If Only 1: Only for the Weekend

Only For the Weekend.jpg

To fulfill her deepest desires, she’ll give a stranger complete control.

Jane Jacobs has spent years obsessing over her best friend’s older brother. Rock drummer Vincent O’Connell has ruined her love life, but it’s about to get CPR—in Las Vegas. On a blind date with a Dom who is as magnetic and commanding as she ever dreamed Vincent could be. If only he weren’t masked, she might lay more than her body at his feet.

Vincent has fantasized about his sister’s best friend for years. When he finds out she wants to explore her submissive side, he’ll be damned if he’ll let her surrender to any man but him. He can play her body like the master he is, but what he wants even more than her submission is her love. To keep her, he’ll have to tell her the truth, and that means revealing more than just his face. 

It means showing her his heart.

*

“Scorching hot BDSM scenes and chemistry that's off the charts.” — Reviews from the Heart

 

Read the whole IF ONLY series!

Only for the Weekend (Book 1)

Only for the Night (Book 2)

Only for the Moment (Book 3 - Coming June 2018)

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

God, it was hot.

The desert wind blasted Jane’s hair back from her face as she walked out of the sliding doors of the Las Vegas airport. Heat soaked through the base of her heels to sear her toes, and she imagined the sudden sweat popping out on her forehead looked nothing like the “glistening” most women claimed they did in the heat. No, she was definitely sweating. And hot. Really hot.

But at least her dress was cool.

The Marilyn Monroe lookalike was intended to give her confidence, and it certainly did that. The halter top left her shoulders bare, the nipped-in waist made her feel incredibly sexy, and the filmy skirt flitted teasingly in the air, reminding her of the scene in The Seven Year Itch where Marilyn stopped over the subway grate. Vegas didn’t have subway grates, but at least if the skirt hit the air in similar fashion, her new lacy underwear wouldn’t leave her embarrassed—much. Since she wasn’t in the habit of showing strangers her underwear, some embarrassment was inevitable, but not the ratty-panties kind.

You’re about to show a guy a lot more than your panties, Jane. Remember that.

The sudden flush in her cheeks had nothing to do with the air temperature. She wasn’t letting it stop her, though. She planned to do a lot in Las Vegas that would have her blushing; she might as well get used to it now.

The sudden sound of crickets chirping came from her purse. Her cell phone. More specifically, Kennedy’s ringtone—inside joke, since when they got together there was never any silence. Her best friend was probably running late, like always. Too many irons in the fire and not enough hands. Jane fished her phone out while she peered around the area. Where were the signs she needed?

“Hello?”

“Are you here?”

Jane grinned. “Just walked out of the airport.”

“Great!”

Jane could hear Kennedy shifting the phone around. Her voice was breathless, like she was hurrying somewhere. Definitely not in a car. A sinking feeling settled in Jane’s stomach. “You’re not out here waiting for me, are you?” she asked.

“You know me very well,” Kennedy said. “We had an unexpected crisis with a VIP event—it’s missing its VIP. But I sent James with the limo. Things should be settled by the time you get here.”

Kennedy had been at the Sovereign Resort and Spa for six months now, assistant manager of event planning. Jane couldn’t be more proud of her, even though it meant Kennedy no longer lived nearby. This was the first chance she’d had to fly out since her friend moved to Nevada.

Kennedy was half mumbling to someone near her and half instructing Jane where to go. Jane squinted at a sign to her left, but the letters blurred into a white blob on a blue background. With a sigh she fumbled her prescription sunglasses out of her purse and onto her nose. The utilitarian frames didn’t go with her fifties dress, more fitting her everyday image—stuffy librarian—but the instant they were on, everything went from fuzzy to crisp and the sign became readable.

“So where do I find the limo?” she asked Kennedy.

A few hushed, impatient words reached her ears, then, “Go to the reserved pickup area.”

The sign in front of her didn’t help, so she glanced around for another farther down. “I qualify for something reserved?” she asked.

“Of course! Now which door did you come out of?”

Jane told her.

“Good. Go left.”

She did, a little laugh escaping. Kennedy knew exactly how directionally—and optically—challenged Jane was. Being talked through the maze that was McCarran International would save her numerous trips backward when she got lost.

Heat waves curled up from the sidewalk despite the overhead canopy protecting it and her from the sun. The crowds, seeming unaffected by the heat, mingled in clumps, blocking her way as they waited for buses to take them to their respective lodging. Her heels added three inches to her height, just enough that she wasn’t swamped and blind in the swarm of people, but it was Kennedy’s directions that led her to reserved pickup without a hitch. Hopefully her friend had been equally successful finding what Jane needed for this visit.

Jane wasn’t sure she wanted to ask. Yes, she’d made this decision on her own—the Big Decision, capital letters—and what Kennedy had offered to do was the linchpin in this being a success, but a part of her hoped Kennedy hadn’t found anyone. After all, if Kennedy didn’t succeed, Jane wouldn’t have to put herself out there, so to speak.

All of me. Everything.

She stepped to one side, out of the flow of traffic, her grip on her phone making her fingers ache.

“Um, Kennedy, did you—”

“No, that won’t work!” Kennedy yelled in her ear. Jane jerked the phone far enough from her face to stare at it, as if the device could explain the problem. It stared silently back at her, but when she returned it to her ear, Kennedy was apologizing. “I’m sorry, Jane, but if I ever want to get away, I have to deal with this. I’ll see you in a few.”

“But—”

The line went dead. Kennedy was gone.

Jane wasn’t sure if that was a relief or not.

Just ahead, a section of the curbs on both sides of the road were labeled RESERVED. Since the area was empty, no limo in sight, Jane took her time, letting the swish of her skirt against her legs and the faint kick of wind soothe her rioting nerves. Lane, her ex, had hated this dress when she picked it out. Of course, he’d hated a lot of things, including what she’d suggested to spice up their mundane sex life, which was why he was her ex. She was twenty-six, not sixty; she shouldn’t have the sex life of a middle-aged woman. She’d suspected for a long time that what she needed couldn’t be had from Lane anyway—or any other man she’d dated, for that matter. They were all too…nice. She didn’t want a nice sex life. Passion, yes. Fire, definitely. To be controlled—at least, she hoped that’s what she needed. Otherwise this was all going to be a complete clusterfuck.

Her thoughts drifted without permission to the one time she’d experienced that fire. The memory stirred more nerves, though, and she shoved it forcefully away.

A black stretch limo turned the corner ahead. As it prowled toward her, Jane’s glasses allowed her to see the white square sign in the front window: JACOBS. That was her. Hitching her overnight case higher on her shoulder, she moved forward and raised a hand to gain the driver’s attention.

Before the vehicle could reach her, a hotel bus zoomed around the bend. Jane was close enough she could see the driver’s eyes go wide at the obstruction directly in front of him. To avoid rear-ending the limo, he whipped into the second lane. The rush of wind from the passing bus caught the hem of her skirt and, just like in The Seven Year Itch, threw the material into the air before Jane could put her hand down to catch it. She knew exactly how unsuccessful she was by the sudden coolness bathing her upper thighs—and the limo driver’s expression as he pulled to a stop at the curb.

A wolf whistle sounded behind her, then another one. Smoothing a hand over her bottom to be sure it was now covered, Jane chanced a look over her shoulder. Several tourists had dropped their bags and stopped their conversations to gawk in her direction. The awful rush of heat up her neck returned, damn it. How was she going to get through a night with a Dom if she couldn’t get down the street without blushing to death?

And then, just for a moment, she saw something that sent the blood in her cheeks back so fast Jane thought she might faint. A man, walking away from her, the details of his body obscured by the sudden glare of sunlight as he moved beyond the covered walkway in front of the airport. All she could make out was that he was tall, his shoulders broad and heavy and—her heart thudded—seemingly familiar, as was the glint of ginger in his hair. She caught a hint of sunglasses and pale skin as he turned to look at something nearby, and then he moved around the end of the building and was gone.

Not from her mind, though. Her heart was beating the inside of her ribs like it wanted to break out and follow the man, which was ridiculous because he couldn’t be who she thought he was. He couldn’t. Kennedy would’ve told her if Vincent was visiting Vegas at the same time. And Jane would’ve stayed home to avoid him, like she’d been doing for the past seven years, ten months, and she-really-needed-to-forget-how-many days.

But he wasn’t here. Weekend Washout, the indie rock band Vincent was a part of, had become a huge success several years ago. Kennedy had bragged just last night that V. was on the road again. Probably a different city every night. A different girl. Not that Jane was thinking about that. Or him. Ever again. Even if he was the reason she’d started on this godforsaken road down exploration lane.

Of course, the road would feel much less bumpy if she didn’t see his ghost around every corner. There was more than one sexy redhead with broad shoulders in the world. She just needed to get over what had happened and get a move on. Her future was waiting.

A throat clearing behind her dragged Jane’s attention back to the present. “Hello, miss. You wouldn’t happen to be Ms. O’Connell’s guest, by chance?”

She turned from staring after her mystery guy to find the driver of the limo standing in front of her, proper black uniform, cap, and all. His accent was even proper English. She didn’t know if it was real, but it was charming, as were his smiling blue eyes. Appreciative blue eyes, even if he was nearer fifty than twenty-five. Apparently her lacy underwear could be relished at any age.

She scrambled to get her thoughts together and held out her hand. “Yes, Jane.”

“Nice to make your acquaintance, Jane. I am James.”

James, really? She barely held back a home, James!

The chauffeur didn’t seem to notice her sudden amusement, or maybe he was used to it. “Ms. O’Connell described you perfectly.” The man took her hand and actually bowed over it briefly. Did they teach that in chauffeur school, along with the accent and the proper name to use? Everything in Vegas was a show, it seemed. “May I take your bag, miss?”

An enjoyable show. She gave James her sweetest smile and a thank-you.

Her overnight case was summarily stored and Jane escorted to the rear passenger door of the limousine. Before she stepped inside, she couldn’t help one last glance at the spot where the mystery guy had stood. The yearning she’d fought for so many years bubbled up, aching for a single glimpse of his face, his smile, his eyes, but the crowd was empty of anything familiar. The man, so much like Vincent, was gone, leaving her behind just like the real Vincent had.

Jane slid into the seat and adjusted her skirt over her knees. V. might’ve left her behind all those years ago, but this weekend it was her turn—and she intended to do exactly the same. She had a life to live, and she was about to learn exactly how to live it.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Fun Fact!

This series was intended to be a single book (Hank's story) that would bridge the Secrets To Hide series and a series featuring Harley's former band, Aftershock. Hank and Aftershock make their appearance in Naughty Little Christmas.

Of course, once I started plotting Hank, I knew there had to be other men in his life who weren't quite so "vanilla." That's when Vincent's story came along. And V.'s sister Kennedy is such a sass, I knew she needed a story (which will eventually be book 3).

*sigh*

Who knows what else will happen in this trio's little world! But one thing's for certain — they will still be the bridge to the naughty, sexy, dominant boys of Aftershock and the women who surrender everything to them.

Enjoy!

Assassins 1: Assassin's Mark

Portrait Cover Art_AM_withtext.jpg

I knew the minute I saw him that Levi Agozi was too perfect to be real. I didn't care. He came to me, asked for me, and, dazzled by his dark good looks and the bad-boy aura surrounding him, I gave in. Willingly.

My father is set to become the next governor of Virginia, and he'll use me to get there if he has to. He'll hand me over, virginity and all, to the man with the biggest bank account            and political pull.

I wanted something more.

I wanted Levi. And I had him—until I woke up, drugged and confused, at his mercy. He’s a bad boy, all right. A sexy, deadly assassin. And I'm the pawn torn between him and my father, two powerful men intent on destroying each other.

I might not understand their war, but I do understand one thing: no matter who wins, I lose.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Available exclusively at Radish Fiction!

Radish logo image 2.png

What is Radish Fiction? Radish is a mobile reading app available for iPhone or Android.

Why Radish Fiction? Because it's convenient! Read wherever you are, whenever you want. Radish offers a diverse selection of free and paid romance you'll want to devour!

Want to read Assassin's Mark? Here's how:

1. Download the Radish Fiction app on your phone or tablet (it's FREE!). You can also go to the Radish Fiction website for a direct link to download the app.

2. Create your username and password.

3. Search for my name or Assassin's Mark in the app, or go to this link on your phone or tablet and start reading! The first three chapters are FREE.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

I’m not sure what I expected. I’d been to bars, but not the kind of bars with pool tables and smoke haze and men on the prowl for a one-night stand. The bars I’d been to specialized in cocktail hours and old men in business suits. The Full Moon wasn’t refined or elegant or quiet.

It was everything I was not. Exactly where I needed to be tonight.

“What’ll you have?” the bartender asked. He was staring at Candy’s breasts, but she didn’t seem to mind, just flashed him a sexier version of her friendly smile. Had she slept with him before?

It was Renee who answered. “Pitcher of strawberry margaritas, Dave.”

“Make that two,” Candy tacked on.

Dave the Bartender nodded at her cleavage. “I’ll send ’em right over.”

I followed my friends through the crowd toward a table Sarah had snagged while we ordered. The three women obviously had a routine. I’d known they were close, and the fact that they’d extended their little circle to include me from the first day we met in Nursing 101 class had touched me in ways they couldn’t possibly understand. They were normal girls with normal lives and normal homes. I wasn’t, but if they’d noticed, they didn’t mention it. No flicker of recognition at my name, no questions about where I lived or why I never went out when they invited me. Just basic friendship, no strings attached.

They had no idea how rare that was.

“So, Abby, see anything interesting?”

Too much, actually. Heat flushed my cheeks. “Um…”

Sarah giggled. “Wait till she’s got at least one margarita in her, Renee. Then ask.” She bumped my shoulder with hers. “The selection always looks better the later it gets.”

The selection already looked pretty good to me. Most of the men were our age—early twenties—and not a suit and tie to be found. Jeans and half-buttoned shirts and messily styled hair were the go-to. A tattooed forearm or the wink of an earring wasn’t rare. Beers in hand, the men joshed each other while prowling the room, hungry gazes assessing each woman they came to. One by one they’d peel off with their choice, either to the dance floor or a table or the front door.

What was it like to be the women they chose? In the circles my family required me to frequent, the barrier of my father’s name and status kept men away from me. Here, there were no barriers except my friends and my own insecurities. The idea that I could choose to ignore both and do whatever I wanted quickened my breath. Either I was excited or about to hyperventilate; I wasn’t certain which.

I refused to let the terror win anymore.

The margaritas arrived and we each poured ourselves one. The fruity yet tart liquid set my tongue alight like a sparkler on the Fourth of July, a pleasure I hadn’t experienced before. I savored it as I listened to the girls’ giggling commentary about each man who walked by. It wasn’t long before the room went hazy with something other than smoke and I found myself joining in the conversation without reservation.

I was pouring my second margarita when my phone vibrated in my back pocket. Two shorts, one long: my father. A healthy gulp helped bolster my confidence before I pulled the cell out for a look.

I shouldn’t respond, shouldn’t care, but I clicked on the message anyway, just to see. Maybe he’d changed his mind. Maybe he was worried about me. Maybe he wanted to apologize, tell me he loved me for once in twenty-one years.

Where the hell are you?

Or maybe not. I returned the phone to my pocket.

Sarah leaned close, her voice low. “Everything okay?”

Renee and Candy were focused on the table of men to their right. I gave Sarah a wry smile. “My dad.” I took another drink. “It’ll blow over, I’m sure.”

Sarah laid her hand over mine on the table and squeezed. The gesture mesmerized me. I couldn’t remember the last time someone had touched me because they cared. How sad was that?

My phone buzzed again. I ignored it.

“Holy shit.”

Sarah’s hand left mine to grasp her drink. She took a gulp, her gaze trained somewhere over Candy’s head. I followed it.

Holy shit is right.

The man was tall, dark, and dangerous with a capital D. I’d never seen anyone like him, anyone who made my insides clench just looking at him. Thick dark hair, long on top and shaved close on the sides, highlighted perfect ears and a jaw chiseled from granite. His eyes seemed too light for that hair and his olive skin, shining like spotlights beneath dark brows, almost too intense to bear. And those lips. God. They hinted at sensual pleasures I could only guess at.

He prowled across the room, a lean, muscular panther intent on prey—every woman’s fantasy, including mine.

And he was headed straight for us.

My gaze dropped to my drink. The tables around us held either men or couples, so I wasn’t mistaken about his focus. Which girl was he interested in? Sarah with her sweet smile? Or maybe Candy, with her unabashed sensuality?

An empty glass stared back at me. I reached for the pitcher.

“Hello, ladies.”

My hand froze on the handle as the words quivered through my body. Look up! Look at him! But I couldn’t; I could only sit there like a dumbass holding the pitcher in my shaking grip and praying I didn’t make a fool of myself.

No fear, remember?

No fear. I tightened my grip, lifted. So far, so good. Somehow I managed to pour a fresh drink without spilling, replace the pitcher on the table. Despite the sick pounding of my heart in my throat, I made myself glance up.

Gray eyes locked with mine.

Lord, he’s beautiful.

I expected him to look away, to focus on one of the other women. He didn’t. He stared—at me. Until the urge to squirm crawled up my spine and my cheeks burst into flames.

“Hello.”

Was that my voice, all breathy and…suggestive? It must’ve been; the other girls were staring, silent, their round eyes just as awed as I’m sure mine were. I looked back to the man looming over our table.

He reached a hand out to me. “I’m Levi.”

My fingers settled into his grip like they had been created to fit him. “Abby.”

My voice cracked. I cleared my throat.

“Hi, Abby.” He didn’t let go of my hand, didn’t glance around. Just held me captive with those intense eyes. “Would you dance with me?”

Me?

I barely managed not to say it aloud. Instead I looked to Sarah, who was frantically nodding. “Uh, okay. Sure.”

Could I be any more awkward if I tried? Where was the vaunted hostess who demurely handled every crisis that arose?

Maybe she’d died along with the dream that someday, somehow, my father would see me as his daughter and not his pawn.

Levi tugged on my hand, urging me to my feet. My body responded to his command automatically, breaking through the nerves that had held me frozen. I didn’t want to be frozen, not anymore. And I didn’t want to miss this, not a minute of it.

Assassins 2: Assassin's Prey

Portrait Cover Art_AP_withtext.jpg

I killed my first man at the age of twelve. I've been killing ever since. I thought it was all I lived for…until Abby. Until the woman I'd kidnapped became the woman I couldn't walk away from.

She owns a piece of me I wouldn't take back, but the rest? The only way to protect her is to hold back the parts inside me that are too ugly to ever reveal. I'll keep her safe, even from me.

And it works. We have the nights, and I hunt my way through the days. Alone.

Until an attack reveals a threat we didn't see coming. One that could take away the dream I didn't realize I had.

Everything. With her.

I'm on the hunt of my life. My prey might run, but in this fight—for her, for us—they don't stand a chance.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
Radish logo image 2.png

Available exclusively at Radish Fiction!

What is Radish Fiction? Radish is a mobile reading app available for iPhone or Android.

Why Radish Fiction? Because it's convenient! Read wherever you are, whenever you want. Radish offers a diverse selection of free and paid romance you'll want to devour!

Want to read Assassin's Prey? Here's how:

1. Download the Radish Fiction app on your phone or tablet (it's FREE!). You can also go to the Radish Fiction website for a direct link to download the app.

2. Create your username and password.

3. Search for my name or Assassin's Prey in the app, or go to this link on your phone or tablet and start reading! The first three chapters are FREE.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter 1

Levi

The silken sheets caressed her skin, revealing more than they concealed. Too damn much for my peace of mind. I should be out there, on the hunt, but Abby tethered me to her like a fucking chain, refusing to let go. No matter how much safer she was without me.

A gasp escaped her, and she turned on her side, one hand reaching out, searching—for me. “Levi?”

The room was dark, her eyes glazed with sleep. She couldn’t see me in the shadows. It was better that way, but I couldn’t leave her searching. Something inside me, something I both hated and hungered for, held as tightly to her as she did to me.

With a curse I couldn’t quite hold back, I moved to the bed. And felt it the minute she saw me—my body lit up like I’d touched a live wire. Just like it did when prey appeared, every instinct sparking, every sense zeroed in on the body before me. Only I didn’t want to kill this one.

I wanted her life in my hands, not her death.

A smile touched her full lips when my knee settled on the bed. Sheets rustled as she shifted onto her back, tugging me closer with nothing more than her creamy skin and the curve of her mouth. “There you are.” The curve slowly flattened. “You’re dressed.”

Because it’s safer this way. Because I can’t sleep beside you and not let you all the way inside me.

I grabbed my T-shirt at the back of my neck and pulled. “Not for long.”

I stripped as I crawled onto the bed. Crouching over Abby’s body, I let the hunger for her take over, felt it in the tensing of my muscles, the lengthening of my cock, the racing of my heartbeat. A visceral reaction I was addicted to. That’s all it was. She was my drug, and I’d never get enough. Not till it killed me. I just had to make sure it didn’t kill her first.

“You should be asleep, little bird,” I growled down at her.

Her eyes left mine, focused somewhere over my shoulder. Telling me all I needed to know. Another nightmare. Less frequent now, but they’d never go away. I knew that from personal experience.

“I never sleep as well when you’re not beside me.”

Another link clicked onto my chain, choking me with the need to reassure her. I’ll always be here. I need you beside me to sleep at all. I crave your skin against mine until I sometimes think I’ll go insane.

I didn’t say any of it. I couldn’t. The risk was too high.

So I kissed her.

Abby opened to me, a needy flower, defenseless, so fucking innocent even now. I remembered the first time I’d taken her, the first time she’d let me inside, and a groan escaped into her mouth. Her tight fit, the resistance I’d had to force myself through… Just the memory broke me out in a sweat.

I should hate myself for corrupting her. I did hate myself. But it felt more like she’d corrupted me. With her sweetness, her fire. It made me weak when I couldn’t afford to be. But I couldn’t break free either.

Forcing myself back onto my knees, I fisted the sheet and pulled. A slow reveal—nipples, belly, that strip of auburn hair that pointed me straight to the entrance of her body. As if I could ever lose my way. The thought tightened the chain again, choking off my breath.

And then I looked into her eyes. Knowledge glittered there, too much for her own good. Every day it grew; every day she looked at me and that damn knowing was there. She knew my fear, but she never asked for more than I’d already given. Never asked for a commitment. Or if I loved her. As if she knew a yes would damn us both.

For the longest moment I wavered there, on the edge of leaving, fighting the bastard inside me that insisted I stay, the sight of her laid out before me searing my brain. And then Abby shifted, her legs parting, and the scent of her need filled my nose. The balance tipped. An agonized groan rumbled from my brain to my chest and out of my mouth.

I was between her legs before my next heartbeat.

Cream and spice, that was Abby on my tongue. I pressed my mouth to her pussy and pushed deep, seeking out every drop. Filling my senses with her until I knew I was drowning. Her skin was slick velvet against my lips, my tongue, her clit a hard bead against my nose. I licked up, took it into my mouth, and sucked hard, that primal need to nurse, to take my nourishment from her, hitting me like a bullet to the chest. She filled me, sustained me—with her body, her desire, the hungry cries echoing in my ears, the greedy fingers forcing my head closer. Her body and her mouth begged me for more, and I gave it, again and again and again until she exploded beneath my tongue.

I was inside her before the last ripple faded.

“Levi, God, yes!”

My cock was so heavy, so tight inside her hot, wet body. Too much. Not enough. When her seeking hands landed on my chest and slid downward, I knew this would be over before it had a chance to begin, and no way in hell could I allow that.

“No.” Her wrists were fragile in my rough hands, but I forced them back anyway, slamming them to the bed as Abby cried out beneath me. “Look at me, little bird. Now.”

Frantic, pleading hazel eyes snapped to mine. Abby rolled her pelvis, taking me deeper. “Please.”

“Look at me,” I demanded. “Don’t close your eyes.”

I pulled back, the drag of her body around my cock so perfect my eyes threatened to roll back in my head. Leveraging my knees out, I slammed back inside. Abby gasped my name, and I did it again. And again. Those beautiful eyes glazed over, going somewhere deep inside herself where hunger and pleasure roared for satisfaction, taking me with her. Letting me see what no one else had ever seen—Abby, bare, open, completely vulnerable. To me. Alive like no one I’d ever known before, filling and feeding the dead parts of me that I’d long ago given up hope of ever healing. She could; she did. With her body and her honesty.

I’d never met anyone like her before. And I knew it was only a matter of time before I destroyed her.

Without warning her eyes flared, her legs bending to hook around my hips, pulling me closer. She chanted my name, high and desperate, and I angled my hips up, the head of my cock striking that spot deep inside that made her clench around me, so tight I had to force my way back in. And I did.

My name morphed into a scream on her lips as she climaxed around me. Squeezed me tight and sucked every last drop of semen from my willing body.

The relaxing of her muscles beneath mine drew me out of the fog of pleasure a few minutes later. I raised my head from her neck, glanced down. Abby blinked, her expression smoothing out, but not before I caught a glimpse of the emotions there—longing, desperation, pain. My failure, all in one look. But it was how it had to be.

“I have to go.”

Before she could respond, I was up and headed to the bathroom. I cleaned myself up, wiping away the evidence of her pleasure and mine, thankful that with Abby’s birth control, condoms were no longer an issue. I could be skin to skin with her, mark her, smear my semen over her body so that no other man would dare to trespass on my territory. I needed it. The animal inside me needed it, demanded it. With her I could soothe the savage hunger.

But no kids. Ever.

I returned to the bed with a warm washcloth. Abby parted her legs willingly. When she was clean, I leaned down until my nose met her pubic hair, and breathed deep. My Abby. My woman!the animal inside me roared. But the man restricted me to a brief kiss on her sensitive clit before backing away.

Abby’s murmur of disappointment was a knife to the gut.

“I’ll lock up before I leave,” I told her.

She lay, silent, on the bed, legs bent, body gleaming in the faint light from the crack in the curtains, and watched me return the cloth to the bathroom, check the windows, and walk to the door. I’d melted into the shadows before I heard her voice. “What about a kiss goodbye?”

I couldn’t deny her, not when my body screamed for the kiss too. I returned to the bed, let the covers caress her skin once again as I drew them over her. “Sleep, little bird.”

Her kiss was the padlock on the chain that held me to her. I welcomed it in that moment—delved deep to tangle with her tongue, nipped her lips, buried my face in the hollow of her neck and the sweet scent of vanilla and flowers.

“Be safe,” she murmured as I backed away.

“Always.”

And then I was out the door. Every window, every door was checked, secured—I wouldn’t risk anything happening when I wasn’t here. The shadows in the backyard were deep this time of night, but unmoving. Same on either side of the house. When I walked out the front door and set the security system to on, I did so knowing she was safe inside.

So why did my soul scream at me to go back with every step I took away from her?

Southern Nights 1: Teach Me

1_Teach Me-3.jpg

Private security has never been so risky—or so tempting.

Ex-military security specialist Conlan James avoids commitment like the plague. His job, his Harley, and an occasional one-night stand are all he needs—or so he tells himself. But after he rescues Jess from a tense situation, he can’t get the shy, sexy brunette out of his mind. He can teach her self-defense, but can he shield his own scarred heart?

Southern belle Jess Kingston spent eight weeks healing from an ex-boyfriend’s brutal attack. Now she’s ready to put her life back together. Her ex, Brit, has other ideas. She needs someone who can teach her how to fight back—someone like the tough former soldier who rides to her rescue.

As the deadly game of cat-and-mouse intensifies, the heat between Con and Jess becomes an inferno. He’ll do anything to keep her safe. She’ll do anything to survive. Her vengeful ex is determined to destroy them both, and all it would take is one wrong move.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

What the hell are you doing here?

This wasn’t the first time in the last five minutes that Conlan had asked himself the same question. Maybe if he had an answer, the revolving door in his brain would stop spinning, but that didn’t seem likely. Not anytime soon. Not with the beautiful brunette he’d come to see sitting close enough that, if he let himself look, he could detect the light dusting of freckles across her nose. But he wasn’t looking, and he shouldn’t be here, so how had he ended up standing in line behind the thirtysomething latte league? It sure as hell wasn’t for the coffee.

Legs braced wide, he shifted from one hip to the other, the creak of his motorcycle chaps reminding him he could be enjoying a few extra minutes on the Harley before work instead of spending that precious time here, mooning over a woman. Doe Eyes. The first time he’d seen her all those months ago, he’d thought her eyes reminded him of sweet Georgia pecans and skittish does. The name stuck, as had the memory of her eyes—and a hundred other glimpses he shouldn’t have taken.

Another name called, another latte dispensed, another shuffle forward.

He hadn’t seen those eyes in eight weeks, and yet still he’d shown up every Monday, like clockwork, hoping for one more glimpse and calling himself an idiot. Wasn’t like he planned on asking her out. So why the hell did he torture himself with these weekly forays into enemy territory?

Sex. Or sex appeal, at least.

Another step closer to the counter. The move didn’t ease the constriction behind the zipper of his jeans. This was what she did to him, thinking about her. Especially now, after so long apart.

The thought had a snort escaping. Ahead of him, Mr. Suit and Tie startled and glanced over a shoulder, but Conlan ignored the look. He was too busy figuring out when “this” had become enough like a relationship in his head that he would think things like “after so long apart.” Doe Eyes might appear prominently in his thoughts from time to time—especially certain times—but he’d never seen her outside of this coffee shop. And he wouldn’t. A quick roll in the hay was one thing, but Doe Eyes wasn’t the kind of woman who had one-night stands. He could tell that much just by looking at her. She was a relationship kind of woman, and he was a relationship-phobic kind of guy. Which meant he seriously needed to get a grip—and not on the part of him growing even harder at the idea.

Idiot was right.

He should be at work. Southern summer heat brought out the crazies almost as well as full moons did, and JCL Security was feeling the impact, juggling cases like they had eight arms, which they didn’t. Too many sleepless nights had been spent at his office, especially with the Bennett case coming up. Just a couple more weeks before Thea Bennett had her bastard of a husband before a judge and hopefully out of her life, but the paper- and prep work to get the high-profile bastard there had been a bitch. He seriously needed to—

“Conlan, hey!”

For a passing moment he was convinced the voice belonged to the woman filling his thoughts. But when the high, candied voice called again, he realized it was coming from the counter. The cashier. Tonya, Tammy? Tracy? He couldn’t remember. She was blonde with a deep tan he would’ve deemed impossible in a landlocked city like Atlanta, the shade a stark contrast to her white smile. Stepping up, he threw her a grin. “Hey.”

She batted long lashes, almost hiding the way her glance slid down to the crotch of his jeans, framed in his leather chaps. “Long time, no see.”

He winked automatically. “It’s a long wait between Mondays.”

The girl giggled. “Your usual?”

“That’s right. Thanks,” he said, passing over a ten-dollar bill.

She made change, certain to caress his hand as she laid the money in his palm. Conlan was more interested in the dark Colombian roast another employee was walking toward them. High-octane all the way. The sight of the near-black brew had him salivating for something other than Doe Eyes for the first time that morning.

He reached the condiment counter just as his phone buzzed in his back pocket. Probably Jack. Retrieving the cell confirmed his suspicion.

Where the hell are you? his partner had texted.

Piss off, Con replied, a grin tugging at his lips. The irony that he’d spent too much time asking himself the very same question didn’t escape him. In a half hour he’d be at the office and they could both stop wondering.

With a little back-and-forth he managed to cram the phone back in his tight jeans. He glanced around absently, and his gaze snagged on a pair of amber-brown eyes that suddenly met his.

He froze.

Doe Eyes dropped her chin and shifted over the slightest bit, enough that her friend’s position blocked her from view, but not before he caught the blush coloring her creamy cheeks.

His cock banged against his zipper as if begging to be let out. The bite of pain caught his breath in his throat. Jesus, what the hell was he—

Don’t! Ask. Again. He knew what the hell he was doing here, and he needed to go; he really did. He needed to stop letting his dick run this show, grab his coffee, and get back to reality.

He was restless, that was all. He was a man who needed action. Needed to be doing something, anything, not sitting behind a desk like he’d been for weeks while prepping Thea’s case. Usually he worked off his frustration in a way that involved cool silk sheets and bare skin and satisfaction on both sides, but there’d been no damn time. Just his hand and the additional chafing it provided, which wasn’t near as effective—or satisfying. That had to be the reason he couldn’t stop thinking about his mystery woman.

Of course. That had to be it.

Popping the lid off his cardboard cup released the rich aroma of ground coffee beans into the air. He lifted his cup and blew across the hot liquid, the sound almost a sigh of relief. He was already reaching for the packets of sugar when black squiggles caught his eye. There. On the part of the paper sleeve now facing him, he could see a name and number were clearly written: Tiffany. A 470 area-code phone number.

So that was her name. Sounded like an eighties pop star. A glance over his shoulder found the cashier leaning across the bar where drinks were picked up, her mounded breasts shelved there, on display. Come back soon, she mouthed, her shoulders doing a little wiggle. On reflex, he threw her a grin, but her seemingly seductive move couldn’t pull his glance downward. His dick didn’t even twitch. Apparently only one thing could trigger his runaway libido this morning.

He added the sugar, trying to ignore the panic in his gut and his one-track mind. The latter was impossible. He wanted to know Doe Eyes’ name, her phone number. Were her breasts as full as they looked beneath that starched white button-down? Was her hair as soft as he swore it would be when he fisted it between his fingers?

He stirred a bit too vigorously, and coffee sloshed over the side of the cup.

Don’t look. Don’t. He realized he’d closed his eyes. A sigh escaped as he rubbed a thumb and finger against them, but as soon as the lids popped open, he searched for her. Had to see her. Felt his heartbeat pick up knowing she might meet his eyes.

He was so screwed—and smart enough to admit it. He let go, let the conflict and the churning in his gut and the tension cramping his muscles go. And then he looked toward her table.

It was empty.

“Well shit.”

He stood for a moment, cursing himself, the coffee, and everything else he could think of. When another customer stepped up behind him and cleared his throat, wanting access to the counter, Con grabbed his cup and headed out the door. On his way, he chucked the coffee in the trash without a single sip.

Southern Nights 2: Trust Me

2_Trust Me-3.jpg

Vengeance consumes her life. Love would risk it all.

 Maddie Baker has spent years seeking vengeance against the abuser who destroyed her life. When her search leads her to a small town outside Atlanta, she learns of another missing teenager. Nothing will stand in the way of her mission, including a jackass of an ex-soldier who reawakens emotions best left to die.

Jack Quinn learned to recognize trouble in the Marines, and he sees it in Maddie the minute he lays eyes on the pretty, sexy bartender. Her secrets may be hidden deep, but secrets are his specialty, and peeling away her barriers only makes him want her more. He’ll do whatever it takes for her to trust him, with her body and her heart.

Staying hidden kept Maddie safe, but the search for justice brings her into the open and face-to-face with her treacherous past. Risking her life is one thing, but risking her heart is another. In both, she must trust Jack to lead her—and pray they both come out alive.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

Jack Quinn hit the heavy wooden doors that led into the Halftime Bar like a runaway train on the downside of a mountain. Even the hard slam didn’t help his frustration. His muscles swelled with it, his skin so tight it could burst. He wished it would so he could finally get rid of the feeling that he wasn’t at home in his own body.

He didn’t recognize himself anymore, and deciding what to do about it was a drive pushing him closer and closer to the edge. Tonight might just tip him over.

The crash of music against his senses as he crossed the uneven planks of the floor into the darkened interior of the country bar was a welcome reprieve. The beat pounded in his head, his body, matching the adrenaline-laced rhythm of his heart and telling him he wasn’t alone in his need to pound something. Preferably his best friend, Con.

The minefield of dancing couples was lighter than usual tonight. Jack didn’t swerve; he made his own path straight to the bar. Anyone in his way could take one look at his face and see they needed to be the one to move aside. They moved. He saved a civil nod for Taylor, the tall blonde waitress who so often served him, as she wove her way through the tables on the far side of the dance floor. Most of them were empty, save a few clustered around the three high-definition TVs hanging along one wall.

Ignoring everyone else, Jack zeroed in on his favorite bar stool, the one that should have the shape of his ass tattooed on its surface considering how much time he’d spent on it lately. The stool was the only one positioned where the long mahogany bar top took a sharp turn into the wall. The short span on that end and the wall at his back meant no one shared his space while allowing him to see everyone and everything around him. His guard could stand down and he could relax for just a little while.

Maybe. If—and that was a big-ass if—he could stop wanting to punch Con just one time. But then Jess would complain about her pretty-boy husband’s black eye, and Jack wouldn’t hear the end of it for a while.

He sighed as he sat on his stool. Probably wasn’t worth it after all.

“You’re early, Jack. Run out of asses to kick? People to intimidate?”

Jack grunted at the big bruiser of a man making his way down the bar toward him. John, Halftime’s regular bartender, had the shoulders of a defensive lineman, football pads and all. Except he wasn’t wearing any. Jack sometimes held his breath as he watched the man maneuver behind the bar, waiting for one wrong turn to throw John against a shelf and send bottles of liquor and glasses crashing to the floor. Tonight he flicked a bird in John’s general direction as payment for the sarcasm and pretended interest in a couple of women preening at one corner of the dance floor.

Yeah, he was in a pissy mood. That wasn’t unusual lately. Didn’t mean Con had the right to send him home like a little kid. Time off wasn’t going to help.

John laughed as he stopped in front of Jack. “If you’re needing to relieve a bit of tension, they’re probably up for it,” he said, nodding toward the two women. “Pickings are otherwise slim tonight.”

“I bet.” Shirts a bit too tight, a bit too small, makeup a bit too heavy for the eyelashes batting his way. Not out of their early twenties, he’d guess. Way too young for him, especially tonight. Even at their age, he hadn’t felt as young and innocent as they looked; he sure as hell didn’t feel it now, at thirty-four.

Besides, quick and dirty and meaningless wasn’t what his gut churned for. He’d seen the real thing now, every time Con and Jess were together—hell, every time the man said something about his wife or even thought about her, it seemed—and Jack had a bad feeling that meaningless wasn’t going to do it for him anymore. If he had a sweet something waiting at home for him like Con did, Jack wouldn’t have to be told to go home; he’d rush there voluntarily. But he didn’t. Work was all he had, and if he wanted to put in extra hours to avoid the silence his house practically throbbed with? That was his choice, not his best friend’s, business partner or not.

The best friend who was currently at home, probably curled around—or inside—his wife’s warm body, while Jack was stuck with the occasional one-night stand or a not so satisfying handjob. Jack was damn jealous, not of Jess but of Jess and Con’s relationship. No wonder he was spending so much damn time at the neighborhood bar.

He needed a life. A hobby. A dog.

Jesus, he was losing it.

His expression must’ve given his answer, because John snickered. “Didn’t think so. What’ll ya have?”

“The usual.”

John nodded. Twisting to look over his shoulder, he yelled, “Maddie, Sam Adams.”

“Who’s Maddie?”

John turned sideways, showing what his bulk had hidden up till now. Jack glanced down the long service area behind the bar and almost swallowed his tongue.

A woman. A blonde woman, but not the same kind of blonde as the waitress, Taylor. This woman had a straw-colored mane, thick enough it almost didn’t fit in the claw clip holding it in a graceful twist at the back of her head. Spikes stuck from the top of the clip to fall along the sides, pointing to the creamy curve of her ear as she bent her head to focus on the frosted glass she was filling at the tap. A slender neck led to a body encased in a tight white T-shirt and short black vest. The clothes silhouetted her tucked-in waist and a sexy strip of bare skin above Levi’s he would swear were painted on. And boots; God, he had such a thing for boots on a woman. And this woman wore them with the ease of longtime use, confirmation that balancing on them was second nature. One look at those boots and his dick shot straight up and strained in her direction as if she were true north and he was a compass.

Damn.

“Roll your tongue back in your head,” John told him, laughter tangling with the words.

Jack glanced at the bartender, over at the woman, back to John. Swallowed. “Right.”

John shrugged, and his easy smile widened. “I had the same reaction. Heck, every red-blooded male that’s walked through the door since she was hired Monday has had that reaction. She is something.”

“Damn straight.”

The towel resting on the new bartender’s shoulder slid off, landing with a plop on the ground. She bent to grab it.

Both men groaned.

The woman glanced over her shoulder.

John startled, actually blushing. Jack kept looking, appreciating the view from the front as much as the back when the new bartender stood to face them. She had a sweet body with curves in all the right, mouthwatering places.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” she asked, interrupting his reconnaissance. Jack met her eyes, a brown so dark he couldn’t tell iris from pupil, though the narrowing of her eyelids might’ve had something to do with it too. Her lips were tight, pressing together in a way that made him want to tug them apart with his teeth.

The brittle edge to her expression had him narrowing his eyes too. His mama had taught him manners, even if she hadn’t insisted on them for herself, but it wasn’t like he was leering. He believed in appreciating what was before him; nothing crude or ugly about that. Most women he knew basked in the attention.

And maybe you’re getting a bit too arrogant, dickhead.

He answered her look with a wry smile of his own.

The dish towel got a toss into the nearby hamper as the new bartender made her way toward them, Jack’s lager in hand. John tucked himself against the back wall so she could make her delivery.

“Maddie, this is Jack.”

“Nice to meet you.” Jack extended his hand to shake, the anticipation of touching her forcing his erection harder against his zipper.

Down, boy.

Maddie shoved his beer into his hand. “You too.”

Her voice was feminine, husky, arousing. Which was a ridiculous thought, because she didn’t sound like it was nice to meet him. John sniggered. Jack ignored him, bringing the cold glass mug to his lips.

The deep, earthy bark of hops settled in his nose as he took his first drink, but his eyes stayed on Maddie’s. She didn’t back down, didn’t blush, just raised a brow and stared right back. Why in hell did that make him so hot?

When he set the beer on the bar, Maddie nodded toward it. “All right?”

“Absolutely, darlin’,” he said, the endearment slipping out automatically.

The eyebrow got higher. “Good.”

He kept staring as Maddie returned to her end of the bar. The spikes of hair sticking up from her clip bounced with every step. Jack imagined his fingers fisting the long length, holding her still for him. Taming the shrew, so to speak. He had not a single doubt that she’d be feisty as hell. Yeah, he’d definitely like to get his hands in that hair.

John’s laugh sliced through his sexual haze. He shot the bartender a sharp look. “Shut the hell up.”

John laughed harder.

Jack opened his mouth—to say what, he didn’t know—but an angry bellow cut him off. The trailing cry that followed, high-pitched and feminine, had every muscle in Jack’s body tightening. His beer hit the counter and he was off his seat long before the motion registered.

Maddie was faster, and she was closer to the chaos than he was.

Jack watched in slow-motion fascination as the small bundle of angry woman hit the hinged half door marking the end of the bar at a full-out run. She didn’t even pause at the impact, just kept on going, across the uneven floor in those heeled boots, through the tabled area to the edge of the dance floor. He gained on her as the fight came into view.

One of the waitresses, Elena, struggled in the grip of a burly, obviously angry drunk, tears on her pale cheeks. She whimpered in his hold as her skin whitened around the fist enclosing her fragile wrist.

“I told you I want another. Now go get it, you little slut!”

Jack heard the waitress’s muffled gasp in response as she shook her head no.

“Yes,” the man shouted, shaking her in his grip.

Maddie closed the last three feet of distance between herself and the drunk with no hesitation, stepping right into his space. Jack’s heart leaped into his throat, a warning rising to just behind his teeth…

Maddie gripped the drunk’s thumb where it rested atop Elena’s arm, one finger on the bottom joint and one sliding right up underneath—perfect positioning—and shoved back hard. The move forced the man to release his hold or have his thumb broken. He chose release.

“Ow! Damn bitch,” the man growled, reaching with his other hand to make a grab for Maddie now.

“Bitch is right,” she muttered, her voice rough with menace and a thread of satisfaction that had all of Jack’s senses screaming to alert. She twisted to the side, slipping the drunk’s hold easily. On the back swing, she clasped her hands together in a firm grip and used them as a brace to shove her elbow up toward the drunk’s face. The three-inch heels on her boots allowed her to hit him square in the nose, which promptly gave way. Blood spurted in a crazy arc.

The whole thing took seconds. Jack watched, stunned, as the man’s head fell back, as droplets of blood landed on the smooth expanse of Maddie’s face. For a single moment the image of an equally beautiful blonde, long hair bloody and tangled as she cowered in a corner, hit him in the gut. And then the moment was gone and he was in arm’s reach of Maddie and her drunk opponent.

“That’s it.” With a growl of his own, Jack grabbed the bartender around the waist and moved her bodily away from the attack, subduing her kicks and struggles easily with his six feet four inches of military-trained muscle. Maddie bucked in his arms, her head hitting his collarbone. Pain shot across his shoulder, and the hold on his temper, the one he usually kept with barely any effort at all, snapped in two.

“Stop!” Planting her firmly on the ground out of the way, Jack whipped her to face him. Wild eyes latched on to his, her face going red with impotent anger. He gripped her biceps before she could explode into violence. Maddie twisted her arms, trying to slip his grip the same as she had the drunk’s, but he was ready for her and clamped down tighter, giving her a little shake. “Maddie, stop.”

Her name seemed to register, but the anger was still there. One side of those full lips lifted in a snarl. Jack allowed every ounce of command he possessed to shine from his eyes, using attitude as much as strength to subdue her. Only when Maddie sank back on her heels did he let go.

“Stay!” His pointed finger told her where, though the way her mouth dropped open and the stunned look on her face assured him he only had moments to work before her surprise wore off and she came after him again.

Moving quickly toward the bellowing drunk now holding his bloody nose, Jack gripped the man’s thick neck and pushed him onto the dance floor. The man pulled away with a loud grunt, swinging a shaky fist in the general direction of Jack’s chest. Batting the hand away like a pesky fly, Jack twisted one burly arm behind the man’s back, using it as a lever to frog-march him across the room.

“Don’t,” he warned as the man struggled in his grip. “I’ve got no problem fucking you up, asshole, and trust me, you won’t enjoy it.”

A carrot-topped head appeared through the crowd of onlookers. Troy, Halftime’s bouncer, forced his way over. “Jack, no beatin’ up the clientele. I told you that before.”

Snorting at the man’s sarcasm, Jack gave his prisoner another shove. “Not me. Blondie.” He jerked his head in the direction where he’d left the new bartender. “This guy’s drunk, and I’m pretty sure his nose is broken.”

“She’s got good aim,” Troy said, eyeing the injured man. “Guess that’ll teach you, huh, Bernie?”

“Dat bitch broke my node!”

“Yeah, yeah.” Troy grimaced before taking Jack’s place behind Bernie’s back. “I might break something else if you don’t come quietly, so come quietly.”

“But—”

Troy gave the man’s wrist a slight twist, forcing him up on his toes. “Quietly, I said.”

Jack stayed where he was a moment, watching the pair exit the heavy double doors out front, trying to calm the fire of adrenaline racing through his veins, to get ahold of the fear that had threatened to choke him when Maddie grabbed Bernie’s hand. To get the hot desire that had flooded him as her firm ass pressed against his cock under control. He inhaled, held the air for a count of ten, then let it out. Did it again. When he got the emotion down to a hard simmer, he turned back to the little troublemaker.

Maddie’s position as she bent over to examine Elena’s bruised wrist showcased her mouthwatering backside in a way that did absolutely nothing to calm him down. He circled the pair. “What the hell were you thinking?”

Her head jerked up, innocent eyes meeting his squarely. Innocent, my ass. “What?”

“You heard me,” he gritted out through his teeth.

“Yeah, I did.” She straightened, only to turn her stiff back on him, murmuring to the waitress once more.

“You didn’t answer me.”

“I don’t answer dumb questions,” she threw over her shoulder. Draping an arm around Elena’s slender shoulders, Maddie urged her toward the kitchen. Halftime’s owner, Tommy Ray, came rushing to meet them, his face a mix of displeasure and concern.

“What happened, girl?”

“Bernie,” Elena said. She cradled her wrist in her opposite hand.

“Damn.”

“Yeah, and now his nose is broken,” Jack said sourly. “Troy’s handling him.”

Bushy black eyebrows rose in unison above Tommy Ray’s dark gaze. “How did his nose get broken?” He eyed Elena’s tiny stature uncertainly.

“Her.” Jack nodded toward Maddie. “You got yourself a bundle of surprises behind your bar, Tommy Ray.”

Tommy Ray looked to Maddie this time, surprise and a hint of amusement mixing with the concern. “Maddie?”

Jack clenched his fists, his entire body tense.

Maddie shrugged. “I saw Elena needed help, and I helped.”

“You were reckless and damned lucky, you mean. I just don’t get what you were thinking.” The chaos in Jack’s mind roughened the words to a rumble.

“What were you thinking? You were right behind me, jackass.”

Jackass. Clever. He glared. “I’m trained for this. Most people at least hesitate.”

She scoffed. “Not likely. No one’s getting hurt on my watch if I can help it.”

“Look—”

“Jack,” Tommy Ray warned.

That cocky blonde eyebrow lifted in his direction. Again. “Who the hell are you, anyway?” Maddie asked. “My keeper?”

“It looks like you need one.” He was not going to yell. He would not lose it that far. No matter how fast he felt his control slipping through his fingers. No matter how calm, cool, and condescending she looked. No matter how damn good she’d felt against him, and how much his body raged to jerk her against him again and take all this aggression out on her full lips and generous curves.

Not gonna happen.

Maddie leaned forward, mere inches separating him from her sweet breath. “You wish.”

“Damn it!” Jack snarled.

Elena’s shoulders began to shake with laughter. Tommy Ray rolled his eyes. “Now, children…”

Maddie squared off with Jack, the heels of her boots barely bringing her height to his shoulder. Her eyes blazed. “You can take your opinion and shove it up your—”

“Enough.” Tommy Ray stepped between them, or at least his rounded belly did. He pointed a finger at Maddie. “You’ve got drinks to make. Get back behind the bar. And next time”—he lowered those caterpillar brows at her—“call Troy. That’s what he’s here for.”

Jack rocked on his heels and watched her stalk back to her station. He waited, ignoring the sweat trickling between his shoulder blades, while Tommy Ray sent Elena to the kitchen for an ice pack before turning back to him.

Jack shifted to keep Maddie and the bar in his sight. “Who is she, Tommy Ray?”

“New girl. John’s needin’ more time for his classes; she needed a job. It seemed like a good trade. She knows her stuff behind the bar.”

“And in front of it too, looks like. Or thinks she does.” He could still feel her glare burning through him. “Where’s she from?”

“Don’t know. Doesn’t matter.” The stubborn look on his friend’s face said that was all he would share. It could be all the man knew. It wouldn’t be the first time Tommy Ray had taken in a stray puppy with no paperwork. Jack’s friend didn’t care as long as she could do the job. So why did Jack care?

“I’d keep an eye on her. She’s a firecracker waiting to go off, and you know what kind of damage that can do.”

The other man laughed. “Yeah, I sure do. Too hot to handle, at least for an old guy like me.” He patted his burly chest and turned serious. “I’ll have Troy keep an eye on her, but if she can handle Bernie, she’ll do fine.”

“Tommy Ray—”

The man held up one huge paw. “You know I don’t allow any trouble around here, Jack. I run a clean bar; otherwise you and a bunch of others wouldn’t come here. But I’ll keep an eye out.”

Jack watched his friend head back to the kitchen instead of letting his gaze turn back to the bar. Me too.

Southern Nights 3: Take Me

Take Me.jpg

Two men. One woman. And a stolen boy longing for the family who loves him.

Peyton Harrison has a secret goal when she arrives in Claywater, Texas—getting back her son, kidnapped as a newborn. The last man she expects to meet is Gabe Harrison, the guy who seduced her and walked away. Her body might want to take up where they left off, but her heart remembers Gabe’s betrayal all too well…and this time, the risk is even greater.

Gabe and Sam always knew they’d share the love of their lives, in their hearts and in their bed. Except Gabe found the perfect woman at the worst possible time. He did the honorable thing and walked away, but now an adult Peyton is in their hometown, her beautiful eyes full of tragic secrets. Sam is knee-deep in a drug investigation threatening Claywater, and Peyton’s arrival is a dangerous distraction. He and Gabe have always stood together, but this time, will the woman they both want be the one that divides them?

One twin left when she needed him most. Now both want her heart, but giving in may cost more than they realize. Anticipating their enemy’s next move is the only way to keep their son safe, but what about their hearts?

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

Peyton Harrison’s battered old Ford pulled to a rickety stop at the curb across from Claywater Elementary School. Buses lumbered through the circular drive out front, discharging students of all sizes. Bigger kids hurried inside, while the younger ones followed a teacher’s direction into the fenced playground. Expending energy and first-day jitters before the day began, probably. If only Peyton’s nerves could so easily be dispersed.

Her heart beat a booming drumroll of desperation in her throat, the sound loud in the stifling silence of her truck. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All she could do was watch the schoolyard across the street with greedy eyes. The child she was searching for was impossible to miss. Right in the center of the play area, a small, sturdy figure hurried up to the monkey bars and began his climb to the top. Even at six years old, he was strong, pulling himself higher and higher, outpacing his classmates until he threw one tan leg over the top rung, clamped down tight, and stopped to assess his playground domain.

King of the hill. Lord of all he surveyed. Just like his father.

The thought added to the blaze of agony threatening to drown her as it mixed with the ravenous ache of yearning clenching her belly. Just a few moments of inattention by the teachers chatting together on the park bench, some wire cutters for snipping the chain-link fence, something to keep him quiet as she ran for the safety of her truck— She pictured every step in her mind, saw how easily it could be carried out, how quickly he could become hers.

Hers.

The word throbbed in her oxygen-deprived brain, right at the forefront, taunting her. So simple, just four little letters. And yet the hundred yards dividing them screamed exactly how impossible that word was. Almost as impossible as it had been for the past six years.

He belongs to someone else; you know that. At least for now.

The ache in her fingers where they clenched the steering wheel centered her, pulling her back into reality, into now. She dragged in a gulp of hot Texas air and forced her focus back on the playground, on the child’s clear blue eyes and their steely determination. His soft, full lips displayed the last tiny shreds of remaining toddlerhood. The clothes he’d worn for the first day of school—a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt that looked too adult for such a young child, tan cargo shorts with every pocket neatly fastened, pristine white ankle socks and sneakers—now bore streaks of red clay and wrinkles, the starched collar of the shirt wilting under the onslaught of August heat and childish perspiration. What she wouldn’t give to bury her nose in the sweaty curve of his neck and inhale the wild, little-boy scent of him.

So serious. Even at such a young age, he was deep-down-to-the-bone serious. More little man than little boy. She could see it in his eyes.

Then he smiled.

It hit her like a punch to the gut, that smile. His daddy’s smile. The thought burned like tears behind her eyes, but she couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop eating up every discernible detail she possibly could. His solemn face lit up with that smile, his beautiful eyes bright under the shaggy fringe of thick reddish-blond hair across his forehead. That hair was ruffled by deep furrows, as if he ran his fingers through it frequently. The white of his baby teeth was a stark contrast to the depth of his tan, possibly from playing outside all summer. The mottling of bruises on his knees and down his shins attested to that. At least she hoped that’s where they came from. Her heart ached to know for sure. She ran through scenario after scenario in a feverish search for the one that would enable her to bring him home, to finally have him in her arms agai—

Knock, knock, knock.

The drumroll in her chest became crashing thunder. A curse made it to her lips and froze there, held back by the wall of chest that blocked her sight of the playground. The material stretching across that wide expanse of solid muscle was dark blue, crisp and clean, with the title “Claywater Police Department” clearly emblazoned on the patch to one side.

A cop, right outside her window. Tall and broad and intimidating. Her breath stuttered across suddenly dry lips.

“Ma’am?” The cop rapped the back of his knuckles against the glass again. “Roll down your window please.”

The man’s voice tickled something in the back of her fear-frozen mind, something that drew her gaze against her will. Up the precisely buttoned shirtfront. Past the small triangle of skin at his collar, the neatly trimmed red-gold stubble. Lips. Nose. Eyes.

Blue eyes. Familiar blue eyes.

Peyton stared, certain she was caught up in some crazy nightmare. The devil taunting her. Because she knew those eyes intimately. Knew this man—except he wasn’t a cop. Or at least, he hadn’t been when she knew him.

“Ma’am?”

That deep, commanding tone again. It washed over her like molasses, trapping her in memories buried for so long. With hands shaking and tongue tied, Peyton slowly rolled down the window.

“Gabe?” she choked out. Please don’t let this be happening. Despite the all too real rush of air brushing her face, she prayed someone, somewhere, would hear her plea and make it true.

One of Gabe’s hands rested casually against the side of her truck. A relaxed pose belied by his laser-sharp gaze and the fingers toying with the catch on his holster. She forced her eyes away from the gun and back to his. A flinch shook her as their eyes met.

“License and registration, please, ma’am.”

“Gabriel?” It was all she could get out. She glanced at the name tag, prominently displayed on the left side of his solid chest. Williams. “God, I can’t believe it’s you.” She didn’t want to believe it, not now, when secrecy was paramount. When her heart was already torn to pieces.

He shouldn’t look the same, not after all these years. But he did. He shouldn’t be here in Claywater, but he was. Standing outside her window. His big body was tense, ready for anything—he looked every inch the wolf he was. Cornflower-blue irises gleamed with impatience in his ruggedly handsome face. Too handsome, she’d always said. And empty. Not a hint of recognition.

Gabe didn’t shift, didn’t back down, just narrowed his eyes. “Ma’am, your license and registration. Now.”

The comply-or-face-the-consequences tone got through when nothing else could. She’d never forget that tone, no matter how many years it had been—every cop and prison guard used it daily. Her hand was halfway to the glove box before she even realized it. Registration in hand, she retrieved her license from her purse, nerves jittering in her stomach like a thousand butterflies. In a surreal haze she passed her paperwork through the window. The breath in her lungs stuttered as she watched his strong, calloused hand come closer, closer—the hand that had introduced her to the joys of sexual pleasure, the fingers that had ensured her readiness before he took her virginity. She waited for a touch she’d both longed for and cursed for seven excruciating years. And when that touch came, when his fingers brushed the backs of hers as he grasped the papers and pulled them away, she looked into his eyes once more, searching, fearing.

And saw absolutely nothing. Not recognition. Not curiosity. Disdain. Nothing.

“And you are?” he asked.

She stared, certain he had to be kidding. “Peyton.”

He waited.

“Harrison?” she said. It came out a question, as if she didn’t know her own name. He didn’t, apparently.

“Is there a reason you stopped here, Ms. Harrison?”

Relief coursed through her confusion. A question she was actually prepared for. “I’m lost.”

And she dared anyone to prove otherwise. A glance over her shoulder would plainly show a map of Claywater and a notebook detailing properties in the area. She was, after all, looking for a site for her new restaurant. Had already chosen one, in fact, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Oh? New in town?”

His tone wasn’t interested, and his gaze didn’t drop to her license, the one that had the same date as her move into her bland new apartment over by the highway. She didn’t trust herself to answer.

Her silence drew only one reaction: “How long?”

“Not long.”

He continued to watch her, unsmiling. His eyes hid everything he felt—or didn’t. And then he turned without a word and walked back to his patrol car, her license and registration in hand.

Even the walk was the same. A harsh laugh escaped as she watched him in the rearview mirror. His hair was longer, spiky instead of the buzz cut he’d worn when she knew him, the face harder and yes, now that she thought about it, older, but there was no doubt this was Gabe. Her Gabe. The Gabe that had ruined her life.

She’d imagined this moment since the tender age of seventeen, imagined what she would do if she ever came face-to-face with him again. She’d never considered that he wouldn’t even remember the moment that changed her forever. But his blank stare had told her the truth. No memories of that hot, sweaty night and drenching desire lurked there. Not even a hint of recognition for someone he’d seen daily for weeks, no matter how long ago.

Just a quick, easy lay, that was her. Forgettable. Replaceable. She didn’t have to wonder about that anymore. What she did have to wonder was how the hell her first lover and her son had ended up in the same rural Texas town. Had Gabe been involved all along?

But no, he’d definitely recognize her then. If he didn’t remember her, he didn’t know about Micah. And she was determined to keep it that way.

Gabe returned with the same unhurried pace as before, tapping her license against his thigh. When he came to stand outside her door, dark sunglasses hid his eyes. She felt the loss even though she shouldn’t, a fact that sent anger pounding through her heart. She breathed it away. She couldn’t risk slipping up and doing anything that would endanger her plans. For her sake—and her son’s—she had to stay under the radar. Assaulting an officer would make her a big ol’ unignorable blip. No clawing his eyes out, then.

Squaring her shoulders, Peyton ignored the strain of her nerves as she focused on the tap, tap, tap of the edge of her license against hard muscle. She could outwait him. She just wished she could figure out what she was waiting for.

“And where did you say you moved here from?”

She almost—almost—rolled her eyes. The raised eyebrow, she couldn’t stop. “Memphis.”

He nodded, ignoring the brow. “Your apartment is across town, Ms. Harrison. What address are you looking for?”

Do you call all your ex-lover’s by their last name? “I’m not looking for an address; I’m familiarizing myself with the town. If I plan to open a business here—and I do—then it’s in my best interest to get to know the area.” She was proud of how smoothly the words came out, ringing with pleasant—and quite false—emotion. “It’s a beautiful, friendly town.”

Okay, that hadn’t been as neutral as she would like. But once again he didn’t respond to any perceived insult. “Yes, it is. We’re small but growing, and we keep an eye on each other. You can see why we would be uncomfortable with strangers parked outside our schoolyards, correct?”

Fear mixed with her anger, making her nauseous. She dared a glance at the playground as if just noticing it. “Of course, Officer Williams,” she said. She kept her eyes wide open and innocent. A whisper of copper traced across her tongue as she bit down, holding back any further words.

Tap, tap, tap. “What kind of business are you planning?”

“A restaurant.”

“In Claywater?” He said it like she wasn’t too bright.

“Of course. This is a beautiful area—and growing, as you mentioned. It’s perfect.” She forced a smile, small but sweet. “You should come by sometime once I find the right location. Hoolihan’s. Coffee on the house.” She watched closely but didn’t catch even a glimmer of recognition. Coffee had always been on the house for Gabe when he visited Mike and Shelly’s place in Memphis. He’d always bragged about her coffee being the best in the world. Now even the name of the restaurant didn’t jog his memory.

“I’ll do that, ma’am.” He tipped his hat before handing back her license and registration. “You have a good day now.”

Right, I’ll just do that. Swallowing tightly, she dragged words from an uncooperative throat. “You too.”

Gabe walked back to the patrol car parked behind her, his head swiveling as if watching for threats. It wasn’t until he got in and closed the door that she was able to release her breath and allow oxygen into her anxious brain. Movement across the street drew her eye. The kids on the playground were lining up, heading in to begin their day of learning and growing. She had things to do too, but she couldn’t resist one last, long look at her little boy. The desire to throw caution to the wind, to snatch him up and take him home despite the teachers, other children, and even cops in the vicinity almost overwhelmed her. Who knew—maybe Gabe would understand if he realized who that little boy was.

Or, considering the way he’d left her in Memphis, alone and pregnant, maybe not.

But watching that amazing little face, she knew it was too soon to take him, no matter how much the knowledge broke her already damaged heart. She couldn’t risk rocking the boat without more information. She had no idea if he was in a home with people who loved him, who cared what happened to him—who might come after him if he disappeared. Taking him now could risk him hating her forever.

No. No matter how the need for him clawed at her gut and made each day unbearable, she couldn’t risk scaring him, alienating him. Hurting him.

Because he was her son. Their son. And she’d protect him with her life, even from herself.

 

 

Southern Nights: Enigma 1 - Come For Me

4_Come for Me-2.jpg

When an ex-military security expert's wife is taken hostage along with her colleagues, he'll use every weapon in his arsenal to get her out safely. But when it turns out someone they both trust is working with the bad guys, she'll have to fight alongside him to gain their freedom.

Olivia Brannan arrives at her Atlanta financial firm on what should be one of the best mornings of her life. But she walks into eerie silence, greeted only by bloodstains. Her quiet, civilized workplace is under attack. When she can't reach Dain, her uber-protective hero, she realizes she must stay alive on her own until help arrives. And she must decide—is she prepared to kill to save herself and the gift she has for her husband?

Dain Brannan is a client security specialist at JCL Security. He's one of the best in the business. But even in his worst nightmares, he never expected to have to use his skills to rescue his beloved Livie. When thugs take her firm's personnel hostage, he'll do anything to save her—including go around or through the police. Can his team do what the SWAT teams cannot—bring her and her colleagues out alive?

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Exclusive Excerpt

“Tap out, stupid bastard.”

“Tap out’s for sissies,” Saint wheezed. Considering Dain had the man’s shoulder pressed into his carotid, cutting off blood flow, getting out a single recognizable word would be amazing—three was a fucking miracle.

“Ten seconds, Saint,” Elliot said nearby, warning the man how much time he had before he was likely to black out. “Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five—”

King swore from the other side of the mat. “Saint!”

Without warning Dain’s captive flipped his long legs into the air, his spine bending in ways that would seem impossible with his neck immobile. But he had the length in his torso to manage. In a blink his knees were on either side of Dain’s head and his calves were locked at Dain’s nape. Before Dain could duck his head to slip out of the hold, Saint flung him over his long body, loosening his legs at the end to keep from breaking Dain’s neck.

“One!” Elliot yelled as Dain’s back slammed into the mat. With a quick kippup, Saint’s massive weight landed on top of him, crushing the air from his lungs without warning.

“Goddamn.” It was Dain’s turn to wheeze.

“Dain!”

The yell from the workout room door brought all their heads up except Dain’s, stuck beneath one of Saint’s bony knees.

“Code Red,” Jack Quinn called. There was no hesitation in their response; all four team members were on their feet and running for the door in seconds.

“Where’s the party?” Dain yelled as they raced after his boss down the hall toward one of the conference rooms. Jack shook his head but didn’t answer, causing Dain’s heartbeat to pick up speed. Jack Quinn was the head of JCL Security, and the man was anything but reactionary; if he said it was bad, it was bad. Code Red was never anything less. They weren’t on assignment right now, though. Had someone else’s op gone sideways?

The four of them packed through the door to the conference room behind their boss. The massive table that dominated the space was empty, but at the end of the room the wide-screen TV hanging on the far wall blared one of the local channels. The sound assaulted Dain’s ears as his eyes adjusted to what was on the screen: a close-up of a female reporter he recognized from the usual early morning newscast holding a microphone to her red lips, the wind blowing her blonde hair into her eyes as she spoke.

“Officer Mays, what can you tell us about the situation? Any updates?”

The camera panned to a petite, dark-haired policewoman Dain recognized as one of the Public Information Officers at the Atlanta PD. “No updates as of yet. We are still establishing communications with the suspects and determining how many hostages are currently in the building.”

“Is the entire building at risk?”

The glint of impatience in Mays’s eyes wasn’t reflected in her words. “Not at this time. All floors except the top have been evacuated. Only the fourth floor suite is involved.”

“Where—”

Dain had barely gotten the word out of his mouth when the camera panned back behind the anchorwoman to the building in question. A familiar building. The one that held Georgia Financial Management Services.

Livie.

No. Fuck no. “Jack!”

His boss stood on the opposite side of the table, the office phone to his ear, but he jerked it down to tell Dain, “I’m trying to find out. Hang on.”

The blonde was speaking again. “For those who are just joining us, would you please recap what is known at this point?”

Officer Mays nodded. “We received a 911 call this morning alerting us to a situation at Georgia Financial. Responding officers determined that gunmen were present, as were employees we believe are being held hostage. Negotiations are forthcoming, and in the meantime, we have asked the public to avoid this area until the situation has been resolved.”

“Do we know how many hostages are inside? How many gunmen?”

Mays’s face revealed nothing. “Not at this time. We want to assure the public that the APD will do everything possible to resolve this situation. The safety of the hostages and of our citizens is of paramount concern.” With a nod at the camera, Mays walked away.

As the anchor promised more information soon and tossed the segment back to her cohort in the studio, Dain fought for breath. “King, I want to know what they know,” he barked.

“I’m on it,” King said roughly behind him before rushing from the room. Their PR liaison knew everyone who was anyone at the Atlanta Police Department. Dain gave his team member’s assurance an absent nod, his gaze still fixed on the television, the screen now showing the local studio and the male news anchor who normally had the blonde sitting next to him. Dain couldn’t remember his name and didn’t care. He picked up the remote and muted the chatter.

“Elliot,” he snapped.

The only female member of his team stepped to his side. Her petite stature forced her to look up at him, one eyebrow quirked in question. Worry clouded her eyes.

“Go to my desk and get my personal cell.”

Elliot nodded and ran for the door. Dain tried to force air in and out while he waited. Based on the strain in his heart and lungs, he was pretty sure he didn’t succeed worth a damn. The TV screen was showing a segment on grills. Who the hell cared about grills when his wife could be in danger? But he didn’t dare look away in case they showed more news on the standoff.

Jack slammed the phone down on its cradle with a hissed “Fuck.” No answers, then. Hopefully King—

Elliot swung through the door. “Here,” she said and tossed Dain’s cell phone across the room before her short legs could carry her to him. He snagged it out of the air and thumbed it on blindly.

“Come on, come on.” Livie had gone in to work early. She would’ve called—shit! He wasn’t thinking straight. Dain, who never lost his cool on a job, couldn’t think past the fact that his wife was in that damn building.

“She would’ve called my office phone if there was a situation, wouldn’t she?” Assuming she could call at all, but he refused to think about that. “Can you check my office voice mail?”

“Already done,” Elliot said. “No messages.”

He blessed her under his breath as his phone came online. A red circle with the number one inside sat in the upper right-hand corner of the phone icon.

One message.

He couldn’t breathe.

Forcing himself not to tighten his grip until the phone crumbled to bits in his hand, he tapped the icon, navigating his way to voice mail. Livie’s name waited at the top of the message list.

He tapped the Play button, then Speaker. Livie’s voice broke through the chaos in the room—or maybe that was just his pounding heart.

“Dain?”

He swore, the words blistering his throat with the effort to keep them quiet. He upped the volume, not about to miss a single word, a sound, anything.

The sound of her throat clearing came through, then a stronger, “Dain, there’s something wrong here. Stan’s— Stan’s dead. There’s blood.”

Livie. His wife…she was with a dead coworker. Dain choked on the emotion welling in his chest; he couldn’t stop the reaction no matter how unprofessional it was. He’d been in life-and-death situations before, but never… “Wife,” he whispered, straining to hear her next words. Would they be her last?

“I can’t find everyone else. I’m going to the kitchen. I’m in the kitchen, okay?”

“That’s good.”

It took him a moment to register Jack’s voice. He stared blindly at his boss. “What?”

“The kitchen. There will be weapons there, right?”

Right. And he’d trained Livie to recognize them.

“I’ve got to go. I’ll call your office after I call the cops, okay? I’m all right. I am…”

Livie hesitated on the recording as Dain met Elliot’s horrified gaze. “What’s the time?” Elliot asked him. When he shook his head, she nodded toward the phone. “The time on the message—what is it?”

He barely had the presence of mind to hit Pause before checking. “Nine thirty?” But that made no sense. Livie had left by seven. Why would she just be arriving at the office at nine thirty?

What time was it now? The clock on the conference room wall read 10:04. So Livie had called the police. She’d said she was going to, so surely—

Jack’s voice broke through Dain’s daze. “Play the rest.”

He stared down at the screen. Thirty seconds were left on the recording. If he played them, would Livie disappear at the end? Or would waiting mean she waited for him in real life too?

“Stupid idea. Trying hard to blanket the chaos in his head with a numbness that was usually second nature on an op, Dain clicked Play.

“Dain? Listen, I need to tell you, just in case. I know I’ll be fine, but just in case…” A pause. Tell him what? He bit down on the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, forcing back a scream. Tell him what? “Dain, I’m pregnant. Do you understand? I’m pregnant, husband. I’m having our baby, so you come get me, damn it. Come get us.” He heard a sigh that shook so much it told him exactly how scared she was. “I love you, Dain.”

When the message stopped, so did his heart. Pregnant?

“Fuck!” No way could he be numb after that. Tears stung his eyes, made the phone screen waver in front of him.

He raised the cell to hurl it across the room. Saint’s broad hand stopped him midswing. “I think we might need that, Boss.”

Dain cradled the phone to his chest and forced himself to get a grip. Blinked away the tears. Took a deep breath. Livie needed him; he had to focus. “I’m so going to spank her ass when this is over,” he choked out.

Elliot muffled a laugh behind closed lips.

King rushed into the room, and Dain forced back the emotions clouding his head once again. “What do we know?” he asked, sliding the phone into his back pocket. His team seemed to recognize the shift into work mode; they gathered around the table and started laying out the facts.

“Jerry gave me the basics,” King said as he joined them. “Livie works for Georgia Financial, doesn’t she?”

Dain didn’t need anything else; he saw the truth in King’s expression. “How many combatants?”

“More than one; that’s all Jerry knows. They received a phone call from a female that was cut short. Officers responding to the call found the doors locked. When they tried to force entry, the suspects showed themselves—and their weapons. Threats against the employees. The cops backed off.”

Following procedure. Dain understood it even as his heart protested.

“SWAT is on site now, setting up. The Crisis Negotiation Team is en route. Unfortunately that puts us in a holding pattern.”

“The call from the female, who was it?”

King shook his head. “Jerry didn’t have a name. Why?”

Because he needed to know if it had been Livie. Because he needed to know if his wife was alive before he completely lost every bit of the control he was known for.

He needed his wife, damn it. He couldn’t breathe without her. Couldn’t imagine waking up a single morning without her beside him, safe and sound. He wouldn’t—no, couldn’t accept anything else.

If that meant he had to be the one to make her safe, he would. Or die trying.

Southern Nights: Enigma 2 - Deceive Me

5_Deceive Me-2.jpg

Elliot Smith has trained hard to live alone and work alone, even when it comes to her job as a security specialist for JCL Security. No relationships, no ties, except the one to the man who kidnapped and murdered her mother. She’ll do anything to kill Martin Diako, the untouchable South African pirate king. When Deacon Walsh walks into her office, she finally sees a chance to do just that.

Deacon went from soldier to mercenary warrior to stay-at-home dad, and now his past is back to haunt him. Martin Diako, the father of the terrorist Deacon killed two years ago, is coming for revenge, and he has his sight set on Deacon’s daughter. An heir for an heir. Deacon will do anything to protect her, even if it means asking for help. But the security team he’s hired comes with an added complication: the only woman to interest him since his wife died.

Deacon always leads his team, and Elliot protects hers. They might have one chance at their enemy—if they can work together. Will their hunger for each other pull them together, or push them apart?

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

“I’m not a fucking nanny, Dain.”

“Not with a mouth like that.”

Elliot shot a deadly look Saint’s way, but her team member shrugged it off. She seriously considered strangling the man with the crucifix he wore around his neck, but it wouldn’t matter. Their boss would simply replace him with someone even more annoying just to get back at Elliot for the inconvenience. Instead she turned her back to the room and sought calm outside the floor-to-ceiling windows providing a perfect view of downtown Atlanta.

Okay, the calm came from avoiding the three amused sets of eyes behind her, but whatever.

The members of her team remained silent, though she could feel their stares burning into her back. Good men. She couldn’t have asked for better. Dain Brannan, or Daddy as they sometimes called him, was the head of their particular team here at JCL Security, the one who took care of the rest of them. Saint, or Iggy—the six-two, massive warrior took personal exception to the use of his full name, Saint Ignatius Solorio—was the joker of the bunch, always saying what everyone was thinking but would never politely admit. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of weapons that made him invaluable despite the constant temptation to kick his ass. And then there was King—Kingsley Moncrief. No one would guess from looking into the man’s assessing eyes that he’d been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. Acting as their client and media liaison was a natural role for him, but Elliot had never doubted how lethal King could be in the field.

All three men stayed quiet, waiting for her cool head to take over. Waiting for the pressure of their silence to push her into complying. They knew her as well as she knew them.

“I don’t want to be shoved into a role because I have the requisite vagina,” Elliot bit out.

When Dain chuckled, she whipped around to glare at him. He raised a hand to stop her in her tracks, a smile still on his lips. “Think about it, Otter. A four-year-old girl. Look at us.” He gestured at the two men flanking him, both over six feet and muscular. Tough. Scary, if you weren’t Elliot. “Do you really think a child is going to be particularly comfortable with us? Or that she’ll trust us as fast as she needs to? This isn’t some forty-year-old visiting dignitary’s wife we can simply talk into complying; it’s a kid.”

Elliot refused to let Dain’s use of her call sign influence her. “She would trust you. Everyone trusts you.” And they did. Dain wasn’t called Daddy only because he watched out for his team.

“Maybe. But with you, it’s guaranteed.”

Because she was tiny. The truth of the knowledge burned in her gut. She didn’t like appearing weak, though she wasn’t above using it to her advantage. She’d taken down many a fighter in the ring because they thought she was an easy target. They learned otherwise quickly, much to their detriment.

So yeah, she got it. That didn’t mean she wanted to admit it.

Elliot sighed like a teenager being forced to wash dishes instead of a kick-ass security specialist being assigned a new client. “Do I really have a choice?”

No, of course not.

The side of Dain’s mouth quirked up in a smirk she knew meant he thought he’d gotten his way. Again. Bastard. “Not really.”

Another sigh. “Fine.”

That earned an all-out laugh. “Fine. Can we meet the client now?”

Elliot grumbled under her breath as she followed Dain to the door of his office. King chuckled as he fell in line behind her. Saint, of course, simply had to add an, “And don’t forget to watch your mouth, little Otter.”

Elliot growled back at him before she stepped into the hall.

JCL Security was headed by Conlan James and Jack Quinn. Their reputation in the United States security community was unparalleled. Even Elliot had heard of them before Dain found her and convinced her to join his team two years ago. She respected her bosses, and Dain’s influence on her life had been such that she’d do pretty much anything he asked, but he’d also never asked her to babysit children. She knew nothing about children. Even when she’d been a child, she hadn’t been “normal,” so how the hell—heck—was she supposed to understand how to handle a child? The mere thought had her wishing for a paper bag to hyperventilate into as their group came to the door of Jack Quinn’s office.

Dain glanced over his shoulder, one last assessment of his “troops” before presenting them to his commanding officer. His gaze settled on Elliot, and the warmth she recognized there eased the panic in the pit of her stomach. When he nodded, she found herself squaring her shoulders and putting on her game face.

Dain gave a peremptory knock and opened the door.

Here we go.

Her gaze shot immediately to the head honcho’s desk, but the sight of Jack was blocked by a set of wide shoulders wrapped in a tight black T-shirt. Wide, muscular shoulders. Elliot saw the same sight nearly every day—all of her team members were “built,” so to speak; they all dressed in what she called military casual, fatigues and tight tees. None of them had ever made the breath catch in her throat like this man did.

Brown hair left shaggy at the top, cut close in a semimilitary style as it tapered to a cropped V at the base of his skull. Tanned skin along his neck and heavy arms. The man’s back narrowed to a tight ass and legs that told her he was just as strong as Saint or King or Dain, so what did he need with them?

Oh, right. Kid.

Forcing herself to stop eating up his manly form with her eyes, Elliot fell into line next to Dain to one side of Jack’s desk.

Their boss made the introductions, alpha to alpha. “Dain Brannan, this is Deacon Walsh.”

Deacon? Actual name or military call sign? Their team all had call signs they went by while on mission, but clients typically didn’t. There hadn’t been time to brief them on more than the very basics of the assignment—number of clients, degree of threat. A call sign gave her a small hint as to why the guy looked like he’d be the last person asking for their help, though.

“Please, call me Dain.” The two men shook hands, and that was where Elliot focused. On their clasped hands, not on the sudden uneasy squirm in her belly. She didn’t understand what was wrong with her. She didn’t question clients, and she sure as hell didn’t have a…reaction…to them. But there was no doubt that everything feminine in her, all the parts she’d thought were good and dead, thank God, were doing weird dances in this man’s presence. And she didn’t like it. She didn’t like it one fucking bit.

“Deacon, meet my team: Elliot Smith, Saint Solorio, King Moncrief. Elliot will be assigned to your daughter’s personal protection, of course.”

“No, she won’t.”

That jerked her head up. Her gaze clashed with grim brown eyes in a grim, hard face. Deacon Walsh stared down at her like she was a puppy who’d just pissed on his boot. “Excuse me?”

“I said, no you won’t.”

Dain shifted next to her. “Elliot is the best member of our team to—”

“You’re not assigning your weakest guard to my daughter simply because she’s a woman.”

It had been Elliot’s argument too, sort of, but instead of cheering, she gritted her teeth. Was this bastard saying she was too little to kick ass if she needed to?

She didn’t even realize she’d tried to step forward until Dain’s hand came out, blocking her advance. Elliot settled back on her heels and waited. Of course, she glared daggers into the man’s stern eyes while she did it, but what were they gonna do, fire her?

The thought almost made her snort. She held back just in time.

“Mr. Walsh…”

Dain’s words were cut off with an abrupt slash of Walsh’s hand. “My daughter is top priority on this assignment. Nothing else matters but her. She needs more than one scrawny wom—”

“Did you just call me scrawny?”

Elliot felt more than saw her team members take a step back, Dain included. A warm rush of pride filled her at their acknowledgment that she could fight her own battles, but she didn’t allow it to get in the way of her focus on Walsh. His gaze swept over her, and though she thought she detected a hint—a very vague hint—of embarrassment in their depths, mostly his eyes held frustration and anger. So did his response.

“I sure as hell did.”

The final word was barely past his lips when Elliot struck. A fake palm heel to the big man’s chin had him jerking back instinctively, giving her a mere second to connect a kick with his inner thigh. She did avoid the groin, though—no need to thoroughly piss off the client, after all. Her grin was probably a tad too exultant as the strike brought Walsh’s head forward, right into her elbow.

“What the fuck!”

“Smith!”

Chuckles from her teammates mixed with Dain’s and Jack’s shouts as she grabbed Walsh’s closest arm and turned, putting her back to his chest. When she dropped to one knee, Walsh flipped over her head. Ah, the joys of leverage. He hit the floor back first. A quick arch and push brought him to his feet—just in time for Elliot’s swift kick in the ass. Walsh stumbled forward.

Dain caught him, fighting hard to keep the grin on his face under control.

No more than fifteen seconds had passed, but Elliot was already briskly brushing her hands together like she’d finished taking out the trash. Or proving a point. Said point might get her fired, but what the hell. They were used to her lack of communication skills around here.

Jack sputtered behind his desk, his face a shade of red she’d never seen on him before. Not very flattering.

A loud laugh pulled Elliot’s focus to the client. Walsh bent, his back to her, the long furrow of his spine drawing her attention right down to the best ass she’d ever laid eyes on—and in her line of business, she’d laid eyes on a few. A warm hum that had nothing to do with a good fight sparked deep inside her.

Dain shook his head, one hand coming up to rub tiredly at his eyes. Elliot shot him a sheepish look.

Jack cleared his throat. “Mr. Walsh, I apologize—”

Walsh’s raised hand precluded any apology. “No need, Jack.” He turned, and Elliot read the amusement in his expression with relief. So maybe she wouldn’t be fired today. “I believe I’m the one who should be saying those words. Nice job, Smith.”

Not Miss Smith, which was what most clients labeled her with. Just Smith. As if she was one of the guys. The final bit of resentment fizzled out. Okay, I can work with that.

That was when she noticed the heat in her cheeks. Looking anywhere but at their client, her gaze met Saint’s. When she moved to stand next to him, he leaned in to whisper, “Don’t bother being embarrassed now, Otter. Too late.”

She punched him in the ribs. His groan was covered by Dain clearing his throat.

“Let me assure you, Mr. Walsh”—Dain threw her a “we’ll definitely talk about this later” look—“that Elliot will be much more circumspect with your daughter than she has proven to be here, won’t you, Otter?”

If she said no, she might get out of the whole nanny duty thing, but one glance at Dain said she’d pushed as far as he would allow her to. She cleared her throat of rebellion. “Of course.”

Walsh’s gaze skimmed her before returning to Dain. “I have no doubt.” He turned to Jack. “Now that we have that clear, perhaps we should get to the point.”

“Right.” Jack gestured them over to a conference area, where he, Walsh, and Dain took seats. Elliot stood next to Saint and King, lined up like good little soldiers behind Dain’s seat, looking on as Jack opened a thick file on the coffee table before him and pushed it toward their team lead.

Dain planted his elbows on his knees and leaned forward over the intel. “Objective?”

“Protection,” Walsh said before Jack could speak. “My daughter is the primary objective. Despite my performance here today”—Walsh didn’t look her way, though his tone was filled with chagrin—“I don’t need protection from this bastard. But I can’t be with Sydney 24-7. I need someone who can.”

“What bastard?” Dain asked.

Jack answered this time. “Martin Diako.”

Elliot froze, even her breath stilling at the name. Martin Diako. She stared at the back of Dain’s head, pinning her composure on her lifeline to the man who’d taken her under his wing.

Martin Diako. Fuck.

Deacon and Sydney Walsh needed protection from Martin Diako. The man known as Mansa in most circles. Ruler. The monster in charge of the biggest modern-day African pirating organization operating today. The monster responsible for ruining an untold amount of lives in the last forty years, including Elliot’s own.

The monster who was her father.

If Only 2: Only for the Night

Only For the Night.jpg

She needs a Dom with heart. He sees the lifestyle as heartless. 

Sage Lyndsey is in desperate need of an escape from the tragic loss of her mother and a too-public breakup with her Dom. Buying into Citrus Pointe’s bakery may be her best decision ever—a place to hide and heal. To do what she loves. But her ideal is broken when her new landlord’s dog steals her towel right in front of him. Now the hottest rock bassist ever, Hank Nash, has seen everything she has. Literally.

Even more shocking? That she’d like him to follow up with his very talented hands, bending her to his will.

Hank has enough trouble on his plate—his band is on the rocks and his muse is off the rails. Adding a spunky, sexy roommate is overload. Even worse, the urge to dominate Sage threatens his hard-won control. But he can’t give in. He’s seen what happens when dominance turns to abuse, and he won’t risk her, no matter how much she needs to submit.

Or how much he hungers to keep her.

*

“Scorching hot BDSM scenes and chemistry that's off the charts.” — Reviews from the Heart

 

Read the whole IF ONLY series!

Only for the Weekend (Book 1)

Only for the Night (Book 2)

Only for the Moment (Book 3)

 

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

Sage Lyndsey fingered the button of her silky white shirt and wondered if she should change again. The oversize button-down draped her body, just see-through enough to reveal the black lace bra and tight mini she wore beneath it. Would Kevin approve?

The sound of a key in the front door lock filtered down the hall, speeding her heart and the churning in her stomach. She glanced at the clock: 6:30. The time triggered an all too familiar despair. Late again. There’d be no time to eat, to talk, to cuddle before they left. The pattern had been set for the past few months, and nothing she did changed it. She was beginning to wonder if anything could.

“Sage!”

The word jerked her muscles into action. One final look in the mirror, a finger tracing beneath each eye to erase any evidence of tears, and she headed down the hall.

“Sage, where are you?”

Kevin stood at the open fridge door, his suit still perfect, his black hair swept back from a hard, handsome face that still took her breath away. “Right here,” she said.

No response. When he lifted a water bottle to his lips, she waited, but he drank deep without turning toward her. The long line of his throat drew her gaze; she wanted to walk over, place a kiss on the faint stubble along his Adam’s apple, snuggle against his wide chest. She’d always preferred big men, tall and strong, and Kevin had fit her to a T from day one. Unfortunately she no longer seemed to fit him, and the fear that he wasn’t happy kept her from approaching him. Fear of rejection.

That was her. A coward. She shook with the need to go to him, to seek comfort, to know he still loved her, but the “stay back” sign he seemed to wear constantly refused to go away.

And so did her resentment.

Arms open to show off her outfit, she asked, “Well, do you approve?”

Her tone came out a touch too tart, too much sass, but regret wasn’t even a blip on her radar. She had feelings too; she wasn’t just a doll he could take out every Friday when he finally came ho—

Kevin turned. Big mistake. She tried to swallow at the burning disapproval in his dark brown eyes, but every drop of spit went desert dry.

“What did you say to me, sub?”

Dropping her eyes to the floor was automatic. Her hands went behind her back, where she balled them into fists to contain the shot of adrenaline her own anger sparked in her system. She was his girlfriend, his lover, not just his sub, even if that role seemed to be the only one he responded to anymore.

How much longer can I do this?

She straightened her spine, stepped closer. “Do you approve, Sir?”

Kevin advanced, his shiny black dress shoes tapping out a rhythm as he closed the distance between them. She peeked up from beneath her long bangs, wanting to read his reaction, but he was too tall, too close to catch a glimpse of his face. His suit jacket and slacks even prevented her from reading his body language. Would her appearance, her submission appease him?

She already knew the answer, but the needy part of her, the part she was beginning to hate more and more, couldn’t help trying. She sank to her knees, grateful for the slight pain of the impact. It gave her something to focus on as Kevin circled her, inspecting his sub.

That’s all I am anymore. Just…sub. Her mother’s death this past summer had left her anchorless, but she hadn’t been alone. Not until this moment, with the man she loved mere inches away.

Kevin’s dress shoes reappeared in her line of sight. “I approve,” he said. The words validated her efforts, but there was no gruff arousal, no hunger in them. Her failure bore down on her, slumping her shoulders with its weight.

Kevin had already walked away. “We should’ve left half an hour ago.”

She bit back a surge of words. Pointing out that he’d just arrived or that she’d been ready for almost an hour wouldn’t make a difference. He was late a lot, and she was lucky if she saw him for more than a few minutes before they left for Heathers, the BDSM club just outside LA where they played every weekend. The evenings they went to the club were the only nights she knew he’d be home, actually. Otherwise he was often working till midnight and dragging into the house long after she’d gone to bed. Her position as head pastry chef at LesMiz meant she was at work by dawn every day. She tried to understand—Kevin’s work was as important as hers, and he was working a major deal that had taken months of preparation. Being needy wouldn’t make any more difference than pointing out the obvious.

And fighting before a scene was not a good way to start off the night. Not that they’d be scening if he didn’t get his attention on her at some point. Even beyond her personal pleasure, playing with a distracted Dom wasn’t safe, no matter how much she longed for some small part of him, however she could get it.

Heathers on a Friday night was chaos, and tonight proved no exception. Sage entered the locker room as she usually did, went through the motions of leaving her shoes and shirt and purse behind, but she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling buried in her hollow stomach. She needed to talk to Kevin, make him see that tonight, no matter how much he wanted to, it was more important to get things settled between them than to play. But when she returned to the front and scanned the area, he was nowhere to be seen. He’d gone inside without waiting for her.

This was a clusterfuck all around, wasn’t it?

Minutes later she found him in a dim seating area surrounded by couples. Friends. His, at least. Since she hadn’t been a member of Heathers until Kevin had introduced her to BDSM, she hadn’t had the time to get to know the others much. Doms and Dommes didn’t interfere with someone else’s sub, and that included talking. Most subs were focused on their masters. The situation didn’t leave a lot of opportunity for chitchat. Tonight, as usual, some subs sat at the feet of their masters or mistresses, while others were cuddled in laps or stationed behind chairs, waiting to serve. The masters were all chatting, the subs happy, and Sage felt like an alien landing on the earth for the first time and trying to figure out how the hell to get her equilibrium.

“Kevin, I—”

He snapped her a look, and Sage’s racing heart skipped a beat. She hated this, hated it. Why couldn’t he give her anything to work with?

“Sir”—emphasis on the title—“I need to speak with you.”

“Is there a problem?”

The impatience of the words, in his expression hit her harder than a flogger. Everything inside her froze, then kickstarted back up with a jerk that hurt so much she realized she was rubbing her chest. She glanced down at her shaking hand, felt the rush of pain. She looked up, her gaze sweeping the circle of people enclosing her like an animal in a pen. They’d heard him; she knew they had. Everyone was watching, wondering why her Dom was upset, wondering what she wasn’t doing to make him happy. The weight of their stares swamped her as she sank to her knees.

And gave up. Talking wasn’t going to help. Nothing would help. She braced herself against the realization, expecting a total breakdown after the emotional chaos of the night, but all she felt was…nothing. Numb. In the back of her mind, a warning sounded, but even that couldn’t get through the heavy cloak slowly settling over her mind and body.

It’s just one night. Get through the night, go home, work it out then, away from all these people.

“Sage, I asked you a question.”

What was it? She managed to dredge up Kevin’s words and a wooden response. “No, Sir, there’s no problem.”

“Good.” His words were clipped. She should care about that, right?

Time passed, though she wasn’t sure how much. Her legs went as numb as the rest of her, and only when Kevin stood did she manage to climb her way out of it. Where were they going?

She glanced up just as Kevin shouldered his toy bag. No.

“Kevin,” she whispered, trying for his attention without drawing others into it.

He glanced over his shoulder. “Our turn.” His nod indicated the St. Andrew’s cross set back on a small stage nearby. He must’ve signed them up while she was in the locker room at the beginning of the night. If she’d known, she’d have pushed her luck earlier, but she hadn’t.

“Kevin, I don’t…”

He wasn’t there anymore. His broad back cut through the crowd as he strode across the room, obviously intent on his destination instead of his sub.

No. This isn’t good for either of us. I need to tell him.

It’s just one scene. How many have you done? Just suck it up, get it over with so you can go home.

Warnings screamed in her head, every step across the crowded room punctuated by a no no no that wouldn’t stop, but she couldn’t bring herself to say anything once she reached the scening area. Once she caught a glimpse of his face. For the first time tonight, the steel was gone from his jaw. His eyes were lit with anticipation, and his lips had relaxed their tight press. He still hadn’t kissed her with those lips, she realized. But she was supposed to scene with him.

Playing doesn’t require kissing, Sage. Just do it.

She moved toward him. “Sir?”

At her approach, he stopped unpacking his bag and faced her. And smiled. Her breath caught on the longing that exploded in her chest. She wanted that smile, that look. She could do this to make him happy, and then they could talk.

She sank to her knees, returning his smile.

Kevin had never been big on a bunch of toys, and neither was she. She wasn’t a pain slut, either. She needed extensive warmup to take anything harsher than a flogger, and as she watched him line up his tools, she knew this would be a long session. He even set out the cane. Not something he’d used on her before, but they’d discussed it. Still, seeing it there knotted her already tight stomach.

He didn’t always use everything he had handy, though. She forced herself to wait, to trust. She could do this.

“Strip,” he finally told her. Sage took her time, wanting to do something she knew would please him. Her show brought another smile to his lips, and the knots building inside her loosened. By the time he had her buckled facing the St. Andrew’s cross, she was ready to submit.

Kevin went through the same stages as usual, warming her muscles, preparing her for a whipping, but the pleasure that usually accompanied the acts was somehow absent. Even when he started in with the flogger, her favorite, the soft, gradually increasing intensity of the strikes didn’t arouse her. Instead the numbness from before slowly morphed into tension, the weight of her failure worse than the first strikes of the switch he used after the flogger. Her butt and thighs screamed at each impact, and it was only then she realized her face was wet.

Tears. She might cry from release, but they weren’t even close to the end, nor was she crying out for more. She turned her head to the side, desperate for Kevin to read her, what she was feeling.

He’ll see me now. He’ll stop. She couldn’t think beyond that, the knowledge that her Dom would take care of her. Except Kevin didn’t seem to notice, and he didn’t slow. Maybe he was too far lost in the rhythm of the switch, in his own Dom space, or maybe they’d just followed the same pattern so much he no longer noticed her response—or lack thereof—on a conscious level. She certainly wasn’t aroused, but he didn’t check.

The switch whistled through the air. Sage couldn’t help it; she tensed, and an explosion of pain shrieked through her butt. The cuffs bit into her wrists as she pulled against them.

Breathe, just breathe.

Desperation hit her when her lungs refused to inflate. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. She needed her safe word, needed Kevin to slow down and hear her, see her. She needed—

Thwack.

What air she had left in her lungs escaped in an anguished cry.

Thwack.

A shallow suck of air, then, “Kevin!”

He didn’t hear her above the sound of the switch hitting her thighs, couldn’t hear her strangling on the scream locked inside her throat. She hadn’t realized her eyes were closed, but she needed to see him, needed— Her gaze caught the movement of people at the side of the stage, watching, always watching. Didn’t they hear her, at least? But no, none of them were helping. None of them were supporting. No one saw her, deep down inside, or even bothered to try, and that included her Dom.

Have to stop. Have to—

Thwack.

Agony seared her body, her mind. She turned as much as her restraints would allow, her safe word on her lips.

The switch struck again, but instead of landing square across her upper back, the tip extended around to snap against the tender side of her breast. A high scream echoed in her ears.

Her scream.

“Damn it, Sage.”

Kevin’s curse was lost beneath the roar of denial, of pain that lashed her harder than Kevin’s switch could manage, and then all she could hear was her own voice. “Red! Red red redredredred!”

He was behind her in an instant, or maybe it was a year. She no longer cared. She jerked at her wrists until the bones threatened to pop, but still she couldn’t free herself, couldn’t get the pain to stop, couldn’t—

“Be still!”

Kevin’s command sliced through her panic. The heat of his body reached her back, and she cringed away, the wood of the cross abrading her skin. “Red, Sir, please!”

The words were nothing more than a whisper, but he was close enough; he could hear her now. He would hear her. He would stop.

Familiar hands traced her shoulders, her arms, her hands. He gripped the cuffs. He would let her go.

Her legs gave way. She slumped against the St. Andrew’s cross, nearly pulling her shoulders out of their sockets, but she didn’t care. He’d stopped. He would protect her. She waited for his reassurance, his comfort, but instead a low muttering filtered through in disjointed snatches.

“What the fuck— Sage. Can’t even… Shit.”

What she needed wasn’t coming.

“Stop,” she managed to squeeze out. “Just stop.” Not the scene this time. Everything.

Her scream had bled any power from her voice. A hoarse whisper was all she managed.

No acknowledgment. The slap of her cuff being released registered, then the exquisite feel of air on her bruised wrist. When Kevin gripped her there, she snatched her hand away. “Don’t! Don’t touch me.” She couldn’t stand it.

He let go to walk around the cross, facing her. “What were you thinking?” he barked.

She rolled her head against the wood beam enough to look at him. On the way, her gaze caught on face after face after face. All staring. All whispering.

All judging.

“I can’t do this right now; I just can’t,” she whispered. Closed her eyes. Cradled her aching wrist to her aching body. “I can’t.”

“Then when can you, Sage?” Kevin didn’t bother keeping his voice down. “This is the only time we have together. When else—” He clamped his lips shut.

She winced, raised her eyes to his, silently begging him to see her, listen to her—hell, just hold her. He saw her, all right, but what was in his eyes wasn’t understanding.

Words flitted through her brain, but she couldn’t seem to catch them, make sense of them. All she could focus on was, “I just can’t.” I can’t do this anymore.

Kevin stared a moment longer. Sage waited, every inch of her flaming skin, her entire being crying out for him. But he didn’t come to her; he paced away. Like she was the problem, like she was poison he couldn’t wait to get away from.

Is he right?

He was five feet away when he finally spun back to her. One look in his eyes and she knew. This was it. There wasn’t even time to brace herself before he spoke.

“I can’t do this either.” The cuff he still held hit the floor with a dull thud. Kevin’s face went hard as granite as he returned to her side, but instead of releasing the rest of her cuffs, he reached for her neck. Her collar. She’d worn it with pride since the night he’d presented it to her. Now that pride shattered as he unhooked the clasp behind her neck and removed the precious strip of leather. She was naked, strapped spread-eagle to a wooden cross, but she’d never felt as nude as she did with her neck bare of his collar.

He didn’t even say good-bye, just turned and walked into the crowd, her collar gripped in his fist. He left her there, to the murmurs and snide remarks that weren’t kept to a whisper. Sage turned away from them all, hiding her nakedness, her tears, her pain. Hiding the death throes as something inside her died.

Heavy footsteps approached.

“Master Kevin asked me to release you, Sage.”

Warren. The dungeon monitor had smiled at her earlier this evening. Now his voice was as empty as her soul.

Her shoulder screamed when he opened the second wrist cuff. While he knelt at her feet to undo the final restraints, she allowed the cross hold her weight. Only when he was finished and had stepped back did she straighten.

“Thank you,” she managed.

His nod wasn’t cold, but neither was there encouragement in his expression. “Would you like a blanket, some water?”

She closed her eyes against another wave of humiliation. “My clothes?”

Leaving her at the cross, he moved to the edge of the scening area and retrieved her bra and miniskirt. Sage struggled into them with trembling hands. The cloth against the welts left behind by the switch brought a curse to her lips, but she held it back. She needed to get out of here, get away. Now.

Blindly she crossed the stage, desperate to escape, her last bit of control barely holding her together. Warren let her go. At the edge of the stage, the crowd parted like the Red Sea, allowing her through while flooding her with stares that burned hotter than brands. She kept her eyes on the floor and forced herself forward, step by agonizing step. Her lungs refused to work until she’d reached the relative emptiness of the doors leading to the front of the club and the locker rooms.

“Sub.”

The word wasn’t angry. Respect laced the voice, reverence for the title so many people thought meant doormat. She stumbled to a stop, but making herself turn was more than she had the strength for. “Yes, Sir?”

It had to be a Dom or DM, though who, she wasn’t sure. When a tall figure circled her, she glanced up into the face of Master V. Shame dropped her gaze back to the floor.

“Are you all right, sweetheart?”

The tears pushing at her defenses burst forward. Sage brought a hand up to cover her eyes, hide herself from the man studying her. “Yes, Sir.”

It was all she could get out. Nothing else was left.

He had to know she was lying, but he didn’t call her on it. Instead his “Let’s get you home, okay?” quickened her tears. His hand on her arm was impersonal, yet still warmer than anything she’d felt tonight. It eased something inside her she couldn’t describe, didn’t want to describe or examine or even face. She needed to get out of here before she lost her mind.

And go where?

The thought brought her up short. She couldn’t go home; Kevin might be there. But everything she owned was at his house. She’d sold the home she and her mother lived in after her mother’s funeral.

She latched on to Master V. like the lifeline he was. “I need to get out of here, please.” Help me.

And somehow he made it happen. Sage left Heathers for the last time fifteen minutes later, the only word of good-bye that of a Dom she barely knew, despite how kind he’d been to her tonight. As the door of the cab closed behind her, she looked through the window, both hoping for and fearing a glimpse of the man she loved, the man she’d surrendered everything to, but all she saw was the look of pity on Master V.’s pale face, and then darkness as the night closed in around her.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Fun Fact!

The dedication page for ONLY FOR THE NIGHT reads, "For the girl who is. Love who you are, not who you think you should be." In Sage I saw what I see in so many women, including my own daughter: the weight of expectations. Being a "good" anything—worker, partner, daughter, or even, in Sage's case, a "good sub." The truth is, that designation of "good" has to come from inside us, not outside. Other people don't determine who we should be. Which is why "Bulletproof Picasso" by Train became the theme song for this book.

Secrets to Hide 1: Dirty Little Secret

1_Dirty Little Secret-600x901.jpg

One hot, sensual night locks them in a cage with no escape.

All he needs is one night of freedom from a vow he can't break. All she craves is one night of bliss after months of neglect. In each other’s arms they find everything they want but can't have, not without breaking hearts and promises.

Cailin Gray is starting over after a bitter divorce—a new life in Atlanta, and a new job as executive assistant to the vice president of Keane Industries. But before her job begins, she allows the anonymity of a big-city nightclub to lure her into the arms of Alex, a lover hotter than any this country girl could imagine. When she wakes alone, his absence hurts, but not nearly as much as walking into the office Monday morning and discovering Alex is her new, married boss.

Alex Brannigan has a single goal that drives his life: to keep Keane Industries safe and solvent for his wife to inherit. So far, everything has gone according to plan. He's been promoted to VP, and he and Sara Beth are solidifying their power base within the company. There's just one problem—their marriage isn't what it seems. And when a man can't trust anyone, he must live with hellish loneliness. The night he meets a beautiful blonde on Thrice’s dance floor, his control breaks.

Alex tells himself a single night with Cailin will be enough, but fate has other plans. Now he must choose between keeping his dirty little secret, or finding the strength to free himself and the women he loves.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

What the heck am I doing here?

The warm summer breeze caressed Cailin’s bare—very bare—thighs. Her new black sheath dress, a “knockout” according to the teenage assistant at the mall, lingered just below the crease of her…um…rear, with no intention of going any lower. Revealing cutouts along her back, rib cage, and what little there was of the skirt were lined with silky mesh material that stretched over her curves. At twenty-eight, she wasn’t too old to wear young clothes, but she felt more and more naked with every passing minute.

Atlanta had an active twentysomething party scene, and it seemed as if every participating member had shown up for the grand opening of the latest downtown hot spot, Thrice. Nerves fluttered in her stomach and down her wobbly legs as she waited in the long line to enter the rocking new nightclub. Moving to Atlanta was a huge step for this small-town Alabama girl, but she’d made it. The transfer had been approved the same day her divorce finalized. At the time, Cailin hadn’t been sure whether to celebrate or bawl her eyes out, but she’d done enough bawling in the year it took to divorce Sean to last more than one lifetime. The past twelve months had been hell, and all she’d wanted was a chance to start over. A clean slate.

And look where it had landed her. In line. At a bar.

Here she was, a long way from the provincial town she’d grown up in, alone in a city she’d only rarely visited, surrounded by strangers, and…free. Being on her own was oddly freeing. She was learning things about herself that she’d never realized before. Good things.

And then there were the things she wished would go away, like the idea she’d woken up with this morning.

Anonymity wasn’t always a good thing. It tempted people to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, to indulge in fantasies they’d normally never consider if someone they knew was around to see—and condemn—them. Cailin had lain awake last night, staring at the darkened ceiling, alone and hungry. And not for food. Two years was a long time to go without touch, much less sex—especially when she’d spent half that time married—and she found her craving was getting harder and harder to ignore. Taking care of it herself just didn’t feel the same. She wanted human interaction, a man’s hands on her body. And this morning, she’d awakened with an idea of how to get it.

Thus the trip to Crazyville, um, Thrice.

It was risky, at least for her. Definitely unhinged. She’d been a virgin on her wedding night. She didn’t do casual sex. Or she hadn’t, but what other choice did she have? And it just so happened she had a really long, empty weekend ahead of her and a new nightclub opening not twenty minutes from her home. Best of all, nobody knew her. Nobody would be watching her “moral slipup,” as her mother would’ve called it. And nobody would talk. She could go, have a drink, maybe meet someone. Maybe go home with him. That’s what normal people did, right? At least, people who didn’t marry right out of school and who’d never in their life set foot in a bar.

What a backwoods idiot she was. She just prayed, after the amount of money she’d blown on her outfit, that the backwoods part of her was well hidden—and that this little foray into mental illness was somehow successful.

“You do realize you’re asking God for a hookup, Cailin,” she told herself, ignoring the questioning look of a cute young thing with a ring in his nose passing on his way to the end of the line. “That just proves how crazy you really are.”

The cutie did a quick twist to stare at Cailin as he went by. His gaze zeroed in on what she knew was a mostly bare back and clearly outlined butt. Her garters played peekaboo through the cutouts, extending just below her hemline to catch sheer thigh-high stockings, but the woman at the store had assured her it was utterly sexy. Cailin didn’t know about that—naughty might be a better word, but when had she ever been naughty? It was definitely past time to give herself a break from the good-girl routine. Tonight she could be anyone she wanted to be—and the woman she wanted to be was a sexy siren, ready to entice. Tilting a look over her shoulder, she gave the guy a smile, ignoring the jittery feeling in her stomach. Maybe she’d see him inside.

A group of women in line ahead of her giggled when the man winked back at her. They struck up a conversation about her dress, and by the time she greeted the broad-shouldered bouncer a half hour later, it felt as natural as buying a ticket to a movie. The way he eyed her legs helped her relax even more. She couldn’t swear, but she was pretty sure her reaction to that look was something like preening.

“Well, ready or not, here we go!” she whispered as she walked through the wide double doors.

The inside of the club was everything she’d ever imagined a bar to be: dark corners, flashing lights, driving music. The beat hit her middle, and the urge to dance struck hard. Since the dance floor was below the entry, almost like a sunken pit in the middle of the room, she skirted it to look around for a few minutes, fortifying herself with a fruity drink complete with miniparasol before approaching the stairs to go below.

“Alex! You made it!”

In a dark corner of the club’s bar, Alex Brannigan settled his frosty mug of even darker beer on the table and stood to bump knuckles with Damien, his childhood friend and owner of Thrice, before he wrapped the other man in a back-thumping bro hug. “Of course. Wouldn’t miss it; you know that.”

Damien flashed his signature pretty-boy smile, one Alex knew for a fact was a hundred percent genuine, gestured him back to his seat, and took the other one. “So what do you think?” He waved a hand to indicate the noisy room. “Great, isn’t it?”

“You’ve done a phenomenal job.” It was the truth. The place was a crush. Packed to the rafters, with every table full, the bar overrun, and the dance floor wall-to-wall mania. Damien’s infamous Midas touch was showing again. No one would have guessed that what used to be a dilapidated old warehouse could be turned into the trendiest nightclub in Atlanta. No one but Damien. Alex’s friend had an eye for the unusual, as he’d proven with his last two clubs, one in LA and the other in Denver. Hence the name.

Alex took a sip of the bitter beer, letting it soak into his taste buds as they discussed the renovations. Damien’s love for his work shone through, and Alex’s chest ached with envy. Not too long ago, he’d had the exact same enthusiasm for what he did, working his way to the top of the corporate ladder with the speed of an express elevator. He still loved the job itself, but at his level it wasn’t just about the job. It was about the politics, and God knew he was eyeballs-deep in the shit of politics. With no way out. Not without hurting the people he cared for the most.

“So what do you think of Atlanta so far?” his friend finally asked him, rubbing a hand across the dark stubble shadowing the lower half of his face.

“It’s definitely not LA.”

Damien laughed. “No, it’s not. But it has its moments.” Two skimpily clad women sauntered by, their hips swinging in opposite directions like clashing bells. Damien watched their progress with a less than professional eye. “Yep, definitely has its moments.”

Alex chuckled, shook his head, and finished off his beer with a final swallow.

Damien’s unrepentant grin gave the totally false impression of an innocent little boy; only the strong edge to his jaw and the hungry look in his eyes gave away the lie. “Hey, there’s a reason I do what I do.” His expression turned greedy as he surveyed the female population weaving around them. “And the nice thing about the women here? They’re not all silicone and collagen injections. The more natural the better, I always say.”

Alex silently agreed.

A waiter with a black apron around his waist approached the table. “Mr. Adams, Brad has some questions about—”

Damien raised a hand to cut the guy off, that hundred-watt smile softening the gesture. “I’m coming; give me just a minute.” He turned to Alex, clapping him on the back as he rose. “You won’t be a stranger, will you? I’ll have Brad send over another beer.” He nodded at Alex’s empty glass.

“Thanks, but I’ve got to head back.” It had been a long day in an even longer week, but he hardly knew what else to do with his time anymore but work. He stood and walked with Damien toward the bar. “Congratulations, man. Thrice looks like a helluva success.”

“Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?”

Alex gave the man a rueful grin. “And that’s what we’ve always loved about you: your humility.”

Damien barked out a laugh, then headed behind the bar.

Alex started the long walk toward the front door. The bar area was situated above the dance floor, which was sunk a whole level underground, the overhang surrounded with a wrought-iron balcony of sorts that allowed partygoers to watch the action below before deciding to dive in. He stopped at the edge, leaned his forearms on the hard railing, and let himself get lost in the mindlessness of writhing bodies and pulsing rhythms for just a few minutes.

Women glanced up, over, and around, his dark good looks drawing them in. He knew what they saw; he saw it in the mirror every day. A stranger. The crisp, dark hair, brown eyes, engaging smile—they belonged to someone he didn’t recognize anymore. Inside he was numb, hanging in a limbo that dulled the hungry edge with which he usually tackled life, completely disconnected from the successful business persona that conquered anything put in his path. Oh, he knew why, understood what the problem was, but he couldn’t fix it. Just wallow in it, hide it, and hate himself the whole time.

He shook his head and straightened, turning toward the door. He had to get back to the office before he got downright maudlin, and that he would never accept, ever.

The wide glass doors leading out to the street still loomed half a room away when he spotted her, the sight literally stopping him in his tracks. Thick, curly blonde hair swayed to below her shoulders, and when she pushed it back to tuck behind a delicate ear, soft caramel eyes shone in the dark of the room. She looked younger than his own thirty-six years, or maybe that was just the innocence in her unlined face talking. But her body didn’t say innocent; it screamed come take me. All lush curves and mysterious hollows encased in a black dress that should be declared illegal for the way it conformed to her shape. Damn if his cock didn’t sit up and beg with that very first glimpse. And the longer he looked, the harder he got, until every single thought vanished and all he could concentrate on was making his way toward her. He needed to know her name; he wasn’t sure why, and he didn’t care. Knowing was all that mattered.

Think, idiot, and with something besides your hard-on. Can you afford this?

White-knuckling the wrought iron to halt his progress, he stopped, dropped his head, forcing out the picture of her lithe form making her way down to the dance floor. Weigh the cost. Consider the risks. But all his brain wanted was to justify his hungry gaze on her.

The past two years had been consumed with protecting his reputation, insulating himself from innuendo, rumor, the wagging tongues that followed success—his in particular. Practicality said that at some point, he had to have another woman, if for no other reason than to relieve the constant blue balls he lived with every day. His libido shouted yes! at the thought, but his brain brought the tongue-hanging drive for sex to a screeching halt. His arms shook at the force of his grip on the balcony, but he refused to let go. Think.

He closed his eyes, letting the world around him fall slowly away. Okay, so he’d think. One, he was in a new city, one not nearly as gossip hungry as LA. Two, it hadn’t been long enough for his employees to get to know him, professionally and personally, or for him to worry about what they might say. Not that he’d seen anyone he knew tonight anyway. And three, if he didn’t act and act soon, he was gonna fucking do something drastic, like throw himself off the nearest bridge high enough to put him out of his misery.

That’s what he told himself, anyway.

The truth was, she captivated him. No name, no conversation, not even eye contact. None of it mattered. When he raised his eyes and caught sight of her in the midst of the crowd, slender arms arched above her body as she writhed to the beat of the music, logic fled, and the heavy haze of desire demanded he have her.

Guess that answered his question. He really was losing touch with reality.

Too bad. For the first time that he could remember, Alex Brannigan threw caution completely to the wind and made a decision based solely on his dick. God forgive me, he thought as he made his way down to the lower level. There was no going back now.

 

A PAUSE IN the cacophony was followed by the sultry sound of a sax filtering across the dance floor. Cailin stopped to catch her breath at the sound. She hadn’t been completely alone as she danced; several men had approached, partnered her for a few minutes, then left, leaving her available for another dance, another partner. She’d thought she would feel awkward dancing with strangers, but she didn’t. She enjoyed it. And she didn’t feel like a slut, either.

As the timbre of the music worked its way into her bones, she let her body move, sway, absorb the pleasure of sense and sound. When broad, heavy palms landed on her rocking hips, she startled. She whipped her head around, only to meet the darkest, sexiest brown eyes she’d ever seen. They blazed with emotion in a face that put Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and every other Sexiest Man Alive to absolute shame. Her mouth opened in a soft “oh” as she stared.

God, he was beautiful.

And then he smiled. It was soft, secretive, sexy. Steaming. Her legs wobbled beneath her, but his grip kept her upright. Then his body made contact with hers—full-body contact, her back, point by point, met by the muscled heat of his chest, stomach, thighs. A gasp escaped as his pelvis brushed the base of her spine and an unmistakably rigid bulge made itself known. The next moment, she was lost in the intensity of his touch.

Her head turned to the side, Cailin tried to smile, but nerves and something else had wicked the moisture from her lips. He moved against her, his hips more agile than Patrick Swayze’s in Dirty Dancing, and nuzzled his sharp nose against the cheek closest to him.

“Hi.”

Her head reeled, her tongue tied itself in a firm knot, and she wished the solid floor beneath her would do her a favor and swallow her whole. Fast. “Hi.”

And then she gave herself up to the music. Talking was impossible, but moving wasn’t. And it felt delicious. She melted into the firm body supporting her, countered the sway of his hips, and fell in love with a man she’d spoken only one word to. Of course, she only loved him for his body. Nothing could compare. Nothing could ever feel as good as he felt against her. His arms circled her waist, his hands flat on the soft curve of her stomach. She wanted them on her breasts. On her mound. Between her legs. The music made love to her, one beat at a time, and he partnered it perfectly until her brain couldn’t think, couldn’t tell where she ended and he began. Didn’t want to. All she wanted was for this moment to last forever.

Which, of course, it couldn’t.

At the music’s final note, the man turned her in his arms, his tight grip pulling her into his body until her front was as firm against him as her back had been. She looked up—and up. Her head tilted back farther than she’d imagined it would have to in order to meet those chocolate eyes. He had to be at least six-four, much taller than Sean—

No, she wouldn’t think about Sean tonight. In the fantasy world she’d created, Sean no longer existed. He belonged to tomorrow and reality. Now was for sweet heat and the fantasy lover staring down at her.

“I’m Alex,” he said. His voice was a mix of gravel and velvet, the sound clenching her womb. Cailin blushed as a rush of hot moisture coated her inner thighs.

“Cailin.”

Alex tucked his head down to hear her, and at her name, he turned, eye to eye, his wide pupils mesmerizing her. Time stopped. Sound receded. And then he wet his bottom lip with a slick pink tongue. “Nice to meet you, Cailin.”

That seductive smile flashed again, so close she could touch it, taste it, before he straightened. The press of the heavy wall of his chest into her sensitive breasts brought a moan to her lips, one she abruptly cut off as soon as she realized what she’d done. Jeez, Cailin. Get it together. But he didn’t seem to mind. In fact his eyes heated further, and he rubbed lightly against her. In the back of her mind was the thought that if anyone else had pulled that move, she would have to remove his balls with her knee, but with Alex, it felt right. She didn’t know why. It just did.

Music swelled again, and Alex took control, moving her against him, the subtle rubbing of their bodies the most sensual foreplay she’d ever experienced. She knew in that moment that she would have sex with this man. If he wanted her—and the erection still going strong between them said he did—she would have him. She wouldn’t lose this opportunity. Guess she’d found her courage…in his arms.

The minutes passed with no regard to how much she wanted them to pause. As the next song came to an end, she realized they were close to the edge of the dance floor. Alex stepped aside, took her hand in his, and led her toward what looked like a dark hallway heading off to one side. Cailin balked, some unwanted feminine instinct waking her to reality and danger, but Alex soothed her. “Offices. The owner’s a friend of mine. I thought we could talk someplace quieter.”

Turning for a last look at the crowded dance floor, she followed him down the long hall, berating herself for the stupidity of the move but unable—or unwilling—to say no. Something deep down in her soul, some gut feeling she thought she’d lost when her marriage fell to pieces, trusted this man. Maybe it was the way he seemed to read her mind, to know what she needed before she did. The way he anticipated every move, as if even a breath didn’t escape his notice. She’d never felt like the center of a man’s entire concentration. She wanted more, wanted to bask in the intensity of Alex’s attention.

And the occasional employee passing them assured her they weren’t completely alone. If she screamed, someone would hear. Wouldn’t they?

A wide, heavy door marked, appropriately enough, OFFICE waited at the end of the passageway. Alex knocked, and a dark-haired man with classic playboy looks opened the door. The surprise on his face eased more of her worry. So this wasn’t a regular occurrence; thank God, even if she did want to sink through the floor in embarrassment.

“Damien, could I—”

“No problem.” The man didn’t ask for an explanation, and his cheeky grin said he didn’t need any. “Just lock up when you leave.” He nodded politely at Cailin before turning to walk back the way they’d come.

Alex gave a rueful snort and dragged her inside. The minute the door clicked shut, he had her backed against its unforgiving surface.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered roughly. “I need—”

Cailin kissed him before he could finish.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Fun Facts!

Head over to the "Extras" page for a deleted scene!

Secrets to Hide 2: Naughty Little Secret

They want to unwrap each other for Christmas.

Lusting after his hot new business manager breaks every rule this successful club owner has for himself. Desiring the man who’s not only her new boss but her twin’s baby daddy is wrong. But when they’re together, all they want for Christmas is each other.

Harley Fisher’s life changed forever when her twin sister died after giving birth. This Christmas Harley wants her adopted daughter to have the very best gift possible—her real father. To discover if Damien Adams is worthy of being a part of the baby’s life, Harley talks her way into a job as the manager-in-training for his new nightclub. Damien is blunt, challenging, and sexy as all get-out. Desiring him is wrong, but when he touches her, it seems oh so right.

Damien needs a manager for Thrice so he can return to overseeing all three of his clubs. Harley’s too young, too hip, too damn tempting—and perfect for the job. Wanting her violates every rule he’s laid out for his life, but even the strongest convictions can falter under the mistletoe.

And then Damien discovers the surprise Harley has kept under wraps. Will Harley and his daughter be the best Christmas gift Damien’s ever received, or will her secrets leave them with nothing more lasting than one naughty little Christmas?

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

“You’re who?”

Harley came very close to laughing, though she wasn’t sure if it was actual amusement or just plain nerves. George Michael’s voice crooned “Last Christmas” in her head. “Tell me, baby, do you recognize me?” It’s definitely been a year. Guess the answer’s no.

She managed to hold back the laughter. Barely. Nerves wouldn’t get the better of her any more than Damien Adams would. She refused to allow it. Squaring her shoulders, she ignored the fact that she felt like an idiot with her hand dangling out in front of her, waiting to shake, while she faced down the man who had taken the Atlanta bar scene by storm less than a year ago. In person he was more like a blizzard, slamming into her senses, whiting out everything, including her courage. She’d always been good at faking it, though.

Ignoring his obvious impatience, she tried again. “Harley Fisher.”

The jerk stared back silently, full lips pressed tight together, a dark brow cocked up in question.

Okay, she knew she’d interrupted him, but seriously… She raised her own brow, getting a little impatient herself and trying hard to control it. “We spoke on the phone. About the general manager’s position,” she reminded him carefully.

Damien looked at her still-extended hand; then, with casual deliberation, he crossed his arms over his wide, muscular chest. The silk of his shirt stretched to a fit that resembled plastic wrap. Pulling her gaze from the deep V of the open neck, she dropped her hand and refused to be intimidated. She needed this job, and she intended to have it.

A spark of recognition lit those river-brown eyes, and Harley swallowed hard against the heavy, dry lump in her throat until he said, “Right. You’re the one I thought was a guy.”

She caught her grimace before it could get out. Yes, her name was unusual. She was often mistaken for a man until someone saw her in person, after which they simply thought she was an airhead. Or a slut. Her youth and rocker-chick persona often worked against her in the “real” world, but it never took people—men—long to learn differently. Hopefully Mr. Slick here would be quick on the uptake.

From the look of it, she had a better chance of Santa coming down her nonexistent chimney.

Raising her voice slightly to be heard over the remixed Christmas song blaring from the speakers, she said, “Yes, that Harley.” Try a smile, she told herself. “We—”

An impatient shake of his head cut off her words. “I believe I told you we were looking for someone more”—his gaze slid slowly down her body and back up—“more.”

More what, for God’s sake? More ready to jump into bed with him? A strong urge to put her leather jacket back on, as if she were still out in the Atlanta winter cold, bit into her. And pissed her off. Maybe she’d made a mistake in coming here. Damien obviously wasn’t the man she’d thought he would be, the man she needed.

No, give it a chance. This is too important to be making rash decisions. He can afford to; you can’t.

She dug her fingernails deep into her palms and wished her soon-to-be boss wasn’t quite such an ass.

Or quite so sexy. Looking at him heated her body in a way that had nothing to do with the anger she was feeling. The reaction shook her. Of course, Sonny’d always had good taste in men.

Which was definitely not why Harley was here.

Pain tingling in her palms from the digging of her nails, she forced herself to hold his stare. “Mr. Adams, simply because I’m young—and female—doesn’t mean I’m not the right person for the job. If you could just take a look over my résumé one more time—”

“I’ve seen what I needed to see, Ms. Fisher,” he said, voice dropping to little more than a growl. “I own three very successful clubs in three cities hundreds of miles apart. Traveling between them means leaving someone else in charge, someone with the experience and expertise to work independently, wisely, and efficiently. It means I must trust that person implicitly with my livelihood and that of my employees. Being Thrice’s general manager requires more than a familiarity with the bar.” That insulting look returned to his eyes, implying various ways she might’ve gained such knowledge that had nothing to do with her brains.

Oh, he so did not go there.

“So what you’re saying is, a woman in her midtwenties, a former musician, covered in tattoos but looking reasonably attractive is by definition a lush? Or are you insinuating that I’m a whore?”

Damien stared, eyes wide with shock, as if he couldn’t believe the words that had left her mouth. Then a boyish grin transformed him from put-out businessman to dangerously naughty hunk, and the urge to let go of her anger sank its teeth deep. No way. She was not forgetting he was rude, egotistical, asinine, a dickhead…

He laughed before she could let a real hissy fit loose. The sound echoed, rich and full, blending and countering the music filling the room. It deflated the ball of emotion choking her, drew her in, made her want to mix her laugh with his. She held her breath, unable to decide if his reaction was a good or bad thing.

“Forgive me,” Damien said. A wheeze interrupted the last word, and he had to pause to get his mirth under control. “You’re right. That was uncalled for.” Like an old-world aristocrat, he bowed from the waist. His shirt draped away from his chest, giving her a glimpse of smooth, tan skin all the way to his navel. “My apologies.”

Did he plan to kiss her hand next? The man had throwing people off down to an art. And why didn’t he look ridiculous with his shirt unbuttoned down to a lick-worthy six-pack? Reminding herself of her purpose, she said warily, “Accepted. I think.”

His grin said if that was the best he could get, he’d take it. “Ms. Fisher, I appreciate your candor—and that you are willing to forgive my rudeness. But—”

She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. There always has to be a but.

“—the fact remains that a certain level of experience is necessary for this position. I’m sorry.”

He turned to leave, and panic took over, pushing her to close the distance between them. Instinctively her hand shot out, and then she was gripping the heavy muscle of his biceps. Desperation firmed her hold when the shock of physical contact shot up her arm like a lightning bolt. He felt hot. Masculine. This close, he smelled of spice and alcohol, and she found herself breathing heavier just to take in more.

Don’t be a damn fool, Harley! Get your act together.

“Ms. Fisher—”

Before he could blast her for detaining him, Harley firmed both her courage and her voice. “Thrice has been open how long, Mr. Adams?” When he refused to answer, she did it for him. “Six months. I’ve been involved in the Atlanta music scene for fifteen years, the last seven of which I spent not only as a musician but as an event organizer and PR rep for my band and several others.”

That got him to face her fully. “You are either older than you look, or that’s a big stretch of the truth.”

She let a smirk sneak onto her lips. “And you are more unfamiliar with your new market than I would have given you credit for. My mother rotated out of every club in town, dragging me along with her from the time I was ten so she could sing her heart out. At fifteen I became involved with the indie music scene, and three years later formed and managed my own band, Aftershock.”

At the name, Damien’s brows shot up. So much for actually reading my résumé. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of indie music had heard of Aftershock; they were one of the foremost bands in the business, not just because they were damn good musicians, but because Harley had as good of instincts in management as she did with a bass guitar. If her private life hadn’t blown all to hell, she would still be with them.

“I see.”

She could tell he didn’t like admitting he was wrong, but at least the playboy charm was darkening into something more serious, more thoughtful, without the annoyed edge he’d shown at first. Time to close the deal. “You know the national scene, no doubt about it. You know what needs to be done to make things happen in LA or Colorado. You gained that know-how through study, experience, and local help.” She fought to keep the quaver of desperation out of her words. “I can give you that here, Mr. Adams, and with far more depth and speed and with lower cost than anyone else you could hire. I know Atlanta. I know the people here. I know the nightlife and the music and the contacts to make it all happen.” She pulled in a heavy lungful of air to ease her aching chest. “I am the person for this job.”

When the last word left her lips, she knew every ounce of her passion and determination went with it. Her lungs deflated like a balloon with a slow leak, refusing to refill as she waited for his verdict. Thinking of everything that was at stake, she willed him to listen, to see all that she could offer.

“You’re not gonna give an inch, are you?” he finally asked.

Harley narrowed her eyes. “No, and you wouldn’t want me to. It’s exactly what you need.”

Damien’s gaze dropped to the hand still clutching his arm. Harley slowly released him, the burn of embarrassment firing her cheeks. When his mouth, that sinfully full mouth, opened to speak, she braced herself for rejection.

“Okay.”

Wh-what? The single word hit like a brick wall she’d never seen coming. “Okay?” she parroted.

“Okay, let’s talk.” Glancing down, he surveyed the thick black watch encircling his wrist. “I have a couple of things to settle first, but if you’re willing to hang around, I’ll take the time to speak with you.”

Clenching the muscles in her thighs to keep herself from slumping to the floor in relief, she forced calm into her voice. “Yes. Absolutely.”

Damien stared down at her for a long moment, something dark and unreadable in his eyes. Knowing she had to get used to him watching her, judging her, she let him look. Whether he found what he was looking for or not, she didn’t know. He turned to a passing employee, asked the man to escort her to a table in the bar, and nodded before making his way down a nearby hall.

She couldn’t resist a final glance in his direction as she was led across the room. Step one down. They were on their way.

He needed to stop looking at her. Every few minutes his gaze strayed toward the corner table in the bar where Harley Fisher sat, sipping a drink with red and silver sprinkles rimming the glass, chatting with every employee who passed. The Christmas lights illuminating the area glinted in her eyes, and he couldn’t keep his fucking gaze off her. Which was bad, because he didn’t do employees—ever. And he wanted to do her, no doubt about it.

Pretending to listen to Brad give him a rundown of the night’s tally, he took in the picture she made. She fit, which was what had made him wary at first. Too young, too hip. From the top of her candy-red-and-cream-striped hair to the toes of her knee-high stiletto boots, she looked like one of his customers—the ones he occasionally slept with—not a manager. She had slipped her tight leather jacket onto the chair back, revealing a silky silver tank that showcased a full-sleeve tattoo along one slender, toned arm. Those muscles came from holding a guitar, he now knew. A musician. Wasn’t that just further reason to be panting after the woman? It was a wonder he hadn’t been forced to roll his tongue back into his mouth like the cartoon characters he remembered from childhood.

“Boss?”

Brad’s voice pulled him back to business, and Damien turned, removing Harley from his line of sight. Tonight’s private Christmas party for Keane Industry’s Atlanta office had been well attended, the bar busy all night. Brad needed his attention, as did a million additional things, both here and at his other two clubs. He needed a general manager for Thrice. Once, his club in LA, and Twice, the Denver nightclub, were both hugely successful, but he wasn’t the kind of owner who could open a place and then leave it in someone else’s hands entirely. He stayed in constant contact with both managers, flying out frequently to each location, this month in particular. The series of charity events planned for the holidays would benefit hundreds of families in the three cities where he ran clubs, but they added more strain to his already overfull schedule.

He and Brad were finishing up the details for tomorrow’s order when Ryan strolled over to lean against the bar.

“Sounds good, Brad,” Damien told the bartender. “Finalize those numbers and have Malik get that order in ASAP tomorrow morning.”

Brad immediately pulled out his phone to shoot the day supervisor a reminder, which was one reason the man had become such a trusted employee so quick. He got things done and done fast. Damien needed all the help he could get. Fifty e-mails waited on his phone for his attention, and that didn’t include the things Ryan, as his assistant, handled on his own, or the things Ryan couldn’t handle when he and Brad took over Thrice while Damien was away. Both men worked hard, but neither had the know-how or experience to run the club without constant input from Damien, not yet. The need for a seasoned day-to-day manager here at Thrice neared desperation level at this point. No one he’d interviewed had felt right for such an important position, though. No one had even come close, not until Harley.

“Remind him about contacting that wholesaler while you’re at it,” Ryan put in. “See what the guy has to offer us.”

Brad nodded, fingers flying, then hit a final button and looked up. “Anything else?”

“No, you’re good,” Damien told him, meaning it.

“Does that mean I get an extra-special Christmas bonus this year?” the bartender asked with a grin.

“I don’t know. Ryan?”

Brad groaned. “You did not put Wonder Boy in charge of our bonuses, did you?”

“I’ll remember that,” Ryan warned.

Brad laughed as he headed toward the other end of the bar, which spanned the length of the club area, to finish supervising the night’s cleanup.

Ryan leaned a little closer, brows up almost to his hairline, and smiled slyly. “So, who’s the girl?”

In the four years Ryan had worked for him, Damien had come to love his young assistant like a little brother, so he didn’t resist the urge to smack the little pissant upside the back of his head.

“Hey, man, don’t mess with the hair!” Ryan smoothed the ruffled strands at his nape, but his smile widened despite the whine in his voice.

“Keep your tongue on a leash,” Damien warned, his words lacking heat. Without his consent, his gaze traveled toward Harley, watching as one of the waiters approached her table to offer a refill. Harley shook her head; then something the man said made her laugh. A twinge of pain shot through his jaw as Damien ground his teeth together. “That,” he told Ryan, “is Harley Fisher.”

Ryan shot to attention at his side. “The Harley Fisher? From Aftershock? Hot damn!” His tongue practically hung out as he stared across the room, and Damien started to wonder if he was going to have to wipe up drool. “I didn’t recognize her offstage. Is this my Christmas gift? Say yes. Please?” The last word definitely approached a whine.

Ryan was much closer to the indie scene than Damien, obviously, but it wasn’t as if Damien had no clue who the woman was. Aftershock was one of those bands that even adamant anti-indie listeners knew and enjoyed. He kept up with their music, if not all the band members’ names. What he did know was the venues they played—good ones, events that took finesse to get, especially for a band without the solid backing of a major record company. If Harley acted as their manager, she knew what the hell she was doing. So why leave that behind to work for him?

Ryan’s gushing made the pain in Damien’s jaw worse. “Down, boy. She’s applied for the general manager’s position.”

“No kidding?” A thoughtful look crossed Ryan’s boyish face. “I’d heard she was on hiatus. Maybe it was more serious than the rumor mill let on.”

Something to think about. She certainly seemed the best choice overall, given her background. And if he was honest, the main thing holding him back at this point was the attraction he felt for her. He liked her spunk. He liked that she didn’t take his shit without calling him on it. Damn it, he liked her, wanted her, and therein lay the problem. She was trouble waiting to happen. With a capital T.

A soft, feminine hand on his arm interrupted his thoughts. “Damien? Is everything all right?”

Mia. Another problem squeezing herself onto his overflowing plate. When he said he didn’t do employees, he meant it, but Mia refused to get the picture.

He straightened. “Fine, Mia,” he said, shifting as subtly as possible away from the petite waitress. Petite but strong, barracuda strong. She, like Harley, was young, maybe twenty-three. She’d been waitressing at Thrice for three months, and if things didn’t change soon, he would be forced to let her go. Being ambushed every time he came in the door of his own club was unacceptable—and unavoidable. She’d made it so.

“Would you like me to gather the staff for the meeting?” she asked, swaying her shoulders side to side in an incongruously little-girl move that emphasized her generous breasts in the low-cut shirt she wore. Damien knew better than to look down. They were nice breasts—he’d noticed; he was a breast man, after all—but a single glance and he’d end up with a permanent attachment to his hip that would take a crowbar to remove.

Keeping his eyes firmly locked with her exotic, almond-shaped ones, he said, “Valentine will let you know when we’re ready.” He glanced over to see his waitstaff supervisor at the far end of the room, pointing two waiters in the direction of a section that had not been taken care of yet. He nodded in Valentine’s direction. “Don’t you have cleanup to get through?”

Mia’s full lips pouted prettily. “I just wanted to help, Damien. I’m sorry.”

Instead of rolling his eyes, he nudged his chin toward the opposite end of the room. “Finish up, please.”

“That is a mess waiting to happen,” Ryan murmured, barely waiting until Mia stepped out of earshot.

“I agree.” He jammed both fists against the bar, arms rigid, and rolled his shoulders to release the tension that had settled there. “One you can take care of while I’m away.”

“Thanks,” Ryan mocked. “I get to cover your ass while you gallivant all over the country, and handle the horny waitress.”

Damien smirked at the disdain dripping from Ryan’s last word. “It’s a dirty job, but at least I don’t have to do it.” Especially not at Christmas. Damien hated letting anyone go, but the young woman had been warned strongly and repeatedly. Knowing what had to be done didn’t mean it depressed him less.

Damien motioned for Brad and Valentine to gather their crews for the “family meeting,” the staff meeting held nightly to go over issues from the shift or things that needed to be addressed for upcoming ones. By the time they finished, Harley had been waiting more than an hour for his attention, but she didn’t act impatient. She’d watched him handle the staff, those green eyes alight with interest. Now those same eyes narrowed on him as he walked toward her table, leaving Brad and Ryan to lock up.

Damien felt the pull of that look, right down to his groin. And that hair. Jesus. Her hair reminded him of those Life Savers strawberries-and-cream lollipops he used to love as a kid, a swirled mix of sharp tang and sweet, creamy goodness. It made him wonder where else on Harley he could taste creamy goodness. When his dick filled at the thought, he groaned. He needed her as a manager, not a good lay. He could get sex anytime; someone to fill the empty slot in his business was far harder to come by.

Harley was it, but neither he nor his cock were jumping for joy over the decision.

“Mr. Adams.” Harley smiled as he sat across from her.

He dived right in. “Why do you want to work for me?”

A V formed between Harley’s brows. “What?”

“Why me? Why Thrice? I know Aftershock’s success, and I know the position I’m offering. I just can’t figure out why you would go from that”—he cupped one hand, then the other—“to this.”

A rosy flush crept up Harley’s neck. She hesitated for so long he thought she might refuse to answer, but finally she spoke. “I left Aftershock six months ago.”

“Were you fired?”

“No!” The indignation in her eyes convinced him quickly. “Some things happened…” Harley nabbed the swizzle stick from her nearly empty drink and twirled it, pausing a long moment before raising her eyes to meet his. “My sister died. I decided…” She shrugged. “I decided I needed a change. To be in one place, not a new one every weekend. Life’s too short.” A frown tugged one side of her mouth down. “I loved the band. I did. But it wasn’t what I needed anymore.”

Damien stared for a long moment before nodding. “Okay, I can accept that.” There was no doubting the sincerity in her eyes. Not that he wouldn’t verify her story—he’d already directed Ryan to run a background check.

“Thank you,” Harley said. She met him look for look, seeming to drill a hole right through him. “You will not regret it if you hire me, Mr. Adams. I guarantee it.”

He bet she would. And his every instinct screamed that he would regret it if he didn’t hire her. The whole attraction thing, he’d simply have to ignore. “Call me Damien. We’re going to be working together, after all.”

Eyes lighting up, Harley leaned forward. “We are?”

“Yes, we are.” Damien took his phone from his pocket and pulled up his calendar. “If you’ll agree to a trial period, we’ll see how it goes. Can you start Monday morning?” That left him tomorrow to get his libido under control, though it would probably be an ongoing process.

“Certainly.”

He forced a grin back, forced himself to stay focused on business even though his new potential manager practically bounced in her seat. Enthusiasm was good, if he could ignore what the movement was doing to her breasts. Trying to bring them both back to earth, he started in on his spiel about businesslike behavior. More than one employee had assumed because they worked in a club, the standards of professionalism would be lax. He didn’t fear such a thing happening with Harley, who must have worked with managers in venues and nightclubs across the country, but the reminder of her purpose there—which wasn’t to get in his pants—was something he needed.

Nearing the end of his speech, his attention caught on Harley’s hair as she ran her hand through the messy locks. The sight of the damn stuff practically had him salivating, a reaction that absolutely had to stop.

“You need to dye your hair.”

The words were out of his mouth before he knew what he was saying. Every part of him rebelled at the idea, which, perversely, made it even more necessary.

Harley frowned. Apparently she liked the idea about as much as he did. “It is dyed.”

“It’s not professional.” And he was all about professional, wasn’t he? Even if the heat in his gut said otherwise.

“It is in this business.” Harley leaned forward on her elbows, almost nose to nose with him across the small cocktail table. “Look, I’ll do a lot of things for you, but unless you want my hair purple when I walk into your office Monday morning, you won’t insist on this.”

“You wouldn’t.” Oh yes, she would.

Propping her chin on one hand, she shot him a mischievous grin that confirmed his suspicions. “I wouldn’t?”

Shit. It wasn’t like he could say, Your hair makes me want to lick you all over. Maybe he needed to hunt down some of those suckers and keep them in his office—or get out of town as soon as possible. The latter seemed the best alternative.

“Fine,” he said, more than aware of his surly-ass tone. “No purple.” Knowing his luck, he’d get a sudden craving for grape Tootsie Pops.

Harley stood, satisfaction radiating off her. “No purple, I promise.” She winked—actually winked—at him, and he had to fight back a groan. The next few weeks were going to be hell; he just knew it.

Holding out a hand, Harley waited. Remembering his refusal to shake with her earlier, Damien reached out, knowing it was a mistake, knowing he should avoid touching her at all costs, and grasped her slender hand in his. The power of the contact shocked him—and her, if the gasp that escaped was anything to go by. For a single moment, their eyes met, and he saw his own overpowering attraction reflected back at him. Then Harley blinked and the moment was gone.

“Good night, Damien. I’ll see you Monday morning—without the purple hair.”

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Fun Fact!

This book introduces Hank and Vincent from Weekend Washout, as well as Harley's former band, Aftershock. Hank and Vincent are now featured in the If Only series. That series will be a bridge to a series featuring Aftershock — eventually. If my characters will ever stop proposing new books. And I can ever get them written. And... Well, you get the idea!

 

Secrets to Hide 3: Just a Little More

After the nightmare she’s endured, can he help her find the courage to love?

A young Atlanta social worker struggles to put her life back together after a brutal attack. Her best friend and protector has her back, but will she ever be ready for more with him?

Angel Gilliam has it all—a brand-new master’s degree, an apartment with her best friend, Brad, and the chance to take their friendship to a whole, hot new level. But on the night of their first kiss, a would-be rapist rips her bright future apart. Stuck in a never-ending cycle of fear and depression, Angel is determined to find herself again, even if it means putting herself at risk.

Brad Donovan has loved Angel since he saved her from a playground bully in the fifth grade. But just as it seems Angel’s eyes are opening to the true feelings between them, it all falls apart. When Angel disappears on the night of a freak Atlanta snowstorm, Brad searches frantically, determined to find her. Angel can’t hide any longer. It’s time to wake her up—to a life without fear, and to a love that can heal even the deepest wounds.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png
black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

Angel Gilliam wrestled the butterflies in her belly as she forced her key into the stubborn lock and finally managed to turn it. She was through the apartment door and calling Brad’s name before she could tug the key back out.

Nothing.

The silence that met her call deflated her excitement like a leaking balloon. Damn it, she wanted him to know first, in person, not over the phone. He was the only one who would understand how much this meant to her.

A glance around the darkened living room confirmed its emptiness. The heavy blue curtains Brad had hung when they moved in a month ago were drawn across the windows, pulling a smile from her as she crossed toward the kitchen. She’d teased him about their joint living room being a “man cave,” but who was she to argue. She hadn’t found a full-time position here in Atlanta yet, and five years in college dorm rooms hadn’t left her with a ton of homemaking supplies. The only curtains she owned were floral and gauzy and hung in her bedroom down the hall. And honestly, she didn’t mind if it was masculine. From the time they’d decided to share the apartment, she’d known she wanted as much of Brad in it as she did her own style. It was like the old T-shirts she’d snitched from his suitcase whenever he visited her at FSU, only better. Here, it wasn’t just his scent surrounding her, comforting her; it was his presence. Walking into the apartment was almost as good as being wrapped in his arms. Almost.

“Brad?”

The kitchen was empty too. Maybe he was still in the shower? Hope sent her on a mad dash down the hall that ended in a quick skid. She barely managed to stop by hanging on to the doorjamb of the master bedroom, but as she swung inside, she found Brad’s room was also dark and still. The faint scent of soap and hot water lingered in the air, confirming her fear that he’d already left for work.

“Well, damn.”

She slumped onto Brad’s bed, the king-size monstrosity that took up three-quarters of his room, and let the soft comforter cushion her as she considered her options. The only thing in her mind since she’d gotten off the phone with Henry Lockwood at the Atlanta office of Child Protective Services had been telling Brad about the interview she’d landed. She didn’t want to wait until he got home around four in the morning, if she could even stay awake that long. Waiting till he woke up was even worse. And she was pouting, darn it. She hated it when she pouted. She’d just so wanted to tell him, and tell him now. If only she hadn’t been stuck waiting for the bus to bring her home.

Turning her head to bury her nose in the soft down of the comforter, she filled her lungs with the scent of Brad’s cologne and something else, something vitally him that she couldn’t put a name to. When had she first noticed it? She wasn’t even sure she knew, it had happened so gradually. He’d visited her at school every chance he got, even during summer breaks when she was busy loading up on classes so she could get through her bachelor’s and master’s programs in five years. But even when her roommates and girlfriends were falling all over themselves chasing after him, his focus had been on her. And somewhere along the line, her focus had centered completely on him.

So why hadn’t they done anything about it?

Good question.

Tugging her bottom lip between her teeth, she stood and crossed the hall to her bedroom. Clothes lay scattered on most of the surfaces. Makeup, jewelry, shoes. After sharing a room with one fellow foster child or another through her teen years, always keeping her belongings locked up, protected, then doing the same in the dorm, Angel reveled in the ability to mark the space as hers. To claim ownership with the sheer presence of her things. Brad teased her about it, about “letting her hair down” after so many years of being the model foster kid, but she knew he got it. He’d understood the fears hiding down deep inside her even before she did, understood why she’d always tried to be perfect, to overachieve, to not be sent back into the system. He got her.

She eyed the folded clothes stacked at the end of the bed, ready to be put away. Right on top lay the red cashmere sweater Brad had given her for Christmas a couple of weeks ago. Their first Christmas living together—as best friends. The look in Brad’s eyes when she wore that sweater, though, went way beyond friends. It even went beyond the emotion that, if she was honest with herself, she knew she’d seen in his eyes over and over when he’d visited her at school. The emotion she’d heard in his voice every time they talked on the phone. An emotion she’d come to anticipate, to want, even if she hadn’t fully understood what it was. That look Brad gave her was crystal clear. Hunger. It made her shiver. And it felt right, as if all the years they’d spent together had naturally led to this, wanting each other as well as needing each other.

Maybe it was time to stop pussyfooting around and bring things out in the open. And she knew just how to do it.

The excitement was back again, humming under her skin, fizzing like champagne through her veins. It had her smiling as she gathered the sweater and her tightest pair of jeans and headed for the shower. An hour later she was standing outside the wide double doors that led into Thrice.

The burly bouncer guarding the door eyed the low curve of her neckline. “Hellooo.”

“Hi.” She handed over her ID, which the man dutifully checked. His eyes might’ve strayed a couple of times, but Angel just took that as a sign that she looked as good as she’d hoped.

He handed the card back, shooting her a wink. “You wouldn’t be inclined to save me a dance later, sweet thing? I get off at ten.”

“I don’t think Brad would like that,” she told him, a little laugh escaping as she left him with his mouth slightly ajar.

Inside, a cacophony of music, people, and movement hit her eyes and ears, flashes of light adding to the confusion. The massive room—the center of a former warehouse, Brad had told her—seemed to sway with the ebb and flow of clubgoers filling every available space.

It took some wading to find the sunken dance floor taking up the entire middle of the room, then the bar area at the far side. When she took the time to think about it, she was still amazed that Brad had walked away from his family money and chosen to work in a bar, especially after his brother’s death. Most people would call it crazy—and a few of their friends had. But it made sense. His degree in business management meant he could work his way up at Thrice, but he also loved being in charge of the bar, interacting with customers, keeping people safe—that more than anything. He’d told her more than once that people shouldn’t pay with their lives for having fun or relieving stress, and he made sure of it with his vigilant watch over those in his care. He wanted to make a difference, no matter how small other people thought it was; they were alike that way.

His blond head came into view first, then the rest of him. Brad moved behind the room-length bar with ease and efficiency. A word here and there passed out with the drinks brought smiles to the people he served, especially the women. The feminine eyes eating him up sparked a dark jealousy in Angel’s core. But it was the look in Brad’s eyes that really mattered, and that look filled with fire when he saw her walking toward his end of the room.

His gaze swept her body, head to toe. And all the way back up. She watched his tongue slide along his bottom lip, saw him shift as if he was suddenly uncomfortable, and the knowledge that other women wanted him faded past caring. When his eyes finally met hers, she smiled, feeling the sexy edge to the way her lips curved, and put a little extra sway into her hips as she closed the distance between them. Brad leaned on the bar top, chin propped on his fist, to watch.

“Is it my birthday?” he teased when she got close enough to hear him.

A man seated on the next closest bar stool turned to look. “Maybe mine?” he asked. He was in his early twenties too, but his conservative hair and business-casual clothes didn’t fit Thrice’s vibe tonight.

“Hands off, Ryan,” Brad warned.

Ah. That explained the button-down and khakis. This was Brad’s co-manager in training. Damien’s secretary. “Hi.”

“And she has manners,” Ryan pointed out, throwing a pained look Brad’s way. He reached for Angel’s hand and leaned over to place a chaste kiss on the back. Angel felt her heart flutter at the sheer mean filling Brad’s gaze as he watched.

“And you are?” Ryan asked.

“Angel.”

“Taken,” Brad said at the same time, straightening to his full six-two height. Angel giggled.

“Fuck off, Brad,” Ryan threw out, his eyes still on Angel.

Brad leaned over the bar far enough to pop Ryan upside the back of the head. “Language,” he snapped.

“Ow!”

Watching the two of them was like watching brothers torment each other. Ryan was pouting now, but it didn’t earn him any points with Brad. “You can drop her hand anytime, Wonder Boy,” Brad growled.

Ryan slowly released her, but the half smile he shot her way—on the half of his face Brad couldn’t see—told her he was drawing it out for Brad’s benefit, not his own.

Brad whipped the tie at the back of his black apron open and wadded the cloth into a ball. He threw it on the counter. “I’m taking a break.”

Ryan glanced around. “Where’s your relief bartender?”

Pitching his thumb over his shoulder toward the mirror behind him, Brad shrugged. “Take a look at him.”

Ryan’s incredulous expression reflected perfectly in the mirror. By the time he started muttering protests, Brad had rounded the bar and taken Angel’s elbow.

“Get back here, asshole,” Ryan called.

Without missing a step, Brad shot a bird back at his friend. When Angel looked up at him, the amused curve of his lips had her laughing.

“You’re mean,” she said between chuckles.

“Not to you.” He shrugged. “Ryan earns it.” His mouth twitched at her laughter, though, and when he joined in, the noise and crowds surrounding them fell away from her awareness. Brad filled it up too much for anything else to intrude.

He didn’t stop at the curved railing that encircled the dance floor. Angel tugged on the hand now twined with hers. “Where are we going?”

Brad glanced down. “To get away from this noise,” he said, voice raised above the din. “The last thing I want to do is shout at each other over this mess.”

Angel agreed. Of course, going somewhere without noise probably meant going somewhere without this many people…or any people. She swallowed hard at the idea of being alone with him. She wasn’t a tease, and she’d been making it plain what she wanted for the last half hour. Now it was time to pay up. What if she couldn’t?

Nerves multiplied like tribbles in her veins as they went through the entry area of the club. Brad led her down a dark hallway to one side marked Employees Only. The hall was dotted with doors, and Brad opened one about halfway down. They stepped into a brightly lit room lined along one side with lockers and the other with a comfy seating area. The counter, sink, fridge, and microwave proclaimed “break room” loudly. When the door slid shut, the sheer relief of relative silence distracted her from her nerves for about a millisecond.

“So…” Brad pulled her toward the couch but turned before they reached the brown leather monstrosity. His gaze went straight for her breasts in their soft red cover, and he seemed to lose track of what he was saying. In the moment it took for him to break himself away, Angel felt that look right down to her clenched thighs.

Shaking himself back to awareness, Brad finally asked, “To what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

Angel felt every muscle go tense. Say it! Say you have feelings for him—new, different feelings. You want him to know. He wants to know; just look in his eyes and see it. Tell him.

She cleared her desert-dry throat, opened her mouth, and said, “I got the interview.”

Not what she meant to say. Definitely not. And not what Brad expected her to say, from the sinking look on his face. But it didn’t last. Brad was Brad—a huge grin appeared, and the next thing she knew his arms were around her waist and he was twirling her through the air with a loud “whoop!”

Her smile felt bittersweet as love swelled in her chest. He was always putting her and her needs first, before what he wanted. He lifted her up, gave her whatever he thought she needed, even if it was far less than he might want. How long had he been doing that?

And how long was she going to be a coward and let it continue?

When he finally settled her on her feet, she was breathless with anxiety. She met Brad’s warm gray eyes…and immediately, all the chaos whirling inside her settled. She reached to cup his stubble-covered cheeks. “I came by for something else too,” she said, surprised by the suddenly low, raspy tone of her voice.

“What?”

“This.” She pulled him down until her lips could meet his and kissed him.

She felt his jolt of surprise, felt the sudden tight clamping of his grip on her hips—and then he took over just like he did with everything else.

His lips were firm against hers and fit perfectly, as if they’d been made for each other. They probably had. The two of them fit together in life too, so it made sense that their bodies would align as well as their souls. His mouth opened over hers, moving, molding, shaping. No hesitation here, nothing tentative, just a rush of heat that threatened to overwhelm her. He tasted of Brad, of beer, of hunger. She wanted more, so much more, moaning her need into his mouth and lifting one leg to hook around his, pulling him closer.

Right there. There was that hard center she’d wondered so much about. The firm length of his erection nestled directly against her mound thanks to the high-heeled boots she wore. He rocked against her, and a mewling sound escaped at the zing of sensation reverberating through her core. He rocked again, the base of his shaft grazing her clit. Afraid her legs might give out, Angel dug her nails into Brad’s wide shoulders and clung for dear life. She wasn’t sure if moments or hours passed; everything disappeared but Brad’s mouth, his body, and the love flowing between them. It had to be love. Nothing else could feel this good.

It took some time, but desperation finally forced them to stop for air.

“God, Angel.” He groaned, his lips brushing hers. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve waited for this?”

She shook her head, not because she didn’t know but because words were beyond her. Brad didn’t wait—he took her lips again. This time when he opened hers, he delved inside.

His tongue took her over, took her breath. He pulled back and pushed in, the smooth glide mimicking the rhythm of his hips. Every hard advance caught her throbbing clit, teasing, tempting, driving her higher until she held her breath, certain the next slight touch would send her off like a rocket. Brad’s head fell back, and she marveled at the agony in his expression as he pushed against her once more.

The sound of the door opening startled them both.

“I’m sorry,” Ryan drawled. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Brad cursed, curbing the last syllables with a quick glance at Angel. The final stream of words was a fairly accurate impression of Joe Pesci’s character in that old movie Home Alone.

“Of course you’re interrupting—and you know it,” he managed eventually, the words strangled with cutoff need and frustration. “Who’d you leave up front?”

“Malik.” Was that glee lacing Ryan’s voice? Yes, wicked glee. Despite the protests of her body, Angel found herself choking back her own amusement.

“I hate you,” Brad said, though the words lacked heat. He shook his head, but Angel could see the reluctant laughter in his eyes—and the beginnings of calculation. She had a feeling Ryan would be paying for this, and when he least expected it. “Come on, Angel.”

He led her out. As they crossed the threshold, Ryan gave her a courtly bow. “Again, I apologize, Angel.”

For all his supposed chivalry, there was smug satisfaction in his eyes when they landed on Brad. “Shut up,” Brad grumbled. He tucked an arm securely around her waist as he drew her into the hall, and the look he threw over his shoulder at Ryan was triumphant, the kind of but-I-got-the-girl look meant to rub in his success. Angel hid her grin and the absolutely giddy feeling that surged inside her at that look. He certainly had got the girl. For always.

They made their way to the emptyish entry area of the club. Off to one side was a small alcove, where Brad stopped in the relative quiet and pulled her against him once more. Like a sponge Angel soaked up his heat, the feel of his hard muscles contrasting with her feminine softness in all the right places. She didn’t want to stop, go home, wait for him. She’d waited long enough, and so had he.

But right now, he needed to get back to work; she knew that. She’d taken enough of his time. It’s only for now. We won’t have to wait much longer.

Brad glanced down. Angel watched him watch her, saw the hungry spark in his eyes as he skimmed the contours of her face, down to her almost bare shoulders and the upper curves of her breasts. That part of her anatomy swelled at his attention, but she didn’t look away. She wasn’t embarrassed or scared anymore. Brad wanted her, just as she was. He knew her inside and out. The secret they’d danced around for so long was finally out in the open.

She knew him too, knew when something was bothering him. The hesitant rhythm of his thumb rubbing along her hip bone sharpened her attention. “What’s wrong?”

The outside noise filled the silence while she waited for him to gather his thoughts. “Does it bother you?” he finally asked.

“What?” With that single word she realized what he was asking, and that she might like to turn the question on him. They’d been friends for so long; this new state of being felt at once perfectly right and just…weird.

“This.” She barely felt the nudge of his crotch against her again. She swallowed hard, trying without success to figure out what to say. Did it bother her? Yes, but only because she wished he was harder, that they were alone, that she wasn’t worried about how this would affect their relationship. He hadn’t said the words yet. Did that mean this was just sex, not love?

Brad dipped low, his mouth brushing her earlobe. “I hope it doesn’t, because you have to know, seeing you in that sweater affects me that way every time.”

Now it was Angel’s turn to squirm. No, that didn’t bother her. It was the not knowing that concerned her. Could she gather enough words and courage to say that to him? The intensity in his gaze forced her to close her eyes.

“Don’t tease me” was what she finally said. “Not— If you don’t mean it, don’t.”

Brad’s arms came fully around her, his big hands spreading to cover each side of her spine. “I’m definitely not teasing.” His palms slid up the ridges of her ribs, his thumbs coming to rest at the outer edges of her aching breasts. “I’ve been waiting for years to do more than tease, beautiful. A lot more.”

A lot more. Oh God.

He’d been waiting years. Nobody waited that long because they were horny. He had to feel the same love she did. She believed that with everything inside her.

And so, when his lips touched the skin at the juncture of her neck and shoulder, she sighed and leaned back to give him easier access, opening herself and her protective cocoon to the only man she truly trusted. Letting him in. The tip of his tongue easing gently along her skin told her without words how much that trust was appreciated.

“Tonight, when I get home,” he whispered into her skin, “we’ll celebrate your interview—and everything else—the way it should be celebrated.”

Angel shivered. “I’m looking forward to it,” she said, that siren voice making another husky appearance.

“Good.” He stepped back, taking his heat with him, and ran a thumb across her moist bottom lip before turning toward the bar. The crowd swallowed him whole, but Angel kept watching until even the back of his head was no longer visible.

The same bouncer stood outside as she exited the club. “You have a good evenin’, sweet thing.”

“You too,” she told him. She glanced down the street to the corner and saw a yellow cab waiting for a fare. She hurried toward it, anxious to get home and get things cleaned up before Brad finished his shift. The last song she’d heard before leaving Thrice echoed in her head. There’d been no opportunity for them to dance tonight. Maybe she could come again, or maybe…could she convince Brad to give her a private show? She knew he could dance from the countless nights out and proms they’d been to together, but would he do it just for h—

The sudden scrape of pain across her cheek came out of nowhere. Trying to turn her head, Angel felt instead the clasp of a rough, smelly hand across her mouth, clamping her jaw shut. Her scream muffled against the human gag, she fought the force dragging her toward the dark mouth of an alley nearby. The last thing she saw was the cab’s empty back window, and through it, the cabbie’s head turned toward the street, away from her.

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Fun Fact!

For Just a Little More, I have a heroine badly in need of protection, and I have a hero whose entire being is centered on protecting and caring for those he loves -- and he's loved Angel a long, long time. There was no more appropriate song than this little gem nestled on Daughtry's latest release: "I'll Fight."

Teach Me Extras

~ ~ ~ ~ Buy the E-book ~ ~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~ ~ Buy the Paperback ~ ~ ~ ~

~ ~ ~ ~ On This Page ~ ~ ~ ~

  •  Reviews
  • Excerpt
  • Theme Song
  • Playlist

~ ~ ~ ~ Reviews ~ ~ ~ ~

Teach Me has very frightening suspense, a beautiful love story and makes your pulse race for both these reasons. I couldn’t put this book down.”
– Tea and Book

“A cat and mouse game in between a sweet naïve woman and a psychopath with all the right connections... It really grabbed my attention.”
– Ramblings from This Chick

“I stayed up past my bedtime just to see what would happen. Readers who love romantic suspense will devour this book.”
– So Many Reads

“The perfect blend of suspense and romance.”
– Guilty Pleasures Book Reviews

 “Chock full of violence, suspense, sex, and romance. Teach Me never stops moving forward, which makes it very difficult to put down, each chapter leaving you ready for the next.”
– Hines & Bigham’s Literary Tryst

“Emotionally gripping and an absolutely brilliant story. The writing was flawless and I found myself immersed in the entire plot from page one to the end.”
– Cocktails and Books

~ ~ ~ ~ Excerpt ~ ~ ~ ~

What the hell are you doing here?

This wasn’t the first time in the last five minutes that Conlan had asked himself the same question. Maybe if he had an answer, the revolving door in his brain would stop spinning, but that didn’t seem likely. Not anytime soon. Not with the beautiful brunette he’d come to see sitting close enough that, if he let himself look, he could detect the light dusting of freckles across her nose. But he wasn’t looking, and he shouldn’t be here, so how had he ended up standing in line behind the thirtysomething latte league? It sure as hell wasn’t for the coffee.

Legs braced wide, he shifted from one hip to the other, the creak of his motorcycle chaps reminding him he could be enjoying a few extra minutes on the Harley before work instead of spending that precious time here, mooning over a woman. Doe Eyes. The first time he’d seen her all those months ago, he’d thought her eyes reminded him of sweet Georgia pecans and skittish does. The name stuck, as had the memory of her eyes—and a hundred other glimpses he shouldn’t have taken.

Another name called, another latte dispensed, another shuffle forward.

He hadn’t seen those eyes in eight weeks, and yet still he’d shown up every Monday, like clockwork, hoping for one more glimpse and calling himself an idiot. Wasn’t like he planned on asking her out. So why the hell did he torture himself with these weekly forays into enemy territory?

Sex. Or sex appeal, at least.

Another step closer to the counter. The move didn’t ease the constriction behind the zipper of his jeans. This was what she did to him, thinking about her. Especially now, after so long apart.

The thought had a snort escaping. Ahead of him, Mr. Suit and Tie startled and glanced over a shoulder, but Conlan ignored the look. He was too busy figuring out when “this” had become enough like a relationship in his head that he would think things like “after so long apart.” Doe Eyes might appear prominently in his thoughts from time to time—especially certain times—but he’d never seen her outside of this coffee shop. And he wouldn’t. A quick roll in the hay was one thing, but Doe Eyes wasn’t the kind of woman who had one-night stands. He could tell that much just by looking at her. She was a relationship kind of woman, and he was a relationship-phobic kind of guy. Which meant he seriously needed to get a grip—and not on the part of him growing even harder at the idea.

Idiot was right.

He should be at work. Southern summer heat brought out the crazies almost as well as full moons did, and JCL Security was feeling the impact, juggling cases like they had eight arms, which they didn’t. Too many sleepless nights had been spent at his office, especially with the Bennett case coming up. Just a couple more weeks before Thea Bennett had her bastard of a husband before a judge and hopefully out of her life, but the paper- and prep work to get the high-profile bastard there had been a bitch. He seriously needed to—

“Conlan, hey!”

For a passing moment he was convinced the voice belonged to the woman filling his thoughts. But when the high, candied voice called again, he realized it was coming from the counter. The cashier. Tonya, Tammy? Tracy? He couldn’t remember. She was blonde with a deep tan he would’ve deemed impossible in a landlocked city like Atlanta, the shade a stark contrast to her white smile. Stepping up, he threw her a grin. “Hey.”

She batted long lashes, almost hiding the way her glance slid down to the crotch of his jeans, framed in his leather chaps. “Long time, no see.”

He winked automatically. “It’s a long wait between Mondays.”

The girl giggled. “Your usual?”

“That’s right. Thanks,” he said, passing over a ten-dollar bill.

She made change, certain to caress his hand as she laid the money in his palm. Conlan was more interested in the dark Colombian roast another employee was walking toward them. High-octane all the way. The sight of the near-black brew had him salivating for something other than Doe Eyes for the first time that morning.

He reached the condiment counter just as his phone buzzed in his back pocket. Probably Jack. Retrieving the cell confirmed his suspicion.

Where the hell are you? his partner had texted.

Piss off, Con replied, a grin tugging at his lips. The irony that he’d spent too much time asking himself the very same question didn’t escape him. In a half hour he’d be at the office and they could both stop wondering.

With a little back-and-forth he managed to cram the phone back in his tight jeans. He glanced around absently, and his gaze snagged on a pair of amber-brown eyes that suddenly met his.

He froze.

Doe Eyes dropped her chin and shifted over the slightest bit, enough that her friend’s position blocked her from view, but not before he caught the blush coloring her creamy cheeks.

His cock banged against his zipper as if begging to be let out. The bite of pain caught his breath in his throat. Jesus, what the hell was he—

Don’t! Ask. Again. He knew what the hell he was doing here, and he needed to go; he really did. He needed to stop letting his dick run this show, grab his coffee, and get back to reality.

He was restless, that was all. He was a man who needed action. Needed to be doing something, anything, not sitting behind a desk like he’d been for weeks while prepping Thea’s case. Usually he worked off his frustration in a way that involved cool silk sheets and bare skin and satisfaction on both sides, but there’d been no damn time. Just his hand and the additional chafing it provided, which wasn’t near as effective—or satisfying. That had to be the reason he couldn’t stop thinking about his mystery woman.

Of course. That had to be it.

Popping the lid off his cardboard cup released the rich aroma of ground coffee beans into the air. He lifted his cup and blew across the hot liquid, the sound almost a sigh of relief. He was already reaching for the packets of sugar when black squiggles caught his eye. There. On the part of the paper sleeve now facing him, he could see a name and number were clearly written: Tiffany. A 470 area-code phone number.

So that was her name. Sounded like an eighties pop star. A glance over his shoulder found the cashier leaning across the bar where drinks were picked up, her mounded breasts shelved there, on display. Come back soon, she mouthed, her shoulders doing a little wiggle. On reflex, he threw her a grin, but her seemingly seductive move couldn’t pull his glance downward. His dick didn’t even twitch. Apparently only one thing could trigger his runaway libido this morning.

He added the sugar, trying to ignore the panic in his gut and his one-track mind. The latter was impossible. He wanted to know Doe Eyes’ name, her phone number. Were her breasts as full as they looked beneath that starched white button-down? Was her hair as soft as he swore it would be when he fisted it between his fingers?

He stirred a bit too vigorously, and coffee sloshed over the side of the cup.

Don’t look. Don’t. He realized he’d closed his eyes. A sigh escaped as he rubbed a thumb and finger against them, but as soon as the lids popped open, he searched for her. Had to see her. Felt his heartbeat pick up knowing she might meet his eyes.

He was so screwed—and smart enough to admit it. He let go, let the conflict and the churning in his gut and the tension cramping his muscles go. And then he looked toward her table.

It was empty.

“Well shit.”

He stood for a moment, cursing himself, the coffee, and everything else he could think of. When another customer stepped up behind him and cleared his throat, wanting access to the counter, Con grabbed his cup and headed out the door. On his way, he chucked the coffee in the trash without a single sip.

~ ~ ~ ~ Theme Song ~ ~ ~ ~

I wrote Teach Me over a series of drafts that took five years; it was the very first book I ever began. So my understanding of writing changed over time, as did my understanding of the characters. But Jess -- she always came through loud and clear. Here's her song:

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Playlist ~ ~ ~ ~

"Call Your Name" -- Daughtry

"Gotta Be Somebody" -- Nickelback

"Brave" -- Sara Bareilles

"All or Nothing" -- Theory of a Deadman

"Alibi" -- Thirty Seconds To Mars

"Home" -- The Goo Goo Dolls

"Feel Better" -- One Republic

Trust Me Extras

~ ~ ~ ~ Buy The Book ~ ~ ~ ~

iBooks

Amazon

All Romance Ebooks

Kobo

Barnes & Noble

Also available in PRINT through CreatespaceAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

~ ~ ~ ~ On This Page ~ ~ ~ ~

  •  Reviews
  • Excerpt
  • Theme Song
  • Playlist

~ ~ ~ ~ Reviews ~ ~ ~ ~

“One of the more volatile relationships I’ve seen in a while… The ups and downs and twists and turns are amazing”

– Romancing the Book

“As gripping as the first. Talk about HOT!”

– Crystal’s Many Reviewers

“I was holding my breath! It's intense, exciting and I couldn't put it down.”

– Tea and Book

Trust Me should come with a warning of lost sleep and deep circles under your eyes, because that’s what’s going to happen once you start reading this riveting, suspenseful tale of love and revenge. You won’t be able to sleep until you have reached the very last page.”

– Sizzling Hot Book Reviews

“Boldly flavored writing, dynamic characters, and an insidious suspenseful plot will keep readers on the edge of their seats.”

– Smexy Books

~ ~ ~ ~ Excerpt ~ ~ ~ ~

“What’ll ya have?” the bartender asked.

Jack sighed. “The usual.”

John nodded. Twisting to look over his shoulder, he yelled, “Maddie, Sam Adams.”

“Who’s Maddie?”

John turned sideways, showing what his bulk had hidden up till now. Jack glanced down the long service area behind the bar and almost swallowed his tongue.

A woman. A blonde woman, but not the same kind of blonde as the waitress, Taylor. This woman had a straw-colored mane, thick enough it almost didn’t fit in the claw clip holding it in a graceful twist at the back of her head. Spikes stuck from the top of the clip to fall along the sides, pointing to the creamy curve of her ear as she bent her head to focus on the frosted glass she was filling at the tap. A slender neck led to a body encased in a tight white T-shirt and short black vest. The clothes silhouetted her tucked-in waist and a sexy strip of bare skin above Levi’s he would swear were painted on. And boots; God, he had such a thing for boots on a woman. And this woman wore them with the ease of longtime use, confirmation that balancing on them was second nature. One look at those boots and his dick shot straight up and strained in her direction as if she were true north and he was a compass.

Damn.

“Roll your tongue back in your head,” John told him, laughter tangling with the words.

Jack glanced at the bartender, over at the woman, back to John. Swallowed. “Right.”

John shrugged, and his easy smile widened. “I had the same reaction. Heck, every red-blooded male that’s walked through the door since she was hired Monday has had that reaction. She is something.”

“Damn straight.”

The towel resting on the new bartender’s shoulder slid off, landing with a plop on the ground. She bent to grab it.

Both men groaned.

The woman glanced over her shoulder.

John startled, actually blushing. Jack kept looking, appreciating the view from the front as much as the back when the new bartender stood to face them. She had a sweet body with curves in all the right, mouthwatering places.

“Can I help you gentlemen?” she asked, interrupting his reconnaissance. Jack met her eyes, a brown so dark he couldn’t tell iris from pupil, though the narrowing of her eyelids might’ve had something to do with it too. Her lips were tight, pressing together in a way that made him want to tug them apart with his teeth.

The brittle edge to her expression had him narrowing his eyes too. His mama had taught him manners, even if she hadn’t insisted on them for herself, but it wasn’t like he was leering. He believed in appreciating what was before him; nothing crude or ugly about that. Most women he knew basked in the attention.

And maybe you’re getting a bit too arrogant, dickhead.

He answered her look with a wry smile of his own.

The dish towel got a toss into the nearby hamper as the new bartender made her way toward them, Jack’s lager in hand. John tucked himself against the back wall so she could make her delivery.

“Maddie, this is Jack.”

“Nice to meet you.” Jack extended his hand to shake, the anticipation of touching her forcing his erection harder against his zipper.

Down, boy.

Maddie shoved his beer into his hand. “You too.”

Her voice was feminine, husky, arousing. Which was a ridiculous thought, because she didn’t sound like it was nice to meet him. John sniggered. Jack ignored him, bringing the cold glass mug to his lips.

The deep, earthy bark of hops settled in his nose as he took his first drink, but his eyes stayed on Maddie’s. She didn’t back down, didn’t blush, just raised a brow and stared right back. Why in hell did that make him so hot?

When he set the beer on the bar, Maddie nodded toward it. “All right?”

“Absolutely, darlin’,” he said, the endearment slipping out automatically.

The eyebrow got higher. “Good.”

He kept staring as Maddie returned to her end of the bar. The spikes of hair sticking up from her clip bounced with every step. Jack imagined his fingers fisting the long length, holding her still for him. Taming the shrew, so to speak. He had not a single doubt that she’d be feisty as hell. Yeah, he’d definitely like to get his hands in that hair.

John’s laugh sliced through his sexual haze. He shot the bartender a sharp look. “Shut the hell up.”

John laughed harder.

~ ~ ~ ~ Theme Song ~ ~ ~ ~

I tend to present some tough situations in my books, maybe because I've seen the barest hint of what abuse can do to someone's life. Maddie has lived through hell, and she's done whatever she had to not only to survive, but to stop her tormenters from hurting anyone else. Her story was inspired by the Rascal Flatts song "Stand." The song is featured in Chapter Four when Jack and Maddie meet on the dance floor.

~ ~ ~ ~ Playlist ~ ~ ~ ~

"Train" -- 3 Doors Down (Jack's theme song!)

“Beautiful Lie” -- Thirty Seconds to Mars

“Gotta Be Somebody” -- Nickelback

“Break the Spell” -- Daughtry

“Round and Round” -- 3 Doors Down

“Renegade” -- Daughtry

"Wherever You Will Go" -- The Calling

“Call Your Name” -- Daughtry

“Tennessee Line” -- Daughtry

“Baptized” -- Daughtry

“Battleships” -- Daughtry

“Truly Madly Deeply” -- Savage Garden

“Ghost of Me” -- Daughtry

“Landing in London” -- 3 Doors Down

Take Me Extras

   

~ ~ ~ ~ Buy the Book ~ ~ ~ ~

Amazon

All Romance Ebooks

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Also available in PRINT through CreatespaceAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

*Please be aware that iBooks has refused to carry TAKE ME for policy reasons. It is, however, available in the other retailers listed above.*

~ ~ ~ ~ On This Page ~ ~ ~ ~

  • Reviews
  • Excerpt
  • Theme Song
  • Playlist
  • Deleted Scene

~ ~ ~ ~ Reviews ~ ~ ~ ~

“I always know Ella is going to move me and dazzle me with her wonderful characters and gripping stories.”
– USA Today Best-seller Angel Payne

“Solid plots, easy flowing dialogue between the characters and really yummy alpha males! That right there is the recipe for an awesome romance novel! Ella Sheridan has written a series that drew me in from the beginning and made me beg (harass?) her for more!”
– Blogging by Lisa

“I FREAKIN LOVED THIS BOOK! Chemistry so thick and heavy it will choke you, heartbreak so intense it will gut you, fear so severe it will take you to your knees.”
– Bookworm Betties

“One point, you’re gripping your seat as the intensity in the search for Micah heats up, and then the next you’re gripping your heart because it’s breaking into pieces. I could feel the connection between the three, and I loved that.”
– Book Hangover Page

“Gabe: Wow... Sam: Holy Wow... Ménage? Gabe, Sam and Peyton were amazing. The sex was wonderfully done and soooo hot... Ella Sheridan's writing was so emotional it left me in pieces one minute and smiling the next. This was a GREAT read.”
– Bound by Books

~ ~ ~ ~ Excerpt ~ ~ ~ ~

Peyton Harrison’s battered old Ford pulled to a rickety stop at the curb across from the Claywater Elementary School. Buses lumbered through the circular drive out front, discharging students of all sizes. Bigger kids hurried inside, while the younger ones followed a teacher’s direction into the fenced playground. Expending energy and first-day jitters before the day began, probably. If only Peyton’s nerves could so easily be dispersed.

Her heart beat a booming drumroll of desperation in her throat, the sound loud in the stifling silence of her truck. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All she could do was watch the schoolyard across the street with greedy eyes. The child she was searching for was impossible to miss. Right in the center of the play area, a small, sturdy figure hurried up to the monkey bars and began his climb to the top. Even at six years old, he was strong, pulling himself higher and higher, outpacing his classmates until he threw one tan leg over the top rung, clamped down tight, and stopped to assess his playground domain.

King of the hill. Lord of all he surveyed. Just like his father.

The thought added to the blaze of agony threatening to drown her as it mixed with the ravenous ache of yearning clenching her belly. Just a few moments of inattention by the teachers chatting together on the park bench, some wire cutters for snipping the chain-link fence, something to keep him quiet as she ran for the safety of her truck— She pictured every step in her mind, saw how easily it could be carried out, how quickly he could become hers.

Hers.

The word throbbed in her oxygen-deprived brain, right at the forefront, taunting her. So simple, just four little letters. And yet the hundred yards dividing them screamed exactly how impossible that word was. Almost as impossible as it had been for the past six years.

He belongs to someone else; you know that. At least for now.

The ache in her fingers where they clenched the steering wheel centered her, pulling her back into reality, into now. She dragged in a gulp of hot Texas air and forced her focus back on the playground, on the child’s clear blue eyes and their steely determination. His soft, full lips displayed the last tiny shreds of remaining toddlerhood. The clothes he’d worn for the first day of school—a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt that looked too adult for such a young child, tan cargo shorts with every pocket neatly fastened, pristine white ankle socks and sneakers—now bore streaks of red clay and wrinkles, the starched collar of the shirt wilting under the onslaught of August heat and childish perspiration. What she wouldn’t give to bury her nose in the sweaty curve of his neck and inhale the wild, little-boy scent of him.

So serious. Even at such a young age, he was deep-down-to-the-bone serious. More little man than little boy. She could see it in his eyes.

Then he smiled.

It hit her like a punch to the gut, that smile. His daddy’s smile. The thought burned like tears behind her eyes, but she couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop eating up every discernible detail she possibly could. His solemn face lit up with that smile, his beautiful eyes bright under the shaggy fringe of thick blondish-red hair across his forehead. That hair was ruffled by deep furrows, as if he ran his fingers through it frequently. The white of his baby teeth was a stark contrast to the depth of his tan, possibly from playing outside all summer. The mottling of bruises on his knees and down his shins attested to that. At least she hoped that’s where they came from. Her heart ached to know for sure. She ran through scenario after scenario in a feverish search for the one that would enable her to bring him home, to finally have him in her arms agai—

Knock, knock, knock.

The drumroll in her chest became crashing thunder. A curse made it to her lips and froze there, held back by the wall of chest that blocked her sight of the playground. The material stretching across that wide expanse of solid muscle was dark blue, crisp and clean, with the title “Claywater Police Department” clearly emblazoned on the patch to one side.

A cop, right outside her window. Tall and broad and intimidating. Her breath stuttered across suddenly dry lips.

“Ma’am?” The cop rapped the back of his knuckles against the glass again. “Roll down your window please.”

The man’s voice tickled something in the back of her fear-frozen mind, something that drew her gaze against her will. Up the precisely buttoned shirtfront. Past the small triangle of skin at his collar, the neatly trimmed red-gold stubble. Lips. Nose. Eyes.

Blue eyes. Familiar blue eyes.

Peyton stared, certain she was caught up in some crazy nightmare. The devil taunting her. Because she knew those eyes intimately. Knew this man—except he wasn’t a cop. Or at least, he hadn’t been when she knew him.

“Ma’am?”

That deep, commanding tone again. It washed over her like molasses, trapping her in memories buried for so long. With hands shaking and tongue tied, Peyton slowly rolled down the window.

“Gabe?” she choked out. Please don’t let this be happening. Despite the all too real rush of air brushing her face, she prayed someone, somewhere, would hear her prayer and make it true.

One of Gabe’s hands rested casually against the side of her truck. A relaxed pose belied by his laser-sharp gaze and the fingers toying with the catch on his holster. She forced her eyes away from the gun and back to his. A flinch shook her as their eyes met.

“License and registration, please, ma’am.”

“Gabriel?” It was all she could get out. She glanced at the name tag, prominently displayed on the left side of his solid chest. Williams.“God, I can’t believe it’s you.” She didn’t want to believe it, not now, when secrecy was paramount. When her heart was already torn to pieces.

He shouldn’t look the same, not after all these years. But he did. He shouldn’t be here in Claywater, but he was. Standing outside her window. His big body was tense, ready for anything—he looked every inch the wolf he was. Cornflower-blue irises gleamed with impatience in his ruggedly handsome face. Too handsome, she’d always said. And empty. Not a hint of recognition.

Gabe didn’t shift, didn’t back down, just narrowed his eyes. “Ma’am, your license and registration. Now.”

The comply-or-face-the-consequences tone got through when nothing else could. She’d never forget that tone, no matter how many years it had been—every cop and prison guard used it daily. Her hand was halfway to the glove box before she even realized it. Registration in hand, she retrieved her license from her purse, nerves jittering in her stomach like a thousand butterflies. In a surreal haze she passed her paperwork through the window. The breath in her lungs stuttered as she watched his strong, calloused hand come closer, closer—the hand that had introduced her to the joys of sexual pleasure, the fingers that had ensured her readiness before he took her virginity. She waited for a touch she’d both longed for and cursed for seven excruciating years. And when that touch came, when his fingers brushed the backs of hers as he grasped the papers and pulled them away, she looked into his eyes once more, searching, fearing.

And saw absolutely nothing. Not recognition. Not curiosity. Disdain. Nothing. “And you are?” he asked.

She stared, certain he had to be kidding. “Peyton.” He waited. “Harrison?”

It came out a question, as if she didn’t know her own name. He didn’t, apparently.

“Is there a reason you stopped here, Ms. Harrison?”

Relief coursed through her confusion. A question she was actually prepared for. “I’m lost.”

And she dared anyone to prove otherwise. A glance over her shoulder would plainly show a map of Claywater and a notebook detailing properties in the area. She was, after all, looking for a site for her new restaurant. Had already chosen one, in fact, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Oh? New in town?”

His tone wasn’t interested, and his gaze didn’t drop to her license, the one that had the same date as her move into her bland new apartment over by the highway. She didn’t trust herself to answer.

Her silence drew only one reaction: “How long?”

“Not long.”

He continued to watch her, unsmiling. His eyes hid everything he felt—or didn’t. And then he turned without a word and walked back to his patrol car, her license and registration in hand.

Even the walk was the same. A harsh laugh escaped as she watched him in the rearview mirror. The hair was longer, spiky instead of the buzz cut he’d worn when she knew him, the face harder and yes, now that she thought about it, older, but there was no doubt this was Gabe. Her Gabe. The Gabe that had ruined her life. She’d imagined this moment since the tender age of seventeen, imagined what she would do if she ever came face-to-face with him again. She’d never considered that he wouldn’t even remember the moment that changed her forever. But his blank stare had told her the truth. No memories of hot, sweaty nights and drenching desire lurked there. Not even a hint of recognition for someone he’d seen daily for weeks, no matter how long ago.

Just a quick, easy lay, that was her. Forgettable. Replaceable. Guess she didn’t have to wonder anymore. What she did have to wonder was how the hell her first lover and her son had ended up in the same rural Texas town. Had Gabe been involved all along?

But no, he’d definitely recognize her then. If he didn’t remember her, he didn’t know about Micah. And she was determined to keep it that way.

Gabe returned with the same unhurried pace as before, tapping her license against his thigh. When he came to stand outside her door, dark sunglasses hid his eyes. She felt the loss even though she shouldn’t, a fact that sent anger pounding through her heart. She breathed it away. She couldn’t risk slipping up and doing anything that would endanger her plans. For her sake—and her son’s—she had to stay under the radar. Assaulting an officer would make her a big ol’ unignorable blip. No clawing his eyes out, then.

Squaring her shoulders, Peyton ignored the strain of her nerves as she focused on the tap, tap, tap of the edge of her license against hard muscle. She could outwait him. She just wished she could figure out what she was waiting for.

“And where did you say you moved here from?”

She almost—almost—rolled her eyes. The raised eyebrow, she couldn’t stop. “Memphis.”

He nodded, ignoring the brow. “Your apartment is across town, Ms. Harrison. What address are you looking for?”

Do you call all your ex-lover’s by their last name? “I’m not looking for an address; I’m familiarizing myself with the town. If I plan to open a business here—and I do—then it’s in my best interest to get to know the area.” She was proud of how smoothly the words came out, ringing with pleasant—and quite false—emotion. “It’s a beautiful, friendly town.”

Okay, that hadn’t been as neutral as she would like. But once again he didn’t respond to any perceived insult. “Yes, it is. We’re small but growing, and we keep an eye on each other. You can see why we would be uncomfortable with strangers parked outside our schoolyards, correct?”

Fear mixed with her anger, making her nauseous. He’s not reading your mind, Pey. Get over it. She dared a glance at the playground as if just noticing it. “Of course, Officer Williams,” she said, pushing confidence into her voice. She kept her eyes wide open and innocent. A whisper of copper traced across her tongue as she bit down, holding back any further words.

Tap, tap, tap. “What kind of business are you planning?”

“A restaurant.”

“In Claywater?” He said it like she wasn’t too bright.

“Of course. This is a beautiful area—and growing, as you mentioned. It’s perfect.” She forced a smile, small but sweet. “You should come by sometime once I find the right location. Hoolihan’s. Coffee on the house.” She watched closely but didn’t catch even a glimmer of recognition. Coffee had always been on the house for Gabe when he visited Mike and Shelly’s place in Memphis. He’d always bragged about her coffee being the best in the world. Now even the name of the restaurant didn’t jog his memory.

“I’ll do that, ma’am.” He tipped his hat before handing back her license and registration. “You have a good day now.”

Right, I’ll just do that. Swallowing tightly, she dragged the words from an uncooperative throat. “You too.”

Gabe walked back to the patrol car parked behind her, his head swiveling as if watching for threats. It wasn’t until he got in and closed the door that she was able to release her breath and allow oxygen into her anxious brain. Movement across the street drew her eye. The kids on the playground were lining up, heading in to begin their day of learning and growing. She had things to do too, but she couldn’t resist one last, long look at her little boy. The desire to throw caution to the wind, to snatch him up and take him home despite the teachers, other children, and even cops in the vicinity who would surely stop her, almost overwhelmed her. Who knew—maybe Gabe would understand if he realized who that little boy was.

Or, considering the way he’d left her in Memphis, alone and pregnant, maybe not.

But watching that amazing little face, she knew it was too soon to take him, no matter how much the knowledge broke her already damaged heart. She couldn’t risk rocking the boat without more information. She had no idea if he was in a home with people who loved him, who cared what happened to him—who might come after him if he disappeared. Taking him now could risk him hating her forever.

No. No matter how the need for him clawed at her gut and made each day unbearable, she couldn’t risk scaring him, alienating him. Hurting him.

Because he was her son. Their son. And she’d protect him with her life, even from herself.

~ ~ ~ ~ Theme Song ~ ~ ~ ~

I lived with these three characters for a very long time, much longer than it took me to write (and rewrite) their story. Over and over, the one thing that kept coming back to me was memories. The memories Gabe and Sam shared, that Gabe and Peyton shared. The painful memories that each of them carried alone. The memories they built together, and the ones that will come in their future. So their theme song was pretty clear from the very beginning: "September" by Daughtry.

 

~ ~ ~ ~ Playlist ~ ~ ~ ~

"Start of Something New" -- Daughtry (Sam's song!)

"Over You" -- Daughtry (Gabe's song!)

"Crawling Back To You" -- Daughtry

"Someday" -- Nickelback

"How You Remind Me" -- Nickelback

"Hurricane" -- Thirty Seconds To Mars

"Heaven" -- 3 Doors Down

"Home" -- Goo Goo Dolls

"Separate Ways" -- Journey

"Ghost" -- Cavo

~ ~ ~ ~ Deleted Scene ~ ~ ~ ~

Gabe couldn't tell Peyton why he was leaving her the morning after they made love the first time, but he wanted to. The need to tell her haunted him for a long time. If he could've said good-bye, here's what he would've written:

Peyton,

I think about you every day.          

I think about the scent of your skin, about the weight of your breast in my palm, your tongue in my mouth. I think about the look in your eyes when I lay my weight on top of you: Hunger. Sheer bliss. And all that I am is destroyed when I think about leaving you behind.

Could I have done something differently? Probably. Would I? If it was possible, yes. But I just can’t see the way. I’m trapped in the knowledge that, as much as I believe you could love me, sharing that love with another man could shatter you. What I would ask of you— No, there was no other way.

Knowing that doesn’t mean I can accept it. Or even live through it. Because right now, I don’t know how I’m going to take my next breath, much less get out of bed in the morning. As much as I tell myself it’s better to leave you happy and whole, before this love that’s killing me takes root in you as well, it doesn’t stop the feeling that I’m drowning more with every second that passes.

I love you, will always love you, but I have to go.

Gabe

Dirty Little Secret Extras

Dirty Little Secret: Deleted Scene

 

*This scene was the first written for Dirty Little Secret. I cut it before submission, but it remains in my heart the kernel of Cailin's character throughout the rest of the book. It's the day she told her husband she wanted a divorce.

 

“You selfish bitch!”

Cailin Gray flinched, then braced herself, taking a deep breath before turning to confront her husband. She kept her face expressionless, no hint of her pounding heart and shaky insides showing. Stay calm. Breathe.

“How the hell could you do this to me?” Sean thrust a heavy sheaf of papers in her face, but Cailin stepped back, forcing herself to respond quietly, carefully.

“It was time.”

“Time? That’s all you’ve got to say? Five years! Five years of marriage and you—”

She squared shoulders that had begun to tremble. “We both know it’s over, Sean.” I just finally decided to do something about it. It sounded callous; maybe it was. Guilt, fear, despair—she had her own cornucopia of emotions to deal with. She’d known dealing with Sean’s would be hard, but imagining it and actually doing it, facing her husband after he found out she’d filed for a divorce, were two totally different things altogether. Her muscles ached with the need to flee, but she held herself rigid, even her breath shallow.

Sean choked on a hollow laugh, and Cailin’s heart squeezed. She’d thought she loved him once. Thought he loved her. They’d married right out of college. He was the only man she’d ever made love to. But she’d become nothing more than a fixture in the background of his life. How could a woman keep her marriage going when she had to beg her husband for attention, affection, time…and he still wouldn’t give it?

She nodded toward the papers. “Everything is spelled out pretty clearly. I haven’t asked for anything more than my share. There are no kids—”

“And whose fault is that?”

The words whipped across her heart and left her bleeding. Her infertility wasn’t the problem. He’s just looking for something to hurt you with, you know that. Instead of responding to the pain, lashing out with her own accusations, she continued as if he hadn’t spoken. “And since I work, there’s no need for alimony. We just have the house and money to split.”

She dared to step closer, that old longing to fix things welling inside her, even knowing it was impossible. Her heart jumped into her throat when he threw up a hand to stop her. Logically she knew Sean wouldn’t hit her, but somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d wondered if all the anger that had built up over the last few years might be unleashed at this moment. Was that why she’d waited so long? Or had she simply not wanted to seem like a coward? In their smallish community smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, divorce was a four-letter word that got you ostracized. “This is the decision you made,” her pastor had told her once. And he’d been right. She had made the decision to marry Sean.

And now she had made the decision to leave. It hurt too much to stay. If that made her a coward, so be it.

Sean’s hot breath hit her cheek as he leaned toward her, his fury a palpable presence between them. “I don’t give a damn about the money. Why are you doing this?”

“I’ve told you why. We’ve been over and over it.” A bitter laugh escaped, when she didn’t want to be bitter. God, I’m so tired of dealing with this. But it didn’t matter, and it wouldn’t be over for a long time, legally or emotionally. She had to accept that he didn’t love her, not the way she needed to be loved. She’d finally acknowledged that she needed more. “We’ve been in counseling off and on since we got married, Sean. How much more is there to say?”

His voice dropped, though anger continued to thread through it. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ll try to do better. I will.”

“You said that six months ago, and three months before that. I need more than words.”

“But I mean it. You can’t… What more can I do than apologize? I’m your husband, for Christ’s sake.” His eyes turned pleading. “You have to forgive me.”

Again. It didn’t matter how many times as long as she did it when he wanted it. And it was that attitude that had killed her ability to forgive. She was his wife, not his doormat.

Sean ran a frustrated hand through his thick brown hair. “Is this the sex thing again? Is that it? You’re going to humiliate yourself in front of everyone ’cause you don’t think you get enough sex?”

Cailin tightened her control to the breaking point before she could roll her eyes. Sean hadn’t touched her in almost a year; that certainly qualified as more than “not enough sex.” But it wasn’t even the lack of sex that hurt. Her husband didn’t touch her at all. No hugs. No kisses good-bye. No sitting next to her on the couch to watch TV. They didn’t brush against each other when they passed in a doorway. He didn’t even turn over in his sleep and cuddle up to her body to keep warm. She’d spent more nights staring at his back than she could count, until the pain tore her apart inside and she couldn’t bear to sleep in the same bed. She’d taken to the couch last week. Sean hadn’t seemed to notice.

And he won’t notice now. It’s pointless to argue.

Refusing to acknowledge his question, knowing she had to leave—now, before she totally lost it—she said softly, “Everything you need to know is in the papers. Read them and get back to me.” Then she grabbed her purse and walked out.

When she returned to the house four hours later, thinking he’d have cooled off by then, her key wouldn’t open the lock on the front door. Sean wouldn’t answer the doorbell, though his car was in the drive. She shouldn’t have been surprised, shouldn’t have been hurt. This was her fault, after all. If she’d just left well enough alone, maybe it would have gotten better. That’s what she’d told herself for five long years, what friends and family had told her. It didn’t matter how hard the woman in the back of her mind, the one begging for someone to love her, need her, screamed that it wasn’t so. Cailin was the only one who could hear her. The only one who wanted to hear her. No one else knew the pain she felt every time she realized she was more alone than she’d ever been in her life, and her husband was right beside her. Or maybe other people did know and they put up with it.

She had, for a while. But not anymore. The decision was made.

She wanted a life. She wanted to be happy. And yes, she wanted a man who loved her as she was, flaws and all, and showed it. Who acknowledged her existence and more. Was that really too much to ask?

After calling Bonnie Loveless, her friend and now lawyer, Cailin spent the night in a hotel, returning home the next day with a local police officer—luckily not one she knew, though his distaste at getting involved was obvious—Bonnie, and a moving crew. Since Sean was at work, she was able to get in with the key the officer had retrieved earlier and move her things easily enough. Much of it she left behind, not wanting to deal with the memories. Let him have them. Maybe someday his eyes would open and he’d realize what he’d lost. She doubted it, but hey, a girl could hope.

If Only 3: Only for the Moment

Only For the Moment_official_400x600.jpg

***Coming JUNE 11, 2018***

He can tie up her objections, but what about her heart?

Kennedy O’Connell’s life is perfect—a great job, plenty of friends, a brother who loves her. The chaos that ruled her childhood is gone, and she couldn’t be happier. Unfortunately, her mischievous streak tends to get her in trouble, and when she walks into her favorite spa to find a sexy Australian rock star taking her place, she can’t resist a little fun.

Isaac Anschau has spent five years chasing his dream. His rock royalty status can’t be denied, but his demons are catching up with him—he’s burned out, his creativity decimated. Until a redheaded vixen decides she wants to play, and he discovers a way to leave his nightmares behind. There’s just one problem: Kennedy is dead-set against submitting, despite the way she melts when his Dom side comes out.

They’ve got nothing to lose by walking away, and everything to gain if they give in to the raging hunger between them. Baring their bodies would take only a moment. Baring their souls could take a lifetime.

Available Here:

black-divider-bar-192x50.png

Chapter One

Kennedy groaned as her tug on the door sent pain shooting through her shoulders and down her spine. She needed to get on the massage table before her overstressed muscles totally seized. Note to self: full urns are heavier than they appear. But heavy or not, the flowers had given just the right touch of fairy tale to the “wedding of the year” that she’d organized. The marriage of the costars in last year’s best film of the year had gone off without a hitch.

Too bad said hitch had ended up in her neck and shoulders. Thank God her weekly Sunday massage was scheduled in another five minutes. Assuming she could get the heavy-ass door to the Sovereign Resort Salon & Spa open. She pulled a little harder.

“Come on, weakling. We’re waiting.”

Kennedy turned to her department VP, Cooper, and stuck her tongue out. The man grinned unrepentantly, white teeth gleaming against dark skin.

“If I’m so weak, why don’t you use those enormous muscles of yours to get us inside, huh?”

Cooper shook his head, his look of indulgence getting her back up. She chose to ignore it when one massive paw reached out and tugged the door open effortlessly.

“What, you needed the whole hand? Wouldn’t two fingers have sufficed?” she threw over her shoulder as she waltzed inside. She’d never worked with anyone more knowledgeable than Cooper, which was why, when she’d been promoted to president of guest services at their exclusive Las Vegas resort last month, she’d recommended he be promoted into her old position of vice president—despite the fact that he cracked one too many jokes about how tiny she was. Given his size, everyone was tiny, a fact she took great satisfaction in reminding him of.

“Thanks, Gigantor.”

Cooper’s chuckle followed her as she walked to the wide, semicircular reception desk. “You’re welcome, Half Pint.”

Teri was already shaking her head at their antics. “Just another typical Sunday, huh?”

“Of course.”

Their simultaneous responses widened the receptionist’s grin. “Let’s get y’all separated before someone becomes testy, shall we?”

“Too late.” Cooper’s words shook with suppressed laughter that ended on an oomph when Kennedy’s elbow jabbed into his rock-hard belly.

Kennedy winced at the twang pinching her shoulders.

“Looks like you’ve done some damage,” Teri said, eyeing Kennedy’s posture.

A pout curved Kennedy’s lips. “And I didn’t even get to have fun doing it.”

A snort escaped her VP, echoed by a man she belatedly noticed leaning against the wall across from the door of the waiting room. Tall, dark-haired, and nearly as muscular as Cooper—nice. He was obviously waiting on someone, which meant he was either a husband or security, but anyone with security would’ve been important enough to call her in. Since no one had, she was betting on the former. She met his amused gaze and gave him a shrug before turning back to Teri.

“My usual room?”

Her friend focused on her computer screen, amusement still tugging at her lips. “I believe Melody put you there, yes. Just let me—”

Kennedy waved the help away. “No worries. I’ll find her.” She’d been here every Sunday morning for the past year, since the first week she’d worked at Sovereign Resort. One of the best perks of the job. She’d also booked hundreds of guest services at the spa and, in the case of high-profile clients, escorted dozens here personally. Intimate familiarity was an understatement.

The long hall leading from reception to the spa was swirled stone, laid to resemble rocks weathered by a swiftly flowing stream. She trailed a hand along the surface as she walked to the women’s dressing room, absorbing the peace and quiet. Inside, she exchanged her clothed for a fluffy white robe, then returned to the hall and made her way toward the massage rooms. Maybe before she left, she’d soak in the pool that took up the back half of the spa, overlooking the eastern Vegas skyline. The residue of the tension she’d gathered since her promotion, good or not, might take longer than a thirty-minute massage to erase.

The waiting area near the massage rooms stood empty. Kennedy skirted its edge, admiring the mini waterfall that was its focal point, and headed for the back room, the one Melody always put her in. It wasn’t the biggest, but it was her favorite. Thick shoji screens concealing built-in soundproof panels filtered the light and noise from outside, encapsulating her in the decadence of Turkish linens and the scent of lemongrass. She often started her time in the whirlpool tub inside the room. Just laying eyes on the door relaxed her muscles and eased her breathing. With relief she slid one screen aside and stepped into what she liked to think of as her own personal retreat.

And jerked to a stop. What the hell?

Her room—her room—wasn’t empty. She saw his feet first. It had to be a him, because the feet were long and wide and rugged. They hung below the cover of the white sheet, resting at the very end of the massage table. One twitched as if in sleep, and the sheet inched up, the white cloth a stark contrast to the deep tan of his skin. Muscular calves were outlined clearly under their shroud, as were heavy thighs, the sheet pulled taut across his—

Damn. Kennedy fanned the sudden flush of heat in her cheeks.

Narrow hips broadened to wide shoulders. His back was bare, the deep furrow of his spine a shadow in the candlelit room. She knew she was staring, but her feet wouldn’t move. They held her there, glued to the floor, and she could do nothing but gawk at the beautiful expanse of sun-kissed skin and the intricate tattoo of a sea turtle on the shoulder closest to her, fins extended as if swimming toward the shaggy dark-blond hair along the man’s nape. Deep blues and greens seemed to glow in the flickering light, the turtle’s dark eyes staring as if wondering who this creature was that had dared to interrupt his companion’s rest.

The turtle probably wasn’t alone.

She turned toward escape, her gaze lingering on the blond highlights in the man’s hair, the sharp edge of his jaw, the curve of a high cheekbone. Thank God his eyes were clos—

A loud click tore through the quiet—the door, no longer blocked by her shoulder, sliding shut beside her. Kennedy’s throat closed over a curse. On the table the man stirred, his muscles stretching like a lion waking from a nap. “I almost fell asleep there for a minute, love.”

Good. God. Putty in his hands, that’s what she was. He could be ninety with one foot in the grave and no teeth, and that Australian accent brushing his words would melt her just the same. Combined with that beautiful body? She couldn’t see the lips that formed the words, but her ovaries didn’t seem to care. Kennedy’s insides swelled with heat, preparing to burst at the next sexily accented sound.

“I think that ‘almost’ is a bit of an exaggeration, isn’t it?”

No no no! Shit!

Kennedy squeezed her eyelids shut. She hadn’t intended to talk, hadn’t intended to stay, even. The risk of a guest witnessing her faux pas was bad enough, but make that a sexy, sensually accented guest? No.

But she’d opened her big mouth now, hadn’t she?

That mouth is always getting you into trouble, Sis.

Vincent had warned her time and again. Too bad her tongue didn’t listen. It would when she told it not to share this story with him, though. She’d wear a ball gag if she had to, but no way would she give her older brother ammunition for their next sibling squabble.

A chuckle from the table startled her out of her panic. “Too right.” He said it like rye, as if the T was too much trouble to pronounce. “I did drift off a bit. Jet lag’s a bitch.”

Her feet propelled her forward without permission, a sympathetic murmur sounding in her throat. She searched the room, desperate for some way to excuse herself without being seen, some way to disappear without Mr. Aussie realizing his masseuse was actually some strange woman who’d barged her way into the wrong room. Thank God he hadn’t turned his head; the awkward angle over his shoulder would’ve given him the perfect view of her standing at the door, sweaty fingers clutching the fluffy robe she wore—with nothing underneath it.

Nothing underneath it.

A completely absurd need to howl with laughter choked into her throat. Of course she was naked. It wasn’t like he was wearing anything under that sheet either.

Oh God oh God oh God.

The man on the table stirred.

I am so dead. What the hell do I do now?

She reached up to rub her hands over her face, the shock of blazing-hot cheeks slapping her out of her adolescent tizzy. “We’ll get started in one moment,” she murmured. “Let me just check something real quick.”

Just get out of here, Kennedy.

“Check anything you want, love,” the man said drowsily, “as long as I’m on the list.”

There was no missing the flirt in Mr. Aussie’s words, no matter how slurred they were. The sound sparked something inside Kennedy too, something she really needed to ignore: mischief. It had been the bane of her existence and a constant source of amusement for Vince throughout their childhood, and now it stirred in her belly, bringing trouble with it, she knew.

Not this time. She could be a good girl. Really.

She shuffled back toward the door.

“Let me make you more comfortable first.”

What? No!

It’s just a little tease. It won’t hurt anything. He’ll never know who you are.

I’ll know, she argued, but her hand was already reaching for the warmer, lifting the lid, pulling out a hot washcloth. She waved the steaming cloth in the air for a few moments, allowing it to cool to a comfortable temperature, then walked it over to the table. “Here we go. Roll over for me, please? Eyes closed.”

The man obeyed, sighing deeply when the warm cloth settled over his closed eyes. Thank goodness, because Kennedy was sighing as well. Just looking at his gorgeous face made her sigh.

“Nice,” he said.

“Mm.” Kennedy retreated to the tabletop. An enclosed pot waited, the little red light on the front indicating that the wax inside was warm and ready for use. She lifted the lid to stare at the melted wax, her imp firmly in control now. “We’re just about ready. Shall we start with your waxing? That’ll get you nice and awake for your massage.”

“Waxin’?”

The faint note of apprehension couldn’t mar his lovely accent, but it did push a bubble of laughter up the back of Kennedy’s throat. She closed the warmer and shuffled through the papers on a clipboard sitting nearby. “Right. You asked for the Brazilian, correct? Adventurous man.” Every ounce of appreciation she could scrounge up went into the last two words.

A choked sound came from the table. “A what?”

“A Brazilian. Yes?”

“No!”

“Oh.” She kept her back to the table, barely able to control her laughter. “I must have something wrong here.” Grasping the clipboard, she turned toward the door, careful to keep her head down and turned slightly away from the table, her long bangs hiding her face from the man she was teasing. “Let me clarify my orders.”

The sound of shifting came from the table. “Definitely think you should check that.” She caught a shudder from the corner of her eye. “Not just no, but fuck no,” he muttered.

A tiny laugh escaped despite her best efforts. “Well, we wouldn’t want a fuck no, now would we? I’ll be right back.”

She managed to slip through the door. As it clicked shut, she came face-to-face with Melody.

“What were you doing in there?” her friend whispered, a spark of amusement in her brown eyes saying she already had some clue.

Kennedy shoved the clipboard at her friend and shook her head. “Heard that, did ya?”

Melody muffled her laughter behind a hand. “Every word. What were you thinking?”

No way in hell was she telling anyone what she’d been thinking—that Mr. Aussie was sexy enough to distract her until escape had been impossible. She went on the offensive instead. “I was thinking he took my room.”

“He’s also taking your masseuse,” Melody said. “He’s that important. Now get over to the blue room before someone realizes what you did. Kai will be there in a minute.”

Kennedy grumbled. If he was that important, why hadn’t she been told about him? Whoever the guy was, he was racking up marks that were definitely not in his favor, and racking them up quick. Kai was a great masseuse, but Kennedy wanted Mel, damn it. Routine was a must, especially when you needed to relax.

Her bottom lip pouted out.

Her friend swatted her lightly with the clipboard on her way to Mr. Aussie’s door. “Go and I won’t snitch on you.”

“Gee, thanks.” She slunk away, but not before Melody’s cheerful voice reached her ears.

“So, Mr. Anschau, we’re not having a waxing today, correct?”

Mr. Anschau's answer came through loud and clear. "No. We're staying the hell away from my balls, thanks."