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