“Okay, enough for today,” I announced, both to Sandy and myself.
I had just fed her with hay and water and locked her stall door when I heard the all too familiar sound of motorcycles roaring in the distance.
Frowning, I headed out of the barn. I walked to the front of my house and spotted two Harleys as they approached my door.
Styx and Ky, I realized, giving them a surprised wave.
They didn’t wave back.
I perched on the top step of my porch as they pulled to a stop and flicked out their kickstands. Ky smoothed back his long hair and strode toward me. I got to my feet. “What y’all doing here?”
I hugged Ky. He held on a little too long. It was weird. I pulled back, curious, only for him to look out to the distance, checking around my ranch. I was about to ask him what was up when Styx came toward me and gave me a brief one-armed hug.
“Hey, Styx. How’re Mae and Bump?” A flicker of a smile graced Styx’s lips.
“Good,” he signed, but my attention snapped back to Ky when my brother said, “Get inside, sis. We need to talk.”
He grabbed my elbow and guided me forcefully up the porch steps. “Hey!” I said. He pulled harder, not releasing my arm. “Hey! Dickhead!” I wrenched my arm back. I turned on my heel to meet my brother’s moody-ass face. “What the hell are you doing?”
“For once in your fucking life, will you just do as I say, Sia?” Ky said, exasperated. His face was red . . . in fact, so were his eyes.
I crossed my arms across my chest. “What’s wrong? Why are your eyes all bloodshot? Why do you look like shit?” I shook my head. “And more to the point, why are you handling me like a damn child?”
Ky sighed. His eyes closed, and he opened his mouth to speak. But then he didn’t . . .
Styx cleared his throat. “Been a stressful time lately.”
“Why?” I asked, immediately panicked. “Is Lilah okay? Grace?” I quickly checked my brother over for wounds, or . . . hell, I didn’t know what else. What the hell trouble bikers could get into. “Are you okay?”
My heart started pounding, some weird sense of dread seeping through my body like a poison. Ky opened his eyes and nodded. “Everyone’s fine.” But I could see through his pretense. I was just about to call bullshit when Ky blurted, “Garcia’s back.”
I was sure the warm wind was blowing, because I saw strands of my blond hair floating in front of my eyes, but I didn’t feel it. Ky’s mouth was working, saying something I was meant to hear, yet to my ears, he made no sound. I was lost to the memory of heavy footsteps on creaking floorboards as they approached my room. Memories of screams and barked orders scourged my mind . . . and his touch, his fingers running down my back, his lips nipping at my ear as he caressed my burned flesh. As—
“Sia!” Ky was holding my arms, shaking me from my stupor. I blinked, but a suffocating lump clogged my throat. I blinked fast to rid the flood of tears from my eyes. “Sia,” he repeated, softer this time. I stared at my brother, wordlessly. “Get inside.”
I let him lead me into my home and to the couch. A glass of whiskey appeared in my hand a second later, courtesy of Styx. I knocked it back in one, relishing the burning feeling that filled my chest. I shakily placed the glass on the coffee table and turned to look at Ky.
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s . . . he’s found me?” My voice was choked. I couldn’t have hidden my fear even if I’d wanted to.
“Not yet,” Ky assured me. He got to his feet and began to pace. “Some club shit went down a while ago, and Garcia was involved. Fucker saw me and Styx.” Ky met Styx’s eyes. Styx nodded. Ky removed an envelope from the pocket of his cut. He placed it before me. I stared at the obviously expensive stationery on the table. My hands shook as I slowly reached forward and opened it. A Polaroid picture peeped out. When I finally pulled the picture out and turned it to face me, every ounce of blood in my veins seemed to drain to my feet.
A single black rose.
A black rose, on a bed I recognized so well.
There was no note. No explanation. But I didn’t need one. This image spoke more than a thousand words ever could.
“Mi rosa negra,” the echo of his voice whispered in my mind. His heavy Mexican accent sliding around the words like a delicate silk scarf wrapped around a thorn-studded vine.
All of the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. “Where . . .?” I cleared my throat. “Where was this sent to?”
“The club.” Ky slumped to sit beside me. “Don’t like the cryptic shit”—he pointed to the Polaroid—“but I know that it’s his brand or something, yeah? The one he forced on you? On the girls he traffics?” I instinctively ran my hand over the plaid shirt covering my shoulder, where the small black rose tattoo had once desecrated my skin. I could still feel the scar under my fingertips, out of sight but never gone. And if I ever dared show my bare skin to the sun, a white outline would form as the area around it tanned. Erased, yet forever seared into my very flesh.
Worse still, the longer I stared at that picture, the more someone else flickered to my mind, a face I reflexively recalled several times a day. Brief images of what might have happened to her. But only ever enough to taunt me; I didn’t know how to mentally unlock the rest. Where she was—
“Sia!” Ky called. I blinked into focus. My brother kneeled in front of me. “You’re coming home with me.”
I shook my head. “No.” My arms wrapped over my chest, a shield to fend off the thought of leaving. “I don’t want to.” I swept my eyes around my home. The only place I now ever felt safe in. “You know I can’t leave.” Ky went to speak, but I cut in before he could. “I know I went to y’all’s weddings. I wouldn’t have missed them for the world. But I can’t leave here for too long. I . . . I . . .” I searched for more of an explanation, to put into words the vapid stream of anxiety forming in my stomach like a black pit, stealing all of my courage, my reason, my sanity, my very being.
It was ironic: when I was a teen, I made a vow to leave Austin and stop all contact with the Hangmen.
Then, one escape . . .
That was all it took to make me wish I had never set foot outta Texas. Never cut all ties with the Hangmen.
And one man . . .
One man, named Garcia, to make me long for the lazy Texas days and the sound of horses’ hooves padding on the grass outside of my old bedroom window.
“I don’t give a shit if you wanna come or not, Sia. You’re coming, and that’s that.”
The lack of empathy in Ky’s outright order broke through the mental fog that shielded my inner thoughts. A fire ignited the kindling that lived within me. My chin tilted high and my eyes narrowed to stare at my brother. “Don’t you dare speak to me like that, Kyler Willis. Don’t mistake me for a club whore who’ll jump at your command.” Ky’s face reddened. But I wouldn’t be spoken to like this. Right now, my brother resembled the one man who’d treated me like an errant child. A man I blamed for all the shit in my life. “I love Lilah, I truly do. But I am not some meek and submissive woman who’ll accept your orders. I’m your sister, not your fucking lapdog.”
Ky slowly rose to his feet. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply.
“Does he know where I live?” I asked my brother. He didn’t answer. “I said, does Garcia know where I am?”
Ky’s eyes snapped open. “It’s only a matter of time.”
I got to my feet, ignoring the shaking of my legs. I boldly met Ky’s eyes. “Then I ain’t leaving my ranch. I’m hidden. I’ve been hidden for years. False identity. False deeds on this place. For Christ’s sake, I live in the fucking boondocks. No one around for miles. He ain’t making me leave my home. I won’t give him that satisfaction.”
“Think again.” Ky stood taller. “Get upstairs and pack a bag, and tell that young bitch we hired to help you that she’ll be taking care of things around here ’til you’re back. Tell her there’s a family emergency or some shit.”
My heart pumped faster. “I. Ain’t. Going. Clara can’t deal with everything herself. We have two mares in foal, two saddle broncs that need training. I’m needed here.”
We argued back and forth, back and forth, voices and tempers rising, until a loud whistle cut through our squabbling. I snapped my eyes to Styx, who was standing before the fireplace. His face was like thunder, and he looked like a fucking Titan, he was so huge. He raised his hands. “Sia, grab your shit. You’re coming with us.” I swallowed, defeat settling over me like an unwelcome rain shower on a sunny day. “Ky, calm the fuck down.” Ky turned and bust out of the front door of my ranch. I watched my brother go. I had an eerie feeling that this—the argument, his shitty mood—wasn’t all down to Garcia.
Styx cleared his throat. “You two are way too fucking similar. Both a pain in my ass.” He paused, then signed, “More going on at the club than you know. So how about you chill the fuck out with all the dramatics. I get enough on the daily with my fucknut brothers without adding you into the mix.” His lips tightened, and I knew I wasn’t gonna get my way. “You’re coming with us. I ain’t giving you an option. You’re Hangmen family. And that fucker is sniffing around. Pack your bag so we can get the fuck gone.”
Feeling like a sulking teen, I stormed past Styx toward my bedroom, shouldering him as I passed. He didn’t even move. “Sometimes I fucking hate the family I’ve been born into. Chauvinistic pricks. Y’all have fucking god complexes.”
Styx didn’t even flinch at my words. “As long as that complex belongs to the Dark Lord holding a noose and an Uzi, I’m fucking all right with owning that shit. It’s the way it is. Ain’t gonna change because you’re pitching a fit,” he signed. “You don’t have to like my orders, but you will obey them.” Then he added, “You’ve got ten minutes,” before he left to go after my brother.
Too angry to even give two shits about what was wrong with Ky—it was probably some “club business” I wouldn’t be allowed to know anyway—I stuffed clothes and toiletries into a bag and called Clara to ask her to watch the ranch while I was gone and get help from the vet if she needed it. He owed me a favor or a million for taking in sick horses when his practice was full.
Ten minutes later, my house was locked up and I was in my truck, following my brothers to the Hangmen compound. With each mile I drove away from the safe haven of my ranch, I felt less and less myself. I heard Garcia’s voice in my head, telling me he was coming for me. Threatening that he’d own me once and for all.
But like Kyler, I was good at covering what was bothering me.
So I’d pull up my big-girl panties and stay at the club for a while. As we passed through downtown Austin, lights from South Congress Avenue illuminating the cab of my truck, I let two images of Hades guide me: his smug face, and a noose, reminding why I ran away all those years ago.
This club was quicksand. A quicksand in which I was hell-bent on not getting stuck.
Tillie Cole hails from a small town in the North-East of England. She grew up on a farm with her English mother, Scottish father and older sister and a multitude of rescue animals. As soon as she could, Tillie left her rural roots for the bright lights of the big city.
After graduating from Newcastle University with a BA Hons in Religious Studies, Tillie followed her Professional Rugby player husband around the world for a decade, becoming a teacher in between and thoroughly enjoyed teaching High School students Social Studies before putting pen to paper, and finishing her first novel.
Tillie has now settled in Austin, Texas, where she is finally able to sit down and write, throwing herself into fantasy worlds and the fabulous minds of her characters.
Tillie is both an independent and traditionally published author, and writes many genres including: Contemporary Romance, Dark Romance, Young Adult and New Adult novels.
When she is not writing, Tillie enjoys nothing more than curling up on her couch watching movies, drinking far too much coffee, while convincing herself that she really doesn’t need that extra square of chocolate.
Julian’s the kind of sexy that demands a cigarette before sex.
He’s the whip and the cream on top of my chocolate sundae.
Hell, he’s the only man worth the fancy underwear in my panty drawer. But suddenly, the thong isn’t the only pain in my ass.
He’s rude. He’s arrogant. And he’s the single greatest threat to my job.
So, of course, I fell in love with my perfect enemy.
Accidentally getting pregnant was our first battle.
Now? It’s all-out-war.
Micah’s the sort of girl who breaks more balls than hearts.
No matter how perfect her ass, it’s not worth the pain in mine.
Her smile might tighten my pants, but the woman’s worse than the drought, pestilence, and ramble of weeds destroying my fields. Too bad she’s the only one who can save my farm.
So, I made a deal with that devil.
…Then I knocked her up.
It was a bad day to fall in love.
Then again, every day was a bad day to fall in love.
I’d missed the warning signs—the alarm that never went off, the torrential downpour, the car that didn’t start.
Days like that day were perfect for hiding in the office and catching up on paperwork. There, the only risk was the occasional coffee ring on an important contract or an unfortunate paper cut. And while I was sure that the good, old-fashioned journey of self-destruction they called love might have been exhilarating for the first few irresponsible moments, that sort of complication had no place in my life plan.
Especially since Mr. Julian Payne was the wrong man to steal my heart.
If he could find it under the layers and layers of mud.
Mud made a bad day worse. Worse and soggy. Mud caked me head to toe, settling in a variety of places that would require a very intimate scrubbing. Unlike Spa Gemma—Ironfield’s hottest and most exclusive health resort—Butterpond’s famous mud offered no organic benefits to skincare or hydration. Instead, this particular land was supposedly exceedingly fertile. Not any concern of mine, considering the next five years of my life were specifically organized to focus on career growth and physical fitness.
Butterpond wasn’t a great launch pad for any future ambitions or social networking. After four months of employment in the municipal zoning office, my most productive assignment had been unwedging myself from a mud hole in the Payne’s driveway-turned-swamp. I’d kept my shoe but lost my dignity to the sticky pit.
First, my broken-down car.
Then, getting tsunami’d by a speeding pickup truck tearing through a pond-sized puddle on Bakers Run Road.
I’d fallen—wallowed—in six inches of uncompromising, unrelenting mud, crawling hand over fist until I reached the safety of the Payne’s county-styled farmhouse.
And, at the end of the quarter-mile trek up the filthy, water-logged, knee-deep mud driveway? I faced a man who might have stolen my breath if I hadn’t lost it all on the hike to his porch.
Julian Payne was a superior kind of sexy.
As hot as a flickering cigarette after hours of lovemaking.
As teasing as a wrinkle in the sheets twisted by bare toes.
As damning as a body prickling with sweat in the dark.
He was the type of man who’d make a woman giggle as she made the biggest mistake of her life.
I’d made a personal promise to never compromise my values for a little green, but eyes like his were worth dirtying a clean reputation in a new town.
My heart beat quicker—and it wasn’t the panic of leaving my Jimmy Choo’s sinking in a puddle of gloppy mud. This was either love at first sight…or an entirely inappropriate reaction as I stared at Julian, pacing the porch in broad, athletic strides.
Shame. Definitely shame.
I was supposed to be meeting this man on behalf of the Sawyer County Zoning Department. Instead, I drooled over a god so beautiful, so muscular, so utterly stunning that he’d be a perfect excuse to amend my current life plan of career advancement for a fairy tale dream of desire and lust.
Then…he opened his mouth.
“You know what’s wrong with this world?”
Julian spoke daggers—slicing words from lips that shouldn’t have tumbled anything but compliments and dirty words.
He wove his hand through thick, dark hair—wet from either the rain or a shower. His flannel shirt, only halfway buttoned, revealed a hard chest of solid muscle.
This was a man who had never feared a day of hard work in his life. Probably made hard work fear him.
Julian paced the porch, but he wouldn’t outrun his frustration. “I’m trying my goddamned hardest to get this farm up and running.”
This was a proud man. A confident man. A man unburdened by mud and dirty puddle water. And I stood, unnoticed, caked in the unthinkable.
Of course I would meet the man of my dreams while living a waking nightmare. But maybe he’d like a woman who smelled like his farm.
God…I hoped it was just farm I smelled. What the hell was in that mud?
Across the old, rickety porch—covered with a roof that would never meet modern structural guidelines—Julian’s friend eyed me with shock…then pity. Probably the same look I’d receive once I returned to the township offices for my scheduled meeting with the mayor and city council.
So much for the raise.
The second man bounced a baby on his knee. He didn’t seem the type to cuddle a one-year-old, but the baby took glee in tugging the trimmed beard teasing his hardened jaw. He spat out the fingers the little girl jammed into his mouth and attempted to interrupt Julian to greet me.
Julian ignored his friend and proceeded to rant instead.
“How the hell am I supposed to work this farm? The taxes are killing me, the regulations are binding my hands, and now this zoning bullshit tells me where I can and can’t build on my own damn property?”
He was a rugged sort of cowboy, chock full of muscles and arrogance and something less pleasant.
I attempted to interject and announce my arrival, but Julian had no time in the world to listen to anyone by himself.
And I didn’t like what I heard.
“This is our land. It was my father’s land. His father’s land. And his father’s land.” He slapped a calloused hand against the clapboard siding of his house. His home didn’t deserve the solid spank, punishing the building for the inconvenience of the zoning laws that were my job to enforce. “My grandparents built this home from nothing. When my father took over the farm, he worked every day of the year. Sunup to sundown. Back then, no municipality ordered them around on their own private property.”
Why did the cute ones always advocate anarchy?
A man like Julian Payne should’ve stayed quiet and enjoyed the air of mystery. Tall, dark, handsome, and utterly silent. Gone was my fantasy of a rugged cowboy, riding us off into the sunset on his trusty horse, while obeying every zoning regulation set forth in the county’s Unified Development Ordinance.
This was not a man who wanted to play by the rules…or by the laws enacted via local ordinance by the Sawyer County Board of Supervisors and vested in me as Director of Building and Zoning.
“Now there’s some hotshot, wannabe politician telling me what to do?” Julian hadn’t yet noticed me. That was fine. I’d wait this performance out. “He’s probably some fat ass who never even set foot on a farm.”
My ass was not fat. And none of my previous admirers had ever complained about the bump. All…two of them.
Julian seethed, his boots thudding hard against the porch’s warping planks. “He’s probably never worked a day in his life, you know?”
His friend cleared his throat. “Uh…”
“Probably spent his life sitting behind some desk in a cushy office.”
My desk had three legs and a pile of books propping up the fourth. One florescent bulb had burned out a year ago and had yet to be replaced. And, when it rained, the window leaked and trickled water into the outlet.
Julian smirked. “Probably gets off on the power. Jerks it every time he rejects a building permit application.”
If I took any more offense to his statement, I’d be stuffing my pockets with indignation.
So what if my job was in an office? What did it matter if I wasn’t riding a tractor in the sun all day? I had papers to file and applications to review and men like him to disappoint when they thought they could do as they liked without regard to the greater good of the community.
But Julian was right.
His was one building permit application that would be downright orgasmic to reject.
“Know it took me two weeks to even get an appointment with this asshole?” Julian said. “And now he’s too goddamned incompetent to show up on time.”
I’d just lost a five-hundred-dollar pair of shoes in the pit he called a driveway. This was after I’d rearranged my entire schedule to visit him in person, sacrificing my thirty-minute lunch and a growing stack of county fair plans in desperate need of review. I’d come to Triumph Farm as a favor to the one man everyone in Butterpond loved like their own damned child.
And now I was incompetent?
No matter how panty-melting handsome the son of a bitch was, he was going to be nothing but a pain in my ass.
“Julian!” The man holding the baby finally interrupted the rant, but Julian had already stuck his foot so far in his mouth he’d be shitting toes for a week. “I think he is here.”
Julian turned. My stomach flopped back into the mud.
This man took my breath away. Which was good. It’d put us on even ground once I punched him square in the gut. But that wouldn’t be very professional as a representative of Sawyer County.
I’d get him audited instead.
I extended a hand. A glop of mud dripped from my fingers. At least it made the java brown of my skin shine. Not that I wanted to exfoliate with the sticky, clumpy mess of debris that churned in Julian Payne’s backyard.
I sucked in a breath, tempered my anger, and attempted to introduce myself.
His riotous, exceedingly inappropriate laugh carried across his untended farmland—land that would stay empty if he insisted on misbehaving.
“What the hell…” He stared at me—eyes greener than any weed sprouting in his fields. “What happened to you?”
His was a question that would take an afternoon in a spa, a soak in a tub, and a dinner of pure carbs and an entire bottle of wine to answer.
It’d started when I’d busted the corrupt Chief of Police in Ironfield and ended around the time the city fired me for whistle blowing. Fast forward six months of unemployment, and suddenly I was changing the tire of the hand-me-down Sawyer County Crown Vic with three hundred thousand miles, no air conditioning, and an accelerator that tended to stick. Add to that an afternoon dip in a mud puddle and fifteen minutes of clawing through a swamp to get to his front porch, and I had quite the tale to tell Mr. Payne-In-My-Ass about my punctuality and sludgy appearance.
Of course, that was the moment my shock, rage, and absolute lust for this cowboy coalesced into a knot that bound my tongue, heart, and a place a bit lower that—frankly—could have used a good hogtie in the past six months.
“Someone…” My words sputtered out in a most unflattering, incoherent jumble. I stumbled forward, my bare toes sinking into yet another slimy, cold layer of gunk. “There’s…a…it was locked…”
The man with the baby offered me the little girl’s blanket to, presumably, un-mire myself. It wouldn’t help. I needed a damned hose to clear the mud from every nook and cranny on me—places I’d worked so hard to keep clean.
The job wasn’t supposed to be like this.
My life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I didn’t belong in the dead-end, rural, farming town of Butterpond.
And I sure as hell didn’t deserve to be treated like a inconvenience by Julian Payne when I’d been trying to help.
I swallowed the irritation and gestured down the quarter-mile of sludge that was the farm’s driveway.
“The gate was locked.”
Julian hadn’t stopped laughing.
“I had to get out of the car…open it…the mud was…everywhere.”
His cayenne smoky laugh gutted me. This was a bastard who’d rot in hell for watching my toes wiggle in the grass.
My words turned to a hiss. “You…are you Julian Payne?”
For half a second, I prayed I had the wrong man, wrong farm, wrong anything.
If he was the whip and cream on my chocolate sundae, he’d just melted my entire dessert.
“Yeah,” he said. “Who the hell are you?”
Unfortunate. He was the one man I’d hate to hate.
I straightened my dress as best I could and attempted to wipe some of the mud from my face. No good. It only smeared yet another line across my cheek.
“I’m your appointment,” I said. “And I would have been here sooner if someone hadn’t locked the driveway gate. I fell in the mud and had to claw my way here.”
I received no pity from him. Julian scowled. Damn the man for looking so good even while irritated.
“Look, swamp thing. Sorry you got a little dirty…that’s life on a farm. This is what happens when you’re working the land, not pushing papers.”
Like he had any idea how to do my job. I clenched my fists, wishing a layer of gunk hadn’t squished from between my fingers. My voice cracked with rage. Not the most intimidating.
“Well, I’m here now,” I said. “Let’s get this over with.”
“Hell, no. I’ve got an appointment with Mr. Micah Robinson, not…”
He gestured over my curves. He couldn’t be that stupid. All brawn and no brains.
Julian shook his head. “I’m not meeting with his secretary.”
If I wasn’t so sure I’d lost my earrings somewhere by my flattened tire, I’d have ripped the hoops out and prepared to rumble.
Bad day to fall in love.
Bad day to have my heartbroken by a jackass.
Bad day to mess with me.
“You know, cowboy…” I used the term loosely. His farm had no crops and no animals, and it’d probably stay that way. “I intended to do you a favor.”
“I came out in person. I wanted to survey the farm. Meet this Julian Payne everyone keeps talking about.”
And they talked a lot.
The Paynes were the glue that held together a town comprised mostly of a grocery store that stocked nothing organic and a roughneck bar that didn’t serve Cosmopolitans or even understand the meaning of the word.
Small couldn’t begin to describe Butterpond—but financially insolvent got close. Maybe it was the family’s charity from years ago, or maybe it was the trouble caused these last thirty years by his five sons, but the Paynes dominated the town gossip. Tales of wild nights and fires, eligible bachelors and warring siblings added a bit of mystery to the usual stories of the town’s bingo cheaters, not-so-secret affairs, and warnings about the feral cats overrunning the county fairgrounds.
But Julian Payne?
This man could do no wrong.
Giving up a potentially lucrative career with the Ironfield Rivets just to come home and take care of the family farm, his grieving family, and the responsibility as head of household? Supposedly, the man was a rural messiah who still had enough connections to score the occasional Rivets’ ticket.
That would teach me to listen to idle gossip again.
Especially when it wasn’t about me or threats to my employment.
I raised my chin and pretended the mud was just another layer of Sephora foundation. “And here I thought you could use some help…and you’re gonna need it. You submitted an application to rebuild a barn that’s been demolished for five years.”
“Burned down,” Julian said. “Long story. It burned down.”
“Yes, well, you haven’t attempted to rebuild it within a permitted time frame which makes it exempt to any grandfathered building codes and requirements. Since the structure’s destruction, Sawyer County has passed a new set of zoning regulations which you must adhere to. Your application—which did not include the required set of architectural drawings or a survey of your property—”
“It’s just a barn.”
“—Was not only incomplete, but it lacked the relevant detail to even consider approval for the new construction of an accessory structure on this chosen location.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
It meant this would have felt a hell of a lot better if I wasn’t covered in mud for the reveal.
“It means…I can tell you right now what the decision will be regarding your barn.”
I tasted the anger. It tasted a lot like mud. “It’s gonna get denied.”
“What?” Julian blinked. He held his arms out. “That’s it?”
“Don’t bother helping me with the gate. I can manage this time.”
“Don’t let it knock you on your ass on the way out.”
Maybe then he’d stop staring at it, curves barely covered by a designer skirt ruined by the mud and gunk. I hobbled across the driveway just as the skies opened and my luck torrentially poured on me. The saturated material clung to my curves—curves which might’ve been a grand accomplishment for any lady who was not attempting to maintain a level of professionalism within her newfound career. I hadn’t intended to literally storm to my car, but I crossed my fingers for a flash flood to whisk me away.
No amount of hand sanitizer would clean this mess. Especially not before my two o’clock meeting with the mayor and council. I couldn’t go back to the office looking like this. Then again, I doubted I could even make it back to my car.
The mud snowballed around my feet, mixing with the rain to become as heavy as cement. I’d have to cancel the meeting with the council meant to save my job. Too many complaints in government usually meant a municipal employee was doing something right. But in a town where everyone knew each other’s names, kids, properties, secrets, and vulnerable insecurities, one-too-many High Grass and Weed citations didn’t commend me for community outreach. It pissed off the wrong people.
This was his fault.
That sexist, arrogant jerk of a man.
I wouldn’t have gotten muddy if I hadn’t come to his stupid farm. Wouldn’t have popped the tire if I hadn’t volunteered to meet him. Wouldn’t have been late to the meeting to save my career if I hadn’t offered to help that egotistical son of a—
My foot plunked too deep into the mud. My ankle didn’t go with it. I twisted and collapsed to the ground.
The rain made everything stickier. I wiped the hair out of my eyes with a stroke of my hand. Mistake. The mud smeared over my nose, in my eyes, over my lips.
Hair—embedded with twigs.
Foot—stuck in a hole.
I hobbled upright and kicked. Nada. The earth sucked me in but didn’t have the courtesy to bury me six feet under.
Screw it. I’d gnaw my damn ankle off if it meant getting the hell off this farm.
Another yank and I fell forward once again. My Louis Vuitton purse abandoned me, tumbling into a puddle. The vibrating cell phone rolled from the front pocket and splashed in murky water.
Great. I’d die in a backwoods mud pit.
I reached for the phone. My fingertips just grazed the vibrating case before a sun-warmed rumble of a voice piqued my blood pressure.
I’d either jump his bones or bury them in his own backyard.
I didn’t bother glancing at Julian Payne. I’d remember exactly what he looked like tonight in my dreams. It’d take more than a bottle of wine and evening with my showerhead to forget that face.
I spoke through gritted teeth. “You expected someone different?”
“Yeah.” Julian circled me, the mud practically hardening under his boots. Jesus walked on water, Julian could traverse through mud. Less of a god and more a pig. “I thought I was meeting a guy—the zoning officer.”
“Do you even know what a zoning officer is?”
“Yeah. He’s the asshole who won’t let me build a barn.”
And that was why I wouldn’t waste my breath explaining how the municipal code forbid the construction of a new structure so close to the property lines or why a barn of that size would be denied based on the township’s maximum permissible square footage calculation.
Hell, even breaking the regulations down wouldn’t work. A thick head like his wouldn’t understand no build here, too big.
I ignored him and attempted to dislodge my foot from a property that was one blue heron away from a wetlands designation. Then he’d really be pissed when he couldn’t build anything.
“Need help?” Julian asked.
Was he joking? “No.”
I squirmed. Wiggled. Juked.
And sunk deeper into the mud.
I gritted my teeth. “Yes, I’m sure.”
“Cause…to me?” Julian snickered. “Looks like you’re about to become part of the foundation for my new barn.”
Now I did glare at him. And I regretted every single pelting raindrop that splattered his shirt and stuck the material to his thick muscles.
“What barn?” I huffed. “After today, you’ll be lucky if you can plant a damn tomato without a permit.”
“Not sure who made you princess of the county…” Julian enjoyed my plight a little too much. “But lemme help you.”
“I don’t need help.”
“You’ve never spent a day outside your office, have you?”
Not that he needed to know. I warded him away with a swing of a very muddy hand. “I’m fine.”
“Not from around here, are you?” He smirked. God, it was a great smirk. “Most of the locals don’t try to swim through the mud.”
“I wouldn’t have needed to swim if someone had remembered to open the gate.”
“Might’ve opened the gate if someone were on time for her scheduled appointment.”
“Would have made it on time if you had opened the gate.”
“Would have had the gate open if you’d called to tell me you were here.”
Julian didn’t ask permission before sliding his arm around my waist. With a graceful shrug, he lifted me out of the mud and freed me from the hole.
With any other man, in any other time, in any other moment when I wasn’t coated head to toe with muck, I might have offered myself for his ravishment.
It wasn’t the classiest or most realistic of expectations, but it had been a long time since a man had grabbed these hips, and sometimes a girl needed an excuse to get dirty.
But not with him.
Not with a man that arrogant, that aggravating…
“You sure you’re old enough to be a zoning officer?” He hadn’t released me, smirking as I swung my legs above the ground. “I should just keep you in my pocket. Might get the build done faster—”
I kicked. My foot connected a little too hard with the part of him that fed his ego. With a groan, he dropped me. We both clattered to the ground. Me, smooshed into the mud.
Julian landed over me—all two hundred pounds of pure muscle and small-town mischief.
The skies drenched us in buckets of warm, summer rain. The mud had cushioned our fall. I laid beneath him, pinned, staring into eyes as green as the ominous clouds overhead. Probably a sign to find better cover than under the body of the town’s most frustratingly handsome farmer.
Embarrassment choked me. Or maybe that was lust. I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. Couldn’t unburrow from the muck and mire to ensure my dress hadn’t hiked too far up my thighs
The bastard still held me in his arms. I squirmed, clenching my jaw and my legs tightly shut. Didn’t help. A new heat sizzled the raindrops against my skin. Julian stared at me, bright eyes under thick brows, a stoic nose slightly bent from years of abuse, a hardened jaw teased with a scruffy, five o’clock shadow.
A face worthy of cuddling against a pillow or burrowing between my thighs. I hated the thoughts and banished the flutter of warmth aching inside me.
He caught his breath and adjusted the injured part of him. “Are you—”
He’d rubbed his face, leaving a trail of mud along his cheek.
A wriggling, dark little spec remained.
A nightmare of nightmares.
I screamed and punched him square in the nose.
Julian fell backwards with a grunt. I scrambled to safety.
“Oh, God.” I’d hyperventilate before I could climb a tree or escape into my car to flee from the leeches. “Ew, ew, ew.”
I whipped my hands over any exposed skin, but it wouldn’t do any good.
I’d lain in that oozing, sticky mud.
A million of those creepy crawly disgusting creatures might have latched onto me. The panic set in. So did the lightheadedness. I clutched my clothes and struggled to check all over me before the leeches gorged themselves on every last drop of my blood.
But where could I run? Hide? Fight? I lamented my bare feet and scrunched up tight, sacrificing my right foot to the mud. Hopefully, they wouldn’t strip it to the bone in mere minutes.
Or maybe that was piranhas?
Oh, God, I didn’t want to find out.
“What the hell is your problem?” Julian touched his nose. No blood, but he winced anyway.
He didn’t have to thank me. I’d never stop retching. “You had a leech on your face!”
“No, I didn’t, you maniac.” Julian held out his hand, exposing the little black wiggler. “It’s a fucking blade of grass.”
I still didn’t let it touch me. I nearly collapsed, my breath heaving in uneven gasps. Julian watched, eyebrow rising.
“Have you ever been outside before?” he asked.
Forget the glass of wine. Tonight I’d take the whole damn bottle into the tub. “I don’t often make farm calls. Usually the applicants properly fill out their applications.”
“Never thought I’d have to sweet talk a dirty girl for my barn.”
Hardly appropriate. “Don’t you dare sweet talk me, Mr. Payne.”
“Oh, I forgot. You’re county royalty, princess.” He waggled his eyebrows—the bastard. “I’ll take you out to dinner instead.”
“How could that possibly help?”
“Better than propositioning you in the mud.”
He had to be joking. “You aren’t propositioning anything.”
I shoved past him. “I’d need to be drunk to accept that offer.”
“Your application has been denied.”
Julian didn’t quit. A smile tugged at his lips. “Dancing.”
I ignored him and trudged away. To my displeasure, he followed.
“Come on, princess.” He loved this. “Those hips were made for more than mud wrestling.”
No one had ever talked to me like that before. I sure as hell didn’t approve of it.
But I wasn’t sure I hated that good ol’, small-town charm.
“Look, cowboy…” I spun and poked him in the chest. “I don’t take bribes.”
“And I don’t sleep with charity cases, but I’ll do whatever it takes for this barn.”
The insolent, conceited asshole! “You’re a real bastard, you know that?”
“Are my tax dollars paying for that mouth of yours?” He grinned. “Wish I could put it to better use.”
“How many times do I have to reject you today?” The insults burned through me. So did the desire, though I couldn’t possibly loathe this man more. “Keep trying, cowboy. Disappointing you is starting to feel nice.”
“I can make you feel better than nice.”
“I have morals,” I said.
“You work in government.”
“And men like are you are the reason I avoid the public sector.”
Julian hollered as I stomped away. “How am I supposed to get my barn, princess?”
“You could start by using my real name.” I should have kept walking. “Then you could build the damn thing where it’s authorized in the right dimensions and not insult the only person who can grant you the permissions.”
“Didn’t know government came with a safe word.”
He was going to need one soon. “Don’t test me.”
“What other permissions can you grant?”
“None. But I can cite you for being a public nuisance.”
Julian sighed. “You haven’t even given me a chance.”
“I gave you enough of a chance, Julian Payne. You blew it.”
He laughed, a hearty, country-born, home-grown rumble. “Don’t make this into a challenge, princess. You won’t win.”
“This isn’t about winning,” I said. “It’s about the law.”
“I’m not giving up.” Julian winked. “You’re going to see a lot of me, Miss Robinson.”
“First an insult, now a threat?”
He shrugged. “You could just grant approval now—save us the time and the inevitable foreplay.”
“You couldn’t handle me, cowboy.”
“Won’t know until we try…see if you’re as dirty as you seem.”
I sauntered close, my words a low growl. “Oh, I can play very dirty.”
“That’s what I like to hear.”
Then he’d love this. “Your application is not only denied, now I will take all forty-five business days to review any appeal you may submit.” I met his gaze. “Before this gets any worse for you, Mr. Payne, I recommend you submit.”
“Always did like a feisty girl.”
Loathsome man. “I think you’ve met your match.”
“Oh, princess, believe me. I’m gonna do you to code.”
“Inspect you head to toe, make sure you adhere to my master plan.”
“I bet you will.”
Julian’s words were filthier than the mud. “Wonder what I could do if I bound you up in your own red tape.”
“Never gonna find out.” I offered him a sweet, professional smile and continued to my car. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Julian Payne. I can’t wait until the next time I get to reject you.”
Sosie Frost is no stranger to quirky, embarrassing, and wild situations, and she’s channeling all that new adult angst into fun romances.
From marching at the high school homecoming game without her trumpet (a punishment for forgetting the instrument on the band bus), to regretfully tucking her prom dress into the back of her tights before pictures, and even accidentally starting a chemical fire in the college chem lab, Sosie has the market cornered on crazy stories.
But hey, writing is a better outlet than therapy right? 😉
If you want funny, charming, and steamy romances, you’ve found the right author!
Sosie lives in Pittsburgh with her hubby, her two cats, and thrives on a near constant stream of gummy bears.
The Dirty Bits from Carina Press give you what you want, when you want it. Designed to be read in an hour or two, these sex-filled microromances are guaranteed to pack a punch and deliver a happily-ever-after.
A new supersexy insta-love novella from USA TODAY bestselling author Jenika Snow that has a gruff lumberjack yelling T-I-M-B-E-R for the woman he’s been waiting for.
The Ash Brothers—they know how to handle their wood.
I’m a hard man. A loner. Or so town gossip says. After having my heart sent through the chipper, I’ve kept to myself. I prefer the quiet of the woods to the ramblings of clingy women who think they can tame a wild mountain man.
Until Mia. Now she’s all I think about.
I should have stayed away. She’s too sweet for a brute like me, but I can’t stop wanting her, picturing her sated in my sheets.
Mia knows just what kind of wood I’m working with. She’s the soft to my hard, the sugar to my bitter bark.
And I love seeing her walk on the wild side.
This book is approximately 15,000 words
For those times when size does matter. The Dirty Bits from Carina Press: Quick and dirty, just the way we like it.
Being part owner of Ash Lumber made it so technically I didn’t have to do the dirty work. I had employees who worked under me to do that. But just because I co-owned the company with my two brothers didn’t mean I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. Not only did we deal with cutting down the trees for production, over the last few years we’d even dabbled in development and construction. It was just one more branch of the business that was expanding.
I was a lumberjack right down to my very marrow.
I liked chopping wood, slinging it over my shoulder and hauling it to where it needed to go. This was a family owned and run business, and it also helped keep me busy, kept my mind from wandering. And that was the main reason I worked just as hard as the men who worked for my brothers and me.
For nearly my whole life I’d lived in Rockbridge, Colorado, a picturesque lumber town. We had mountains on three sides of us, the town situated so the snowcapped peaks could always be seen. The thick forest was our backyard, and this was the only place I’d ever felt comfortable, ever felt was truly my home.
This was the only place that I ever felt I belonged.
There had been one time in my life that I’d moved away, one time where I’d been out of my element and miserable as fuck. And I’d done it all for a woman…for what I thought was love. I’d agreed to move to the city, to allow Amelia to pursue her dreams, even though skyscrapers and concrete would surround me, would be my coffin.
We only lived in the city for a few months before tragedy struck, but I’d hated every second of it. Traffic had been my alarm clock, and steel and glass had been my view. It was because of my emotions and the hope that things would be better, that I stuck it out, knowing that in order to make things work I had to sacrifice what I wanted for her to be happy.
But even though I wanted her to be happy and successful, maybe it had been my own selfish thoughts, the fact that I hated living in the city so much that I found myself despising everything about it.
And things had started to become tense between us, strained. She was working constantly, and her attitude toward me became cold. In just those few months I’d seen a change take over her, watched as she started putting her career before our relationship. We’d grown detached, and it had felt more like I was with a roommate.
But before we worked anything out, if we even could or would have, I lost Amelia to a drunk driver.
I blamed myself for not trying harder with her, for not making her see we needed to focus on each other. But in just those short months we’d grown apart to the point I don’t know what the future would have looked like for us anyway. Even after all that, though, self-hate and guilt had eaten at me.
So I moved back home, jumped back into the family-owned lumber business, and tried to move on with my life.
Ten years passed, and I hadn’t been with a woman since, had never even wanted to have one by my side or in my bed.
The years had hardened me to a point, had made me despise the kind of emotions that falling in love and being with somebody invoked. Because I knew it didn’t last. It never lasted. People drifted apart, love was lost, and loneliness was the only solid thing you could count on.
I was happy in my current situation, content with working day in and day out. I enjoyed keeping to myself. And that’s how it would stay. Because even if I did find a woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, hell, to share my bed with, I feared I’d be no good for her.
Being celibate, focusing on work, on being the loner I’d become, had worked out well for me. I didn’t deny that I jerked off plenty of times, needed some kind of outlet for pent-up arousal, but that’s as far as I went. Women didn’t interest me, and another relationship sure as fuck wasn’t in my future.
Keeping to myself was best for everyone all around. At least that’s what I’d been telling myself this whole time.
I said goodbye to the life I’d known for far too long, packed up all my belongings, and headed to Rockbridge, Colorado. Although Rockbridge was only a couple hours northwest of Denver, where’d I’d been living and working for the last few years, it felt like a whole other world.
In my previous life, before I’d moved to the city for work, I’d lived in Thornton. It had been an up and coming place to live and had its quaint points. But over the years even those homegrown scenic views had been eaten up by restaurants and supermarkets, doctors’ offices and housing developments. Hell, they’d even built over a gorgeous prairie dog field that had been right behind my housing development.
Dammit, I’d loved those prairie dogs.
And now I was dropped into some postcard town, where evergreens and aspens surrounded me, and the smell of Christmas filled my head.
Mountains surrounded the town, the peaks reaching for the very heavens, and forests touching the edges of the roads. The houses were quaint, cabin-like.
I felt freer, like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders as soon as I arrived in Rockbridge.
I pulled open the sliding glass door to the house I was renting for the time being and stepped out onto the small deck. Evergreens and aspens were my backyard now. I could see the snowcapped mountains peeking over the treetops, and I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. I’d been so worried about moving, so stressed out about starting a new job and leaving everything else behind, that I hadn’t really been able to appreciate how good this would be for me in the long run.
I brought my mug up and blew a light brush of air over the top, the steam from my tea disappearing into the fresh, clean air. I had been here for a few weeks now, my new position that of an executive accountant for the one small real estate company in town.
Truth was, executive accountant was a term far too fancy and sophisticated for the small business I was working for. I was a glorified number pusher, but the pay was decent—not exactly what I’d made before, but good enough for me to be comfortable. And this small rental property with an acre of land that I’d found had sealed the deal about making this new jump in my life.
So, I’d put in my two weeks at my former position and never looked back.
My energy had been drained living that life. I felt the weight of working for a large corporation and coming home to the same four walls, the same postage stamp–sized yard every day. I knew if I didn’t make a change my health would suffer.
I found myself smiling, and was thankful there were no neighbors around. They’d probably think I was insane, standing here alone, my mug pressed to my lips, a huge grin spread across my face.
I might’ve only been here a few weeks, but I already felt like this was home.
Copyright Carina Press and Jenika Snow 2018
Only You, an all-new sexy and emotional standalone from USA Today bestselling author Melanie Harlow is coming March 12th!
Title: Only You
Author: Melanie Harlow
Publishing Date: March 12th
Designer: Letitia Hasser, RBA Designs
Photographer: Lauren Watson Perry
Nate Pearson is ridiculously handsome and wears the hell out of a suit and tie, but I’ve seen the parade of beautiful women leaving his apartment across the hall—a different one every time—and I want no part of it. When it comes to romance, I’m looking for something real, something that will last: the happily ever after.
As a divorce attorney, he loves to tell me there’s no such thing.
As a wedding planner, I choose to disagree.
We disagree on almost everything, in fact. Everything except James Bond. The only time we really get along is when we’re watching 007 flicks together, and I’ll admit—he has rescued me from a disaster or five. So when one of the baton twirlers from his parade leaves a baby girl at his door with a note that says “I’ll come back for her” and he begs me for help, I can’t turn him down.
But it’s a mistake.
Because watching him with his daughter, I start to see another side of Nate, a side that has my breath coming faster, my body craving his, my heart longing for him to change his mind about love and tell me there’s a chance for us.
I don’t want to be just another girl leaving his apartment in the morning.
I want to be the one he asks to stay.
Get the first chapter NOW when you subscribe to her mailing list
(current subscribers will be emailed a link): http://www.melanieharlow.com/subscribe/
Melanie Harlow likes her martinis dry, her heels high, and her history with the naughty bits left in. When she’s not writing or reading, she gets her kicks from TV series like VEEP, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, and Homeland. She occasionally runs three miles, but only so she can have more gin and steak.
Melanie is the author of the AFTER WE FALL series, the HAPPY CRAZY LOVE series, the FRENCHED series, and the sexy historical SPEAK EASY duet, set in the 1920s. She lifts her glass to romance readers and writers from her home near Detroit, MI, where she lives with her husband, two daughters, and pet rabbit.
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King Williams has seen the other side of hell, his tortured solitude hiding pain behind the cut of his marble jaw. Stubborn fortitude has gotten him this far, but one night with Piper at a club party is all it takes to unravel the walls he’s built. Now he can’t get her out of his head. His obsessive need rages before he pulls her in so deep both of their lives land on the line. The only thing that matters might be the only thing he can’t protect.
When Piper Parish spots King, high-ranking member of the Sinister Knights MC, nearly naked late one night, it isn’t the first time he’s caught her eye. It is, however, the first time she’s set eyes on the cobblestoned abs and chiseled lines etched into this bad boy’s body. Like a flash of lightning in the darkness, Piper finds herself thrown into a whirlwind ride with the brooding biker…a ride he will never let her forget.
Warning: King is one sexy, moody Harley ridin’ bad boy. he’s Piper’s idea of devilish, dark, attractive and so off-limits. Until now. He’ll stop at nothing to make her his, but is she ready to buckle in for the ride of a lifetime?
“I love him, Piper. I know I’ve said it before, but I know for sure this time. Truly,” Anna breathed at my ear, squeezing my elbow once.
“Ryker is mad about you. I can see it. Just the way the grouchy old bear as glaring at us now…” Ryker huffed, taking a long swallow from his beer bottle. “Despite your sunshiny disposition, I’m glad you’re back.” I glanced at the man of the hour, still hovering a few feet away from his girl, just in earshot, looking as if he were ready to steal her away from me at any minute.
He probably was.
I sucked in a sigh, eyes casting not for the first time at King, scowling from across the room, a matching beer bottle in his hand. I’d been wishing lately that King would look at me the same way Ryker was looking at Anna now.
Anna deserved happiness, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that Ryker was the man who made her happy. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t a tiny bit jealous of the love she’d found. I’d taken to spending so much more time at the ranch in the last few years since Ryker had gone up to County, not that Anna needed a babysitter, but Ryker being gone was tough on her.
Some nights I’d just held her in her bed and let her cry on my shoulder.
There was nothing else I could do.
Not only had Anna been recovering from an assault suffered at the hands of someone she trusted. But then Ryker, the very person who’d saved her from a far worse fate, had been stolen from her life too. Anna was never quite the same after Ryker was gone.
And now that Ryker was back and Anna’s face was plastered with a radiant smile, I was left with only one person on my mind.
Someone I’d seen hovering in the shadows for years now, just out of reach, broad and brooding and smarter than any other person I’d ever known.
I’d grown up like a little sister to the Sinister Knights, but from the very beginning, I’d had an uncontrollable crush on the quietest of the crew, King Williams. Always thoughtful, respectful, with a wry sense of humor and a full beard that sent butterflies fluttering around my stomach.
“I’ll text you later, okay?” Anna grinned, Ryker’s hand pulling her from me already.
“Have fun!” I waved her off, unable to help her infectious grin from covering my face too. I loved nothing more than seeing my best friend happy, even if the guy who made her feel that way was one big, tall, scary motherfucker.
To each her own, I figured.
Just as my eyes settled on the sound system set up in one corner, King came into view, head bent and eyes trained on my heavily lined ones.
He was so devastating it almost took my breath away.
He closed the distance, eyes never leaving mine, and he was suddenly in my space and draining all the oxygen from my lungs.
“H-hi,” I stuttered.
“Piper.” He nodded, pausing at my shoulder, a thousand unspoken things in his eyes.
I gnawed on my bottom lip, not able to form a single word.
King and I had had a hundred conversations about a hundred different things over the years, but now I was suddenly choking on my tongue.
“How’s Anna?” King finally asked, breaking his gaze.
“Great, now that Ryker is here.”
King nodded, a sly grin cocking up one side of his mouth.
The air hung heavy between us, energy so thick and suffocating it nearly swept me under just being so close. I no longer felt like a little girl next to this man; I felt like a woman, independent and strong, worthy of his attention.
I pressed my lips together, stomach swirling to the point of dizzying irritation before the first few chords of a Tom Petty song came through the stereo.
I covered my lips, stifling a giggle as I thought of one summer night when Ryker and King had caught Anna and me out after midnight, giggling as we talked about boys we had crushes on. Even then, King had sucked me in, the dark way his energy sucked up all the air in a room. He’d been making my insides turn cartwheels since day one.
“Wanna dance?” I blurted, half regretting it.
His guarded grin turned up, eyes dancing before a palm tucked in at my waist and pulled me a few inches closer to his body.
I nearly lost my head then.
I swallowed the ball of nerves in my throat and slid my hand along the hard muscle of his bicep.
“The only person I want abusing that pretty lip is me,” King muttered, thumb catching my bottom lip and pulling it from its prison beneath my teeth.
His smile deepened when he twisted our fingers together, turning me in a circle under his arm and then leaning me back into a heavy dip. The strong angle of his Roman nose trailed up the dip of my throat, lips brushing against my fiery hot skin and nearly causing me to swoon into a pool of bliss between his leather boots.
“I swear, every time I hear this song I’m with you.” He pulled my lips closer, faintly touching as we danced close. His hand was positioned at the small of my back now, melding our bodies a little more.
“Really?” I asked.
He nodded, eyes darting to the ceiling as he thought back. “When Saint, Ryker, and I taught you and Anna how to drive by using the old diesel around the pasture.”
I shook my head, laughing at the memory.
Anna had stalled the old manual transmission at least a dozen times, and just when Ryker was about to lose it, he’d gotten behind the wheel to prove a point and stalled it himself.
“That was a fun day.” I giggled.
“We’ve had a lot of fun days,” he said, other hand slipping over the nape of my neck, drawing me a little closer into his orbit. Making me a little more drunk on all things King. “And remember when Prez almost caught you and Anna sneaking out of her window one night?”
“Oh, yeah.” I nodded, the faint memory growing clearer as I remembered King pulling up on his bike just at the moment Prez was about to question where we were going. Instead, he thought we were only out talking to King, no harm, no foul there. “We never went out that night, got too scared and crawled back into Anna’s window. We made popcorn and watched The Breakfast Club.”
“I know.” King exhaled at my neck, sending a shiver skittering down my spine.
“How do you know?”
His fingers looped into the hair at my temple, his hard body pressed so closely to mine I was sure I could feel his heavy erection stretching past my navel. “Do you think I would have let you leave? I got you off the hook with Prez, but that didn’t mean I didn’t know what the hell you were up to. I woulda tanned your hide if you’d tried to sneak out again.”
My knees went weak, my breaths suddenly ragged as I thought about his body against mine, our clothes discarded on the floor, his lips tracing the lines of my body…
His callused palms traced down to my backside, the dress that spanned high across my thighs suddenly feeling like too much fabric separating us.
I didn’t know what tomorrow might hold, but I didn’t even care. Just having King’s hands on me was a fantasy I’d dreamed of so many nights I couldn’t even begin to count. Now here it was, so close to all falling into place.
“King!” Prez’s voice boomed from across the room.
King sighed heavily, hands gripping at the flesh of my backside as his forehead landed on mine. “I wish to fuck I didn’t have to answer that.”
I pushed a hand through his hair, my urge to purge the frown from his face strong. “Duty calls.”
“So it does.” His grip on my backside loosened, lips hovering just out of reach.
I swallowed, waiting, silently begging for his lips to touch mine, before Prez bellowed one last time. “King! Now!”
My handsome, thoughtful biker grunted under his breath, nodding once, eyes catching mine for one long moment before he turned, head down, and walked away from me.
Having King to myself would never be easy around the Sinister Knights. What was I thinking? That maybe now was finally our time?
I was under the influence of Anna’s contagious lovey-dovey shit, Tom Petty and his Heartbreakers, and that delicious, woodsy masculine scent that seemed to follow King everywhere.
Who the hell smelled that good anyway?
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He carries the burden of protecting an entire town
Being the oldest Kennard brother, I’ve got a centuries-old promise to uphold—run the family business to give the townspeople jobs and the sort of security they can only find in Justice. When a motorcycle club blows that plan apart, I’ll do anything to make them aware that they picked the wrong town to target. As a former Green Beret, I know just how to sabotage an enemy. The only weakness in my armor is my obsession with a five-foot-nothing blonde who unknowingly holds my heart in her hands. My attraction to her could cost me my life, but I’d sacrifice it all to save hers.
She owes a debt that could cost her life
I’ve spent three years hiding out in Justice and paying off a debt to the Soul Suckers, one they’ve decided to collect whether I’m ready to pay or not. When danger lands on my doorstep, one man jumps in to help. Alder Kennard—former Special Forces soldier and current object of all my fantasies. But the Soul Suckers won’t let a debt go unpaid, and with the price on my head rising every day, it’s only a matter of time until they come back for me. Alder would put his life on the line to save mine, which is something I simply can’t afford.
Everyone has a debt to pay, and the only currency I have left is my body. So when the time comes, I’ll trade my life for his.
If I hadn’t already been in a foul mood, those words would have gotten me there. “What is it now?”
“Motorcycle gang up on Widow’s Ridge.” Camden Reese—born and bred in Justice, friend of my youngest brothers, and former Marine sergeant—launched into a speech about his team running into some bikers up by the Hansen property. We’d recently signed a contract with Miss Hansen to harvest eighty acres of dead Ponderosa pine on that hill, so anything getting in our way was definitely a problem. A big one.
As Camden laid out the events of the altercation, I checked over the satellite images of the area on my desk, making notes and marking locations. A star on the house to the west where the elderly Miss Hansen still lived, another to the east on the patch of earth where a trailer sat, all alone. The only two residences up that long, rough stretch of road leading to a drop-off on the far west side.
That rocky piece of land sat just outside the city limits, so things like road maintenance were all but forgotten unless the two residents brought them to my attention. No biker would intentionally ride up such a rutted, gravel road without a reason—too hard on their bike and their face if they were trailing someone else.
“He tried to call out Finn, but I squashed that shit,” Camden said, securing every bit of my attention for the moment. Finn—my second youngest brother, one of a set of twins, and the only Kennard ever to spend time in prison. He was also a recovering addict, and I had vowed to my dad that I’d keep him in recovery and not let him backslide. That had been ten years ago, and I still worried about keeping that vow every fucking day.
“What the fuck was Finn doing on a job?” My brother didn’t work for me except for the occasional project, and I knew for a fact he hadn’t been assigned to the Hansen job.
“He’d driven with me to check in on Miss Hansen. We never made it out there, though, because we ran into the bikers on the way up. One guy said some shit about Finn’s drug days, how they missed him over at the strip club in Rock Falls.”
Jesus. “You get a name?”
“Patch on his vest said Spark.”
“Spark.” I sat back, balancing my chair on two legs. “As in plug?”
Camden blinked, a cocky smile breaking across his face. “Yeah, like plug. I didn’t see the other guy’s name.”
“So Spark knows Finn from what…ten, twelve years ago? He look familiar to you?”
Cam shook his head. “Never seen him in town.”
That caught my attention. Justice was a small town planted squarely between two slightly larger towns, all in the middle of fucking nowhere. People didn’t happen into Justice—they came here for a reason.
And if that reason was named Finn Kennard, Spark and his friend needed to be dealt with and quick. “How’d my brother handle the run-in?”
“Finn ignored the bullshit from Spark. I wasn’t as restrained.”
Not surprising. Cam always did have a bit of a temper. “If the sheriff gets called again on you—”
Camden waved me off. “I knocked his legs out from under him and put him on the ground. Didn’t even leave a mark, I don’t think. But I made my point.”
“And what point was that?” Not that I needed to ask.
“That Kennard Mills would be harvesting the lumber on that side of the hill, and their club had better not have any business up there. They drove off after Spark picked himself up out of the dirt, the other guy saying something about bigger fish.” Camden frowned. “I recognized the other guy.”
“Local?” I couldn’t think of anyone in Justice who rode with an MC, but I might have missed someone. Three hundred plus people were a lot to keep track of.
“No. He came into the truck stop one night when Leah and I were there for dinner.” He blew out a breath and shifted his weight. An almost unconscious gesture, but one that stood out. Normally almost confident to a fault, Cam suddenly seemed nervous, which meant I wouldn’t like what he had to say.
“Yeah?” I prodded, wondering how a night out with his wife would piss me off.
“Leah noticed something was up when she went to the restroom and came to get me. The asshole had Shye cornered in a back hallway and wasn’t letting her pass.”
The snap of the pencil I’d been holding breaking in two might as well have been a gunshot. “And you let him walk away?”
“I had Leah and Shye looking on. I had to.”
Picturing perfect little Shye—at least ten years my junior and so damn sweet, every one of her smiles would give you a toothache—watching as I kicked the shit of some asshole was about as unappealing as a thought could get. I probably would’ve wanted to do the same as Camden and let the guy walk with a warning if I’d been there. I wouldn’t have, but I’d have wanted to. Because I wanted her, and the idea of Shye being scared of me made my gut sink like a rock.
I needed to stop thinking about Shye Anderson. An impossibility as of late, which directly correlated to why my mood had been so foul all day.
I sighed, rubbing my forehead and sitting deeper into my chair, bringing all four legs back to the floor. “All right. So they rode off after you knocked Spark to the ground. Any indication they’d keep hassling you or come back for Finn?”
He shrugged. “Not really, though you never know with these types of guys.”
Lawless, clan-like, arrogant. Yeah. You never knew a damn thing with them. “Did you recognize the club logo?”
“Definitely the Soul Suckers.”
Of course. I’d heard they’d added a clubhouse not too far over the county line to the west. I probably wouldn’t have thought twice if I’d seen their bikes on the highway through town or heading toward the new restaurant on Main Street. I would now, though.
“Might be time to set the club straight on what they can and can’t do as they ride through Justice. I’ll talk to Deacon, see if he knows anyone. Head back to the ridge, and get the Hansen site plot worked out so we can start cruising and marking trees. This might be our last big harvest before the rains come, and I want to take advantage of the summer weather while we have it.”
“We’ll get it done.”
“Good. And if you see Bishop on the mill floor, have him call me.”
Camden nodded, then left without another word, leaving me to stew over this new mess.
Fucking messes all over the place lately, it seemed.
I looked over my satellite images again, tracing roads and logging paths I’d known my whole life. Acres of Widow’s Ridge pine forest stared back at me, a mottled brown and green landscape. Half the trees stood dead or dying, a sign of the mountain beetle infestation that had nearly bankrupted my late father and destroyed Kennard Mills. But the bug that had nearly killed us had instead left us flush with jobs and cash. The droughts hadn’t stopped this mill, the industry collapse hadn’t either, and the fucking plague of beetles killing the forests around us had actually been a boon instead of a death knell. Everyone in Justice had enjoyed the bonuses beating our sales plans every month brought, and no fucking bikers would make us end that streak. I had a town to employ.
But Justice, Colorado was more than a town to me—it was my responsibility. The place my ancestors had set down roots. Where they tended to each and every resident over the years, giving families time to grow good, strong roots. Kennard men had run Justice like a homestead for nearly two centuries with the mill as the central business fueling everything else, and I’d live up to the legacy set before me as the oldest living Kennard. That meant making sure people had jobs, food, shelter, and that they felt safe.
Another thing bikers wouldn’t be taking away from us, even though it seemed as if they were trying just that.
An annoying, robotic song interrupted my thoughts. The words “Bishop Kennard”—name of my closest brother who also happened to be my VP of sales and marketing—flashed on the screen of my phone as it played that stupid song again. I swiped to answer and brought the device to my ear.
“Camden said you wanted me,” he said, not bothering with a greeting.
“We’ve got trouble on Widow’s Ridge.”
“I heard. Finn all right?” Because, as the second oldest Kennard brother, our family would be the first thing on Bishop’s mind. As it should be.
“Camden thinks so. Let’s run by the bar tonight and be sure, though. And I’ll need you to check in on Miss Hansen—make sure she’s okay out there.”
“Sounds good. I’ll call as soon as we hang up. Anything else?”
“Sell some fucking lumber, Bishop.”
“On it, boss. I’ll be ready to go at six.”
I tossed the phone back onto my desk, the maps snagging my attention again. One spot in particular, actually, and not the one belonging to Miss Hansen. I ran a finger over the east side of the hill, circling the little trailer on a barren, flat piece of rock. Just outside the city limits, it technically sat beyond my protective net, but Shye Anderson lived in that trailer. New girl in town at only three years since she moved to the area, waitress at the truck stop over in Rock Falls, and the only woman I’d ever met who could drive me mad with frustration and desire all at once.
I’d been ultra-aware of Shye since I first met her. Slightly obsessed, really. The girl captivated me; stole all my attention with her sweet little smile and never let me go. It didn’t hurt that she looked like a damn angel—long, blond hair and big, dark eyes, a tiny little body that I wanted to get my hands on more than anything else. Sweet as honey, that one, but she lived up to her name. She blushed and stuttered around me, avoided my eyes when I tried to catch her gaze. If I pushed too much, she ran, so I held back. Made myself available but waited for her to come to me.
Which is how I ended up eating at the truck stop five nights a week—all on Shye’s shifts. I’d had to up my workouts to keep from getting soft on all the grease and baked goods, but seeing that smile every night was worth it. The coffee—man, that was a harder pill to swallow. How a restaurant could have such bad coffee—especially one based out of a truck stop—was beyond me. I drank cup after cup of the foul brew so she’d come to my table more often to pour me refills. Without the coffee, I didn’t get much time with Shye, so I suffered.
And when I worked? I sent my guys in there. Shye had no family in Justice, so I made sure everyone understood they were to treat her as they would a Kennard. Making my men see her as mine kept them watchful around her. Hell, I paid Bishop to eat his lunches there so he could keep an eye on her, and everyone on my team headed that way at least once a day if I had to go out of town. They mocked me relentlessly for chasing her around like a damned puppy, but I didn’t give a shit. I needed to know she was happy and safe. That she had everything she needed…even if she wasn’t ready to willingly take things from me yet. We’d get there. Three years I’d waited for her to come around, and she would. Eventually. I just had to figure out the right plan.
As I pondered honey-blond hair, sugary smiles, and how many times I could use the excuse of working on the ridge to stop and see her at her place, my phone rang again—Camden, this time.
I swiped to answer and hit the button for speakerphone. “If you tell me we have another problem, I’m going to toss a grenade in your truck.”
“So I shouldn’t tell you we’ve got a fire on the mountain?”
Motherfucker. The trouble with harvesting the blue-stained wood left behind by the mountain beetle infestation was the trees needed to cure standing for a number of years. But dead trees meant dry trees, and with the droughts of the past few years and the mild winters we’d had, that meant trouble. Big, dry, tinder-type trouble. A single lightning bolt could ignite an inferno, while a forest fire could destroy the whole damn town.
And apparently, we had one to deal with.
“Where?” I grabbed my keys and pressed the mill-floor alarm to get the team’s attention.
“Eastern slope. Just past the Hansen property.”
My steps stumbled, then sped. “That’s by Shye’s place.”
An engine roared in the background. “I’m already on my way there. Two minutes out.”
She could be hurt in two minutes. Dead. Jesus fuck, I was too far away. “Drive faster.”
I hung up and stormed down onto the mill floor. My team stood ready, looking at me expectantly, ready to fight the fires we knew could ruin everything we’d all built here.
“Fire just east of the Hansen site. Let’s get two water trucks up the eastern side of the ridge and send one up to the west side to be safe.” I met the eyes of Gage Shepherd, former Navy SEAL like Bishop and current heavy machinery engineer of Kennard Mills. “It’s close to Shye’s place.”
Without another word, Gage began issuing orders to the team. He understood the severity of the situation from every angle—the loss of our product, the potential for destruction in the town, and the possibility that the woman I had my eye on could be in danger. He’d get shit done for me.
As Gage loaded the water trucks with oxygen tanks and medical equipment—something that made my gut churn—his dog Rex trotted after him, looking as if he was headed for a joyride instead of into a fire. Wouldn’t be the first time he’d been on site at a fire, though. Gage never went anywhere without Rex.
While Gage made sure the team knew where to go and what to do, I raced to my truck. My heart pounded as I started the engine and peeled out of my spot, heading for the ridge where smoke was beginning to turn the sky black above the tree line. Fuck, if Shye was up there, if she was hurt—
I didn’t get to finish my thought because my phone rang right as I turned onto the highway heading toward the mountain. Camden again.
“Tell me good news.”
“She’s not here,” Camden said, sounding slightly out of breath. “It’s her trailer on fire, though.”
“The water trucks are on the way.”
“Don’t think they’ll do any good for her, to be honest, but we need them for the tree line. It’s so dry up here, a single spark could set the whole mountain on fire.”
Confirming my earlier thoughts. Fuck. I yanked the wheel sideways, making a sharp turn onto the road that would take me up to Shye’s place, looking over all the dead, brown pine on the hillside as I flew over the rutted, gravelly road. “Gage had the team rolling out right behind me. I’m four minutes out, though.”
“Want me to call the fire department in Rock Falls?”
Wouldn’t do any good at that point, which was why Kennard Mills had as many water hauling trucks as we did. “No use, though you’d better call the sheriff.”
“That useless piece of shit? What for?”
Useless wasn’t the term I’d use—corrupt sounded better for the county sheriff we were forced to deal with. I didn’t have time to correct Camden, though. “He’ll throw a tantrum if he’s not informed. Knowing him, he won’t come out to investigate anyway. Just make the call.”
“Yeah, got it…hang on.” Voices yelled in the background, and the sound of Camden moving fast created static on the line.
“We’ve got a problem.”
That phrase spoken about my girl’s place made me want to growl my frustration to the universe. “What fucking problem?”
“There are motorcycle tracks in the dirt around her property. Lots of them.”
Rage unlike anything I’d felt exploded in my chest. “Call the sheriff and put the word out—anyone sees a fucking Soul Sucker in Justice, I want to know about it.”
I hung up and threw my phone across the bench seat before taking the switchback turn way faster than I should have. Not that the worry burning in my gut had anything to do with me—Shye owned that ache.
Shye may not have known it, but she was mine. I’d do whatever it took to protect her.
And if this fucking motorcycle club had threatened my girl?
I’d gut them and leave their bodies for the predators.
When not writing good men doing bad things, Kristin can be found writing paranormal romance as Ellis Leigh or co-writing naughty novellas as London Hale.