southern_books

Southern Nights 1: Teach Me

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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?

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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.