Breaking Spade Sneak Peek

Breaking Spade - Small eBook Cover RGBChapter One

Jessica

I DESERVED THE promotion. Not because I felt entitled based on my seniority or status with the company, but because I had the education, the work ethic, and dozens of satisfied clients singing my praises. Working as a digital media strategist for Emerald City Advertising for the past three years had filled out my resume nicely, providing me with a multitude of skills and even a few awards to boast about. Don Hinkle, the agency’s managing director, had all but assured me the job was mine.

But I didn’t get the promotion.

Instead, Don pulled me into his office to inform me he’d offered the job to Chad Alders. Chad Alders, my work nemesis, was an insolent bully, and the primary reason I lay awake at night fretting about my designs.

If I hadn’t already been sitting when Don delivered the news, my legs would have collapsed, and I would have face planted onto his desk. “Chad?” I asked, certain I’d misheard. “You’re making Chad the department manager?”

He gave me a sympathetic smile. “I know you and Chad don’t always see eye-to-eye, but he has some great ideas to move this agency forward.”

How could we see eye-to-eye when we weren’t even the same species? Chad was a festering fungus with a God complex. He didn’t have great ideas. His latest design for McCall Medical Group was the picture of ignorance and frivolity, from the tacky neon lettering to the inappropriate sexualized image. When I’d voiced my critiques, he countered with condescending allegations that my designs were “too safe” and encouraged me to “step out of my box.” He somehow managed to make me sound like the industry’s biggest wimp as he drew attention away from his crap-lousy ad. And this wasn’t the first time he’d put out garbage. His unorthodox methods usually resulted in rushed, haphazard designs, whereas my marketing utilized data from focus groups and qualitative research.

And now he was my manager. It felt like an enormous slap in the face to all my hard work and dedication.

“I know you’re disappointed,” Don said, leaning forward in his chair and clasping his hands in front of him.

Disappointed? This was the third time I’d been passed up for a promotion. The first two times, I lacked experience and the more qualified candidate won.

But this time… Chad?

There was no justification for losing to that ignorant, flashy poser. I wanted to rage and scream and demand an explanation, but that wasn’t my way. Instead, I sat there trying to catch my breath, gripping the chair’s armrests like they could magically shield me from this new reality. I didn’t want Chad to be my manager. Heck, it was bad enough I had to endure his misguided critiques as a coworker. The realization that he’d now have power over what I created tied my stomach in knots. Still, I held my tongue, just like I always did. Don had already given the position to my nemesis and nothing I could say would make a difference. Speaking up now would only make me appear petty or confrontational and possibly endanger my job.

“Why don’t you head to lunch,” Don suggested, standing to signify that our meeting was over. He ambled over to the door and opened it, waiting expectantly. “Take a couple of hours to process.”

Chad got the promotion, and I got an extended lunch to deal with my disappointment. He’d get a raise and more responsibility, while I’d be the recipient of pity-filled glances and whispers about how I needed extra time to deal with my girly emotions.

Awesome.

On wobbly legs, I stood and made my way out of Don’s office into a sea of grey cubicles. Chad’s desk was on the way to mine, and as I walked around the dividers, I prayed that he was either on a break, choking on his victory, or that I could gain temporary invisibility long enough to slip by him unnoticed.

No such luck. The jerk was sitting at his desk. Wearing a smug smile that complimented his douchy bright blue corduroy blazer and skintight beige slacks, he couldn’t draw more attention to himself if he tried. His outfits were almost as showy and tasteless as his marketing, making me question Don’s decision even further.

Is this really who we want representing our company?

I was no fashionista, but at least my outfits were suited for the office, not a Las Vegas show stage. My insulting thoughts made me feel petty and vindictive. That wasn’t who I wanted to be, so I tried to shake them off.

“Good morning, Jessica,” Chad said with a grin, no doubt eating up every ounce of my soul-crushing disappointment.

There was nothing good about this morning, but I forced a smile anyway. “Mornin’.” I made myself march past him and sat at my desk, silently dying a little inside. Holding my breath, I waited for him to follow and gloat. When he didn’t make an appearance, I thanked my lucky stars and opened my company-issued laptop. I had a ton of work to do, but couldn’t muster up the focus or desire to tackle any of it.

How could he give the job to Chad? What did I do wrong?

The question hammered my brain, forcing me to evaluate every interaction I’d had with Don. He’d never expressed dissatisfaction with my work. Yesterday he’d dropped so many hints I’d get the job that I updated my business cards in preparation.

“Are you okay?” my coworker, LaTisha, asked, interrupting my thoughts as she slipped inside my cubicle. “You keep thinking that hard, and you’re likely to blow a fuse.”

LaTisha was our top data analyst and one heck of a nice person. She always seemed to know when I was in a funk and needed a pick-me-up. However, I was still trying to process what had just happened in Don’s office, and I wasn’t ready for her soft eyes, encouraging smile, or concerned questions.

“I’m fine.” I opened my email and pretended to look for something, hoping she’d get the hint.

“Chad giving you a hard time again?” she asked, tenacious and observant as ever.

The sudden lump in my throat made speaking impossible. I wanted to cry or yell or hit something. I settled for a stiff nod.

“You’re too nice, Jess. These guys continue to wave their dicks around because they know you won’t rip their balls off.”

Too nice. Too safe. Why did all my qualities suddenly sound so negative? “This is a place of business,” I replied. “No physical mangling should be required.”

She laughed. “You can’t even say balls, can you?”

I was trying to be professional, but she made me sound like a prude. “Yes.” I lowered my voice as my face heated. “Balls.”

She only laughed harder. “Ah, Jess. You’re too good for this office. If you really wanted that promotion, you should have dropped your pants like Chad did.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, stunned that she would go there.

She scooted closer and lowered her voice to a whisper. “I know you don’t want to hear this, and I’ll probably regret telling you, but Don and Chad are bumpin’ uglies.”

Certain I misunderstood, I snorted. “As in having sex?”

She nodded wildly. “Yes. They have been for a while now. I’m pretty sure that’s the only reason the big boss keeps him around.”

The accusation was too scandalous to be real. Wondering if she was just trying to make me feel better, I stared up at her. “Don’s married. To a woman.”

“It’s sweet that you assume marriage guarantees monogamy, but not super realistic. Trust me, Jess, they’re knockin’ boots. Everyone knows it. Hell, I heard the two of them going at it yesterday.”

Now she had my full attention as well as my disbelief. “You heard them? At work?” Lowering my voice, I added, “Having… sex?”

“Not during work hours, but after. Forgot my purse last night and dipped back in to grab it. A light was on in Don’s office, so I was going to stop in and say hi—maybe kiss a little ass because I’m not gonna lie, I could use a raise—but the grunting coming from the other side of that door made it clear your boy Chad was already working on his promotion.”

I refused to believe it. “How do you know it was Chad?”

She leveled a stare at me. “As if anyone else in the world sounds like that little weasel. I’d know his high pitched, nasally voice anywhere.”

She had a point.

“Maybe Chad was giving Don a massage?” I was grasping at straws, but I needed this to be false. I couldn’t work for a dirty cheater. Besides, Don was smarter than to have an affair with a subordinate. He had to be. “Don wouldn’t risk a sexual harassment case for a lay. Sex is not worth all that.”

She pulled back like I’d slapped her. “Okay, clearly you’ve never had a mind-blowing orgasm, but trust me, good sex is worth everything. Men have waged war for it. Risking a career… it’s stupid, but it happens. You’re sweet, Jess. Always trying to give people the benefit of the doubt and expecting them to be upstanding citizens. There was massaging going on in Don’s office, believe that, but not the kind you’re thinking of. I know the sounds of two people doing the nasty. And those two are filthy.”

My stomach roiled at the image she painted. “I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“You? I’m the one who heard them. I can never un-hear that. Never. Trust me. I tried to drink myself into a coma last night to forget it.”

Getting beat out for a promotion was painful enough on its own. Knowing I’d gotten passed over because my coworker was screwing the boss added salt to the wound. Don had been a good boss and mentor, and I’d sort of looked up to him over the years. Knowing he was a dirty cheater felt like a kick in the stomach.

“I really am gonna be sick,” I muttered.

“I don’t blame you one bit. Maybe you should take an early lunch and get yourself together.”

What had previously sounded like fodder for my coworkers to think I was weak and emotional was now a necessity. I’d never needed a break so badly in my life. “I think I will.” Closing my laptop, I stood and grabbed my purse.

“Hey, do what you gotta do.” LaTisha’s eyes filled with compassion as she stepped aside and waved me by.

Blinking back tears, I practically sprinted to the elevator. As I climbed into my car and drove to my apartment, my emotions flew through the gambit: shock, disbelief, realization, acceptance, hurt. By the time I parked and stepped into the elevator, I’d morphed into a ball of anger and dissolved into incoherent mutterings and wild hand gestures.

“How dare he?” I asked the empty space as the elevator doors closed behind me. We trusted Don to be an honorable boss and lead us with integrity, not his penis. And as for Chad… “Don’t even get me started on that jerkwad. Too safe?” My market research was thorough, and my focus groups were on point. “That doesn’t make me too safe, Chad, that makes me a responsible advertising director,” I ranted, wishing I could turn back time by one hour. I’d do things differently. I’d fight for the promotion I deserved rather than sitting on my butt and gaping like a fish out of water as Don shattered my faith in humanity.

Okay, that was a little melodramatic, but these were theatrical times. My boss was cheating on his wife with my coworker. My male coworker. If that didn’t sound like a movie plot, I didn’t know what did. And the fact that I’d lost a promotion over it…

“Well, pardon me if I don’t take it up the ass, Chad!”

That was a good one. I couldn’t wait to share it with my roommate, Carly. “Why is this elevator moving so slowly? And you know what else? Who uses neon lettering for a doctor’s office ad? It’s not a freaking nightclub, Chad,” I spat as the elevator stopped. I was so angry that if he was standing in front of me at that moment, I would have really let him have it.

Probably.

The elevator doors opened, letting me out on the third floor of my apartment building and putting an end to my one-sided argument. Desperate to start it up again—and this time, to a sympathetic audience—I marched straight to my apartment and threw open the door. “Carly?” I shouted.

No answer.

My roommate should have been home. This morning, her plans included dropping her five-year-old son, Trent, off at school and spending her morning off cleaning and doing laundry. Our apartment wasn’t messy by any means, but she was a neat freak. I watched Trent in the evenings for free, and she showed her gratitude by deep cleaning our space with the enthusiasm and precision of a germaphobe jacked up on energy drinks and cocaine. By now, she should be wiping down the ceilings, bleaching the bathrooms, or something equally unnecessary but welcome.

Irritated by her unfortunate absence when I needed her steadfast solidarity, I stepped into the kitchen and froze in my tracks to take in the scene. A half-eaten kid-sized bowl of soggy Rice Krispies sat on the table, guarded by an arc of plastic Army men.

Some kids had security blankets. Trent had Army men. Whenever he was frightened, he lined them up to form a defensive wall around him and those he cared about. Cereal was his meal of choice, and he’d eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner if allowed. He’d never willingly let that crispy goodness get soggy. Even if he did, Carly would die before she left a wasteful mess like this.

Something was very wrong.

The hair on the back of my neck stood up. “Carly?” I shouted again, rushing down the hall to check her bedroom. The place had been ransacked. Empty dresser drawers hung open, the closet was bare, and the suitcases she and Trent kept stuffed under the bed were gone.

Did she run?

We had originally connected about six months ago when she answered a roommate wanted ad I’d listed online. She was moving to Seattle from some town I’d never heard of in Idaho and was already in Spokane. I wasn’t sold on renting to a single mom and her child, but agreed to meet with her when they arrived. She called me a day later. Her Honda Civic petered out on the freeway, leaving them stranded just inside Seattle’s city limits. They had nobody and nowhere to go, so I picked them up and the three of us went for pizza. Trent was both hysterically funny and adorably sweet, and Carly had a determination and inner strength that I couldn’t help but admire. The three of us hit it off instantly, and I let them move right in. I’d never once regretted the decision.

They didn’t come without their problems. Carly was closed-lipped about her past. Trent often woke crying from nightmares about a ‘bad man’ who wanted to hurt them. Regardless, the pair were thriving here, and I couldn’t see them just up and leaving without so much as a goodbye. I dug my phone out of my purse and called her.

“Hey Jess, how’s work?” Carly sounded stressed, but that was pretty much her norm. Being a single mom and working two jobs to survive was no joke.

Relieved to hear her voice, I let out a breath. “Work is… ugh. We’ll talk about that later. What’s going on with you? It looks like you left in a hurry. There’s a bowl of cereal on the table, and your room is all torn up. Did you take off?”

“Oh yeah, I was gonna message you. I didn’t expect you to come home for lunch. Sorry, that must have looked bad. We’re totally fine, though. Wasp came and picked us up and we’re gonna stay with him for a few days.”

Wasp was her ultra-buff, super-hot boyfriend. He belonged to the motorcycle club that owned the Copper Penny, the bar Carly tended in the evenings. He was good for her, and great for her son, but I was still confused about her sudden absence. “You were going to send me a message? Are you moving in with him? What is going on? I come home for lunch, after a craptacularly bad morning, and the house is blown up, you’re gone, and…”

“Yeah, Jess. I hate to cut you off, but I need you to lock the door.” Carly snapped. She sounded frantic, her words were clipped and hurried. “Stay in the apartment.”

“What? Why? I can’t stay in the apartment. I have to get back to work.” Still, spurred to action by the seriousness of her tone, I hurried to the door and did as she said, looking through the peep hole. The hallway was empty, and this felt a whole lot like overreacting.

“There’s a guy chasing me, and Wasp is afraid you’re in danger.”

“What guy? Crap, I knew you were running from something. Are you sure you’re okay?” My nerves ramped up to prepare for a five-alarm fire. “Carly?”

I could hear Wasp talking to her in the background. The phone muffled for a moment and then she was back.

“You know that bouncer I work with? Spade?” Carly asked.

The name rang a bell. “One of the guys who volunteers at Trent’s school?”

“Yes. He’s on his way to the apartment. Wasp and Havoc will be there soon as well. Just hang tight until they get there.”

“Okay.” I pushed off the door and went to the kitchen to get a drink. “But why am I holed up in my apartment? Start talking, lady.”

“There’s this guy from my hometown—Nate—he’s… batshit crazy. I never told you about him, because I was hoping to leave it all in the past.”

“Is he the ‘bad man’ Trent’s scared of?”

“Yes. I’m so sorry, Jess. I didn’t think he’d find me here, but apparently, he’s been following us. He left a note in Trent’s bag, and when I found it, I panicked. I didn’t even think about you being in danger. I had to get Trent to safety.”

I couldn’t fault her for her actions. Trent would have been my priority, too. “But you guys are okay? You’re safe now?”

“Yes. We’re at the Dead Presidents’ clubhouse. It’s you I’m worried about. You shouldn’t be in that apartment. I should have called and warned you. I should have… Shit. I’m so sorry, Jess. You’ve been nothing but amazing to me and Trent, and I never meant to put you in danger.”

She was all over the place. “Carly, calm down. I’m fine. I’m in the apartment, the door’s locked, and your rescue team is on the way. Now, start from the beginning. What’s going on? Who is this crazy Nate guy?”

Before she could respond, my apartment door came crashing in. Fake wood splintered and the door bounced off the wall, half off its hinges, as a man wearing a sleeveless flannel shirt and faded jeans barreled into my apartment. His dark hair was buzzed, and his brown eyes were wild as his gaze darted around my apartment before settling on me.

“Where the fuck is Carly?” he roared.

Releasing 8/19/19. Pre-order now!

6211894 Attractive Passionate Couple Having Sex in Kitchen

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Tap’d Out Sneak Peek

Tap'd Out - eBook Cover SmallPROLOGUE

Tap

I SHOULD HAVE left her ass there.

She wasn’t my mission, not my concern, and we were at war. Casualties were often unavoidable, sometimes sacrifices had to be made. I knew this shit like it was ingrained in my DNA or hardwired into my brain, but none of it seemed to matter when I saw her. I’d already broken my personal protocol for survival by entering this house. I had people to get home to, obligations to protect, and sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong would endanger them.

But I couldn’t force myself to walk away.

She was crumpled on the hardwood floor, lying in the fetal position. The front of her little red dress was ripped with one breast spilling out. Blood dripped from her leg and was smeared across her arm. Dark bruises dotted her skin. A curtain of chin-length blonde hair hid her face. I watched her chest, waiting to see it rise and fall, before finishing what I came to do. She was still breathing as I crept around the room, trying to ignore her presence and focus on my job.

Once the bugs were planted, I took two steps toward the door, determined to make my escape, but couldn’t get any further. It was like an invisible rope tied me to her, making it impossible to leave. Frustrated with myself and the situation, I gave in and knelt to check her pulse. Her heartbeat was steady and strong.

The blonde curtain parted as she looked up at me. Her lip was split, one eye was swollen shut, and the right side of her jaw was battered. But it was the strength and determination written all over her face that stole my breath away and glued my feet to the floor. All the blood, all the bruises—she’d taken one hell of a beating—but she wasn’t broken. Not by a long shot.

She was fucking gorgeous. Alive. Fiery. One bright green eye swept over my mostly naked body, taking in my costume before meeting my gaze.

“Leave me,” she pleaded.

It was the last thing I expected her to say, and the only command I couldn’t follow.

I should have left her ass there, but I didn’t.

 

ONE

Sasha

 Four Years Ago

MY MOTHER WAS uncharacteristically late. As I sat in the busy Las Vegas diner, watching the lunch crowd thin out, I checked my phone for missed calls. There was nothing, so I shot off a quick text asking where she was. As I sat the phone down, Mom finally made an appearance. She hurried through the door wearing a tight gray dress and heels. Like always, her makeup was on point and her long brown hair was blown out in soft waves. At forty-two, she still turned heads as she clicked her way past the hostess stand, scanning the diner. I waved and caught her gaze.

Her shoulders rose and fell with a relieved breath as she joined me at my table. “Sorry I’m late. I had a meeting I couldn’t get out of.” Mom hugged me and sat across the booth, scooting in as she picked up her menu.

While a meeting was a fitting excuse for a normal mother, my mom didn’t have the kind of job that required meetings or the kind of boss who met with his employees in the middle of the day. Hell, Mom’s boss was probably still asleep. “What kind of meeting?” I asked.

“Oh, you know. Just a meeting.” Avoiding my gaze, she opened her menu. “I wonder how this beet salad is? Have you tried it?”

Mom lived a dangerous life. For years, she thought she was shielding me and my sister, Nadia, from her lifestyle, but I’d always been too curious and observant for my own good. I’d spied on her, fascinated by the scandalous way she dressed each night and intrigued by the men who picked her up.

I was also the first one to notice the track marks on her arms.

Mom’s protective instincts had flown out the window the first time I dragged her ass into rehab and told her to stop lying to me and to herself. Something shifted that day, and she started recognizing me as an ally and an adult, rather than a child she had to shelter from the truth. If she was trying to protect me now, something was seriously wrong. I looked her over, noticing the tightness of her mouth, the dark circles around her eyes, and the slight tremble of her hands. Leaning across the table, I lowered my voice and said, “Mom, look at me.”

She hesitated. Then her sage green eyes lifted. The slight bounce to them made my breath hitch.

“Shit. You’re using again.”

Her gaze dropped back down to her menu. “It’s not like that, Sasha. It’s nothing, really. There’s been a small shake up at work, and I needed a little something to… you know… help with my anxiety.”

Eight years ago, Mom sat me and Nadia down to tell us that she was going to work, and Dad would be spending more time at home. It was her way of protecting us from the truth that our Dad had prostate cancer. Nadia and I weren’t stupid, and we knew something was up. We heard the way Mom sobbed at night and saw the way Dad withered away.

Mom cleaned hotel rooms by day and waited tables at night, but she couldn’t come close to matching Dad’s income. The next time she sat me and Nadia down, it was to tell us that we were selling our house and beginning a new adventure, which meant moving into a small two-bedroom apartment in a shady part of Vegas.

Despite all the expensive treatments and procedures, Dad died, leaving Mom with an impossible stack of medical bills, two confused daughters to raise, and a giant hole in her heart. Somewhere between working two jobs, fending off collection calls, and dealing with her crushing sadness, she turned to meth to keep herself going. Before long, her drug of choice was “yes please” and she was in an on-again off-again relationship with her dealer, Tony, who offered to pimp her out so she could make enough money to support her habit and her family. Over the past seven years, I’d dragged her into rehab four times trying to get her clean. The last time she fell off the wagon, it almost killed her. It almost killed me to see her so strung out and hopeless. She promised me she was done with dope and hooking, and last I’d heard, she’d moved in with Tony and he was taking care of her.

“I thought you and Tony were back together and you were done with that shit?” I asked.

Pain sliced through Mom’s features and she looked away. “We were and I was, but things changed.”

She was being so damn vague I buckled down for a fight, knowing I’d have to drag every detail out of her. “Where’s Tony?” I silently swore that if he was the one who’d given her the dope, I was going to kick in his crooked teeth.

“He’s gone.”

“What do you mean ‘gone’? Where did he go?”

“There’s new management in the neighborhood. A motorcycle gang that’s running the girls. They ran his ass out of town. He won’t be coming back.”

Shocked, I stared at her. Tony was a sleaze ball, but at least he cared for my mom in his own sick and twisted way. “And now this motorcycle gang is like…” I glanced around and lowered my voice. “Your new pimp?”

She nodded.

No. Unacceptable. It was bad enough when Mom was hooking for Tony. Newcomers were not welcome. “Where did Tony go? Why didn’t he take you with him?”

Reaching over to pat my hand, she gave me a sad smile. “Oh, honey, it doesn’t work like that. I’m part of the business.”

My stomach roiled at how okay she seemed to be with all of this. She had a new pimp and was using again. All the progress we’d made with her last rehab had flown out the window. “You’re not some business, you’re a person. You have to get out of this lifestyle, Mom,” I pleaded for the hundredth time. “It’s going to kill you.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“Yes, I do. Look, I invited you to lunch today because I have good news. I passed my physical exam and I’ve been accepted into the police academy. I’m flying to Seattle in two weeks to begin the program. Come with me. I’ll buy your ticket and we’ll find you a nice little apartment until I graduate. Or if you don’t want to stay by yourself, we can send you to live with Nadia and her family in Illinois until I’m done.”

Mom was already shaking her head. “The new guy in charge… Slick… he’s… different.” Her gaze darted around the restaurant. “He won’t let me leave, Sasha. Not without… consequences. That’s what today’s meeting was about. He wanted to make sure we all understood what would happen to us if we tried to run.” Her expression soured and she looked away.

“What did he say? Did he do something to hurt you or one of the girls?”

Answering the question with her avoidance of it, she replied, “I’d never do anything to put you or your sister in danger. My place is here, honey.”

“By the time he realizes you’re gone, you’ll be across state lines. Possibly even two state lines. Mom, this is a good thing. It’s like it was meant to be. The timing is perfect.”

Her eyes were heavy with concern, but the slightest bit of hope shined through. “I don’t know.”

“I’m going to school to be a cop. I can protect you. Let me.”

It took almost an hour to convince her, but I did. I pulled out my phone and bought her plane ticket on the spot so she couldn’t chicken out. Then we made arrangements for her to come to my apartment after work the night before we were supposed to fly out.

Mom never showed up.

Worried about all the things that could have happened to her, I broke her number one rule and drove to her apartment, wishing I was already a cop. The door was wide open. Bracing myself, I crept inside and looked around. I found Mom lying on the floor in her bedroom. There was a band around her arm and a needle beside her body. Her chest was still and her eyes were open. Falling to my knees, I checked for the pulse I knew she wouldn’t have. Calling 911, I started CPR and stayed at it until the paramedics pulled me off her.

The coroner said Mom overdosed, but I refused to believe she’d given in to her addiction when she was so close to getting out of the lifestyle. Regardless, I’d promised my mom I would protect her, and I’d failed.

As the coroner drew the sheet over Mom’s body and slid her back into the metal cabinet to wait for the driver from the cemetery, I promised myself I wouldn’t fail another mom ever again.

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Harley Stone - Rescuing Mercy - eBook Cover SmallONE

Landon

 

IT WAS ANOTHER day in paradise, and I was joking around with Truck Commander Briggs about one of the guys in our platoon. Stearman had gotten wasted during his last leave and had a jellyfish tattooed on the back of his calf. As if a grown-ass man with a jellyfish tattoo wasn’t bad enough, the artwork looked suspiciously like a giant dick, providing the entire platoon with a much-needed shot of comic relief.

“You know how Stearman gets when he’s drinking,” Briggs said. “I bet he marched into that tattoo parlor like he was tough shit. Was probably bragging about how much he can bench or makin’ noise about something, and his artist decided to have a little fun.”

I nodded. “Sounds about right. I still can’t believe he didn’t realize what it looks like.”

“Some people just can’t see the dick in things,” Briggs deadpanned. His humor was so dry people often missed it. But not me. I appreciated the hell out of every effort the good men and women of the 101st Airborne Division made at humor. After all, not much was funny in Afghanistan.

Our current mission had us traveling southwest of Bagram Airfield, checking into reports of insurgent activity. Briggs and I were sitting in the back seat of the Buffalo, a fifty-thousand-pound vehicle with a telescoping arm for digging up bombs. We were the second vehicle in the convoy, and we often passed our time with jokes as we rolled over the dirt supply route, watching for plastic containers, pipes, debris, animal carcasses, disturbed dirt, or any number of indicators of a possible roadside bomb. The assholes who kept attacking this supply route wanted Americans dead, and they weren’t picky about how they killed us.

“What do you think Stearman will cover the jelly-dick up with?” I asked, imagining a slew of new joke fodder.

Before Briggs could answer, a blast from behind shook the Buffalo.

Steadying myself in my seat, I searched for the source. A cloud of smoke engulfed the command vehicle behind us.

“Stop, stop, stop!” Briggs shouted into his headset, his gaze also fixed on the blast cloud. “Lieutenant Rodriguez’s vehicle just took a hit! Two-six, this is Buffalo, come in!”

Two-six, our command vehicle, didn’t answer.

We rolled to a stop and the air grew thick with anticipation as we waited for a response while scanning the area for an attack. Since two vehicles had rolled over the bomb before it exploded, chances were that it had been remotely detonated. About a half-mile away, four onlookers watched us from the top of a sandy hill. Keeping one eye on them, and one eye on the vehicle in trouble, I gripped my rifle and waited as the attack was called in to the command post.

“Two-six, this is Buffalo, come in,” Briggs repeated.

“Buffalo, this is Two-six, yeah, everyone’s fine. Everyone’s good.”

The Buffalo’s occupants released a collective breath. Our driver let out a cheer.

“Holy shit, we got lucky. Small blast,” Specialist Jeffries, also known as Smiley, said in my ear piece. He was the driver of the vehicle that had been hit.

“Buffalo, this is Two-Six, can you see how my tire’s looking from there?” Rodriguez asked in my ear.

Briggs craned his neck around for a better view. “Two-Six this is Buffalo, your front right tire looks shredded. We’re gonna have to hook you up to the Wrecker.” The Wrecker was a hundred-thousand pound eight-wheeled armored tow truck, currently stopped toward the back of the convoy.

“Copy. I’m gonna try to make my way to it.”

Despite the shredded tire, this was the right course of action. The blast had been small, and insurgents were known to set off smaller IEDs to disable vehicles so they’d be forced to call for help. Then the insurgents would trigger a second, bigger blast.

Willing the command vehicle to move, we all watched. The engine roared as Smiley gave it gas, but nothing happened.

“This is Two-Six. We’re dead in the water. I’m gonna check and see what the problem is.”

The command vehicle door swung open and Rodriguez’s helmeted head popped out, looking from side to side before the rest of his body emerged.

That’s when the second blast hit.

Rodriguez was thrown as the vehicle exploded. The entire area was engulfed in a giant blast cloud. Judging by the size of the cloud alone, the bomb had to be about a forty-pounder.

Briggs called the command post and requested a medical evac as the rest of us kept scanning the area. Two more onlookers joined the four on the hill, and I was chomping at the bit to get to our wounded and see who we could save. As the convoy’s combat medic, it was my duty to drag soldiers out of the fight so I could treat them, but first we had to make sure we weren’t under attack. IEDs were often followed up with some other assault, and I wouldn’t do anybody any good if I was caught between the vehicles when some asshole started firing rocket propelled grenades at us.

Besides, since the command vehicle had been occupied by four men, I was going to need help.

The blast cloud started to dissipate, and I could make out Rodriguez’s motionless, prone form lying about twenty feet from the vehicle.

More of the vehicle came into view, and parts of it were on fire. If we had any hope of saving anyone, we needed to move now. Briggs must have been thinking the same thing, because he spoke into his mic, communicating with the rest of the convoy. “Doc’s gonna need help. Let’s get him some cover and get those fires out.”

Briggs released me, and I sprinted for Rodriguez, staying in the relative safety of the tire tracks for as long as I could. Dropping to my knees as I reached him, I checked his pulse as I called out his name. He was unresponsive, but his pulse was strong. His left arm—from bicep to wrist—was shredded, so I slapped a tourniquet just below his shoulder to stop the bleeding and checked the rest of him over. None of his other wounds required my immediate attention, and Jones was sprinting toward me to help. I signaled for her to grab Rodriguez and get him to a truck, then I headed for the command vehicle.

The fires were mostly out by the time I reached it. Edburg called my attention to a body lying at his feet. Judging by the missing chunk of his skull, Marx, the vehicle’s gunner, had died on impact. Giving Edburg the task of taking the body to a vehicle, I continued searching through the wreckage.

“Doc, over here,” Jenkins said.

She was standing beside Malone who looked like he’d been beat up pretty good, but was conscious and responsive. I hurried over to check him out. His left pant leg was torn and bloody just below the knee. Using my trauma sheers, I cut up the pant leg to expose the wound. It was bleeding heavily, so I applied a tourniquet and checked the rest of him over.

“I think his right arm’s broken,” I said to Jenkins. “Get him on a vehicle.”

Turning to scan the area, I asked. “Anyone got eyes on the fourth?”

“Here,” O’Donnel called out.

I followed his voice to find Smiley. O’Donnel had cleared away enough debris for me to get to the wounded driver. Smiley was conscious, his chest rising and falling with labored breaths, but lying still. His gaze didn’t follow me as I approached.

This squadron was like my family, and like a family, I was closer to some than others. Jeffries was my buddy. I’d nicknamed him Smiley shortly after he’d joined us two years ago, because he was the happiest son-of-a-bitch I’d ever met. Born into a big family from some podunk town in Alabama, he was so damn grateful to be serving his country that no amount of bullshit seemed to wipe the smile from his face. Didn’t matter how far we were marching, how hot the sun was, what kind of shit poker hand he had, or how many times Staff Sergeant Kline yelled at him, the corners of Smiley’s lips were always upturned in a lopsided shit-eating grin.

Sometimes he drove me crazy with that goddamn smile.

But I would have given anything to see it as I crouched down beside him. He was gasping for air, so I cut away his shirts to see what kind of damage he’d taken to the chest. A large purple bruise was already forming from his belly button to his nipples, most likely due to impact from the steering wheel. I checked his pulse, feeling it increase while growing steadily weaker. His jugular veins were popping out of his neck.

Despite the difficulty he was having breathing, there were no holes in his chest. I suspected he had collapsed lungs, crushed ribs, and likely a pericardial tamponade. Judging by the location of the bruise, his heart was probably injured and bleeding into the surrounding membranous sac. If that was the case, the sac would fill with blood and strangle the heart, preventing it from fully expanding and contracting. The condition would be fatal without surgery.

I inserted bilateral 14-gauge needles into his chest, hoping his jugular vein distention and difficulty breathing could be alleviated by decompressing his chest and allowing his lungs to expand.

“Second intercostal space, mid clavicular line,” I whispered to myself. The medical term for below the collar bone and in line with the nipples was like a mantra, having been drilled into us and repeated like a goddamn nursery rhyme.

He was still struggling to breathe around crushed ribs, and I couldn’t tell if any air was expressed via my needles. As I put my head to his chest, I could hear the muffled beat of his heart.

“Am I gonna make it, Doc?” Smiley half-whispered, half-wheezed.

The question took me back in time to my training days.

Staff Sergeant Bates was pacing the front of the classroom, lecturing us about procedures and taking questions when one of my fellow students asked, “What’s the most difficult part of being a combat medic? Is it the long hours? Or dragging men off the battlefield?”

Staff Sergeant Bates stopped suddenly, his hand scratching at the whiskers on his chin while he considered the question. “While those both take their toll, they’re not what’ll drain you. No, what’ll really take it out of you is having to make the call… having to look at a fellow soldier and know they’re too far gone to save. That it’s not even worth your time to try. Worse yet, every once in a while one of these soldiers will ask you if they’re gonna die, and lying to them… it’s rough but necessary.”

Confused, I raised my hand.

“Welch,” he asked, nodding my direction.

“Lying to them?” I asked. I joined the Army because I was hellbent on doing the right thing. Lying seemed like the easy way out and I wasn’t looking for any free passes. “Why would you lie? If you know you can’t save a person, shouldn’t you be honest, Staff Sergeant? A soldier deserves the truth. They need to know, so they can prepare for death.”

He chuckled, but the sound was self-deprecating, bearing not even the slightest hint of humor. “Prepare for death. You make it sound pert near magical, Welch. Let me ask you somethin’, soldier. You ever look a dying man in the face?”

Yes, I had, but I had no desire to divulge that information. “No, Staff Sergeant,” I lied.

“Well, I have. More than I can count. The first one was Private Nelson and I’d known him since boot camp. He took a bullet to the gut and it went septic. He smelled like shit, looked worse, and there wasn’t a damn thing magical about it. There is no preparing for death. Private Nelson didn’t call out to his priest, or God, or even his momma to save him. No, he called out to me like I was the second coming of Christ because he believed I could hold back death. He wasn’t looking for honesty. He was looking for hope. You’re a stronger man than me if you can feed a dying man honesty instead. Trust me, Welch, when the time comes, you’ll lie. Then you’ll carry the guilt of that lie around with you forever, wondering if you did the right thing. But the next time you find yourself in that situation, you’ll make the same fuckin’ call.”

Smiley was a good man who’d served his country well and without complaint. He’d once told me he never wanted to be anything other than a soldier. Now, he’d die for following that dream. I wished like hell I could take his place, but death didn’t barter for souls.

Trust me, I’d tried.

I patted his hand and lied my ass off. “Yes. It’s gonna hurt like hell, but you’ll live. I got you, Smiley.”

“We have hostiles incoming,” Briggs said in my ear. “Time to go.”

The sound of machine guns firing meant that the squadron was giving me cover fire. Smiley groaned as I threw him over my shoulder in a fireman’s carry and hauled ass back to the Buffalo.

I’d barely gotten him settled in his seat before the assholes on the hill started launching rocket propelled grenades at us. Our gunners did their job as the convoy began to move again. We were sitting ducks where we were, and we had air support and a medical evac on the way. We needed to get to an ideal location before they arrived.

“Two vehicles coming up on the right,” Briggs said into his mouthpiece.

Another truck reported more hostiles behind us. If I was a praying man, I’d be hitting my knees right about now, but after seven years of serving as an Army combat medic, I had little faith in hopes and prayers anymore.

And, I had shit to do.

“How you holdin’ up, Smiley?” I asked, checking over his wounds again, looking for something I could treat.

His eyes were closed. I took his pulse, feeling it slow beneath my fingertips. His breathing had gone from erratic to agonal. He took a few quick breaths, then one deep one, stopped, then his breaths were quick again. No, Smiley wasn’t going to make it. He was already dead, but his body didn’t know it yet.

Surgery might save him, but he’d never make it to the table in time. There was nothing else I could do for him.

Watching him slip away, I felt so goddamn helpless. I wanted to check on my other patients and find out how they were doing, but with the fight still going on, I knew better than to clog up the headsets.

Smiley was gone long before the helos made it to us.

By the time air support arrived, the gunners had disabled two of the enemy vehicles. The rest peeled off at the sight of the helos. The flight medics loaded up our wounded and took off, and we drove back to Bagram without further incident.

After we arrived on base and were debriefed, I headed to Craig—officially named Craig Joint-Theatre Hospital, the only role one medical facility in the country—to check on my remaining two patients.

When I wasn’t out with my platoon, I often worked admittance and triage at Craig, so I knew my way around the fifty-bed hospital pretty well. I found Rodriguez first. He’d had surgery on one of his kidneys, his arm, and fluid drained from his lungs, but was expected to make a full recovery. Malone’s leg was shredded, but they were trying to save it. His arm was broken.

I was mentally and physically exhausted, and expected to be at the hospital in seven hours for a shift, but my bed was across base which seemed like a hell of a long way to go for some shut-eye. I was considering crawling under the admittance desk and napping until I had to clock in when First Sergeant Mike Young pulled me aside and led me to his office in the back.

Young had been in the service for eighteen years. He was the hospital’s senior medic and handled all staff scheduling and administrative business. He was a good man, a little crusty and rough around the edges from serving as a non-commissioned officer for so long, but he kept the hospital running smoothly.

Directing me to one of the two chairs in his cramped office, he sat in the other. I all but collapsed in mine, wondering how the hell I was going to get up again once our conversation was over.

“I’m declining your request to stay on,” he said, getting right down to his purpose for our impromptu meeting. “The 4th Infantry Division is already en route to replace your unit, and two weeks from now, I want your ass on the bird heading back to the states with the rest of the 101st.”

After everything I’d done and given for the Army, declining my request to stay on felt like a slap in the face, waking me right up. Exhaustion forgotten, I sprung from my seat and asked, “Can I ask why, First Sergeant?”

“Listen, youngster…”

Knowing I was in for a lecture, I resisted the urge to drop my head into my hands. Nothing good ever came from a conversation Young started by reminding me of his age and seniority.

“You have forty-five days of use or lose, and if you don’t take it, the CO will lose his shit,” Young said, leaning back in his chair.

I’d been banking my leave, selling it back to the Army whenever it reached the use or lose status, but I’d reached the limit of what I could sell back, and apparently people had noticed. I could use some time off, but I had nowhere to go. Besides, I deserved to be here, stretching myself so thin I was almost ready to snap. I needed to serve, to atone for what I’d done. Since I couldn’t voice any of that without being sent for a psych evaluation, I kept my mouth shut.

“Go home, go to the beach, or go to Vegas. I don’t care where you go, but you can’t stay here. Get drunk, get laid, get your mind right. You are of no use to me, your unit, or these men if you burn out.”

There was a reason the military was so strict about leave. I understood what he was saying, but had a hard time applying it to my situation. This was different. Taking leave wouldn’t get my mind right. I needed to be here, serving, to do that. Still, his words smarted. I’d seen medics burn out before and it wasn’t a pretty sight. That’s how mistakes were made, often mistakes that ended in someone’s death. I already had one major fuckup on my conscience, I didn’t need another.

Maybe it was time to take a break, after all.

Watching me, Young frowned. “A much wiser man than me once said that it takes a strong heart and a weak memory to survive as a medic. You got the heart for it, Welch, but I’m worried about your memory. Go home and forget all this shit for a while. Face whatever the hell you’re running from and remind yourself what you’re fighting for.”

I’d rather trek across the entire desert with only one canteen of water than go home, but there was no arguing with him. Besides, deep down I knew he was right. It was time to face my demons.

They couldn’t be much harder to face than Smiley’s empty bunk.

“Yes, First Sergeant.”

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Landing Eagle Sneak Peek

Landing Eagle - eBook Cover RGB.jpgEagle

Six Years Ago

MY WATCH ALARM went off at four a.m., pulling me from sensual dreams charged by last night’s activities and the smell of sex still lingering in the air. The warm, lush body beside me stirred, begging for my attention. I didn’t have much time to dress and get my ass to work, but I never could resist the pull of the woman at my side. We’d been dating for about six months, and I still hadn’t gotten my fill of her. I was beginning to think I never would.

Rising up on an elbow, I took a beat to look her over, marveling at her perfection for the millionth time. Silky dark curls that I loved to run my fingers through splayed out over the soft curve of her tan shoulders. A spattering of freckles covered cheeks that were often reddened from sun or passion, but rarely from embarrassment since she could hold her own in any crowd. Soft, plump lips that quickly and effortlessly alternated between smirking, swearing, and shouting orders, but looked especially incredible wrapped around my swollen cock.

Fierce, loyal, smart, funny, with curves that made men do stupid shit like wage war or even worse… settle down, she was the whole package and the wrapping.

She was my Helen of Troy.

I’d bring down the fucking world for her.

But I wouldn’t have to, because she was entirely capable of collapsing it herself should she so desire.

The top of her breasts peaked out from the blanket, begging for my attention. Hooking a finger in the coarse material, I inched it down to reveal her perfect round tits and narrow waistline. Her body was my wonderland, and I could spend hours kissing every freckle, licking every inch, tasting every curve.

Unfortunately, we never seemed to have hours.

Heavenly body paired with a sharp mind and an admirable sense of duty, Jeanette Lawson had my respect from day one. It took me more than a year to convince her to tumble into my bed, and I’ve been done for ever since. Insisting that her presence fulfilled all my wishes while her body covered my fantasies, she wasn’t Jeanette to me. She was my Genie.

But she was more than some mythical being. She was my future.

When I looked at her, I heard wedding bells and saw children and a house with a white picket fence. We were both twenty-five, educated, trained, and had our whole lives ahead of us. Lives that would be intertwined, because she was it for me.

Careful not to wake her, I tugged the blanket back up to her neck and kissed the small promise ring on her finger. It wasn’t an engagement ring yet, because there was no way in hell I’d ask her to marry me until I could do it right. My Genie was an officer, the strongest, most intelligent, most independent woman I’d ever met, but I was old fashioned. So, in two months, when our tour ended, I’d fly to Virginia, meet her parents, and ask for their blessing the right way. Then I’d plunder my savings to buy her a giant rock and make this thing between us final.

I had it all planned out, and I couldn’t fucking wait until she had my last name. Jeanette Archer had one hell of a nice ring to it.

I’d lingered too long admiring her, and was running out of time. Dressing quickly, I brushed a kiss against her forehead and whispered, “I love you, Genie.”

She stirred. “Mmhm Backacha.” A smile brightened her face and intelligent green eyes peered up at me as she stretched, tugging down the blankets to give me another tempting peep at her tits. Man, what I wouldn’t give for more time with those luscious mounds. “Leaving so soon?”

God, that smile. So devilish. So promising. It never ceased to get a rise out of my cock. I wanted nothing more than to climb back into her bed and take her up on every dark promise it made. But duty called.

Duty always tugged us apart.

“Yep. I have an early morning watching your fine ass traipse all over this God-forsaken desert.”

Our small platoon was operating out of Ubaydi, near Al-Qa’im, Iraq, but we didn’t have the numbers to set up a permanent garrison. It didn’t matter, because our orders only had us squatting there long enough to disrupt the local insurgents who were running weapons to the guerrilla fighters controlling the surrounding villages.

Two months and we’d be home.

As a scout sniper, my job was to go out early and provide cover while our Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs) swept the area for hostiles. As a Lieutenant Colonel, Genie led those sweeps.

“I’ll be sure to put on a show,” she said with a seductive smile.

“I don’t give a fuck about a show, just be sure you’re careful out there.”

She arched her back, pulling up far enough for her lips to land on mine. “You know I will be.”

Yes, I did. She was an outstanding officer who cared about every single Marine under her command. She’d do everything in her power to get them home safely. That was one of the things I loved most about her.

“Besides, with you watching my six, I know I’m covered.” She gave me another devilish grin before swinging her legs over the side of the bed and grabbing the front of my shirt to tug me closer. We came together in a passionate kiss that made my entire body ache for more. Releasing me, she said, “I love you too, Eagle.”

With one last kiss, I was out the door. I joined my team and we headed to our first post.

Three hours later, I was watching Genie’s AAV through the scope of my rifle when fire burst from the ground, engulfing the vehicle in flame and smoke. The ground shook with the explosion. The open vehicle flipped. Stunned, I gawked as bodies were flung. Heart in my throat, I sprang to my feet.

I needed to get to her.

It was too late.

There were no survivors.

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Trapping Wasp Sneak Peek

Trapping Wasp - eBook Cover SmallCarly

 I WAS GOING to be late for work.

It was six thirty-nine p.m., and my bartending shift started in twenty-one minutes. My apartment was six blocks from the Copper Penny, and I’d have to sprint like an Olympic hopeful to make it. Thankfully, the biker bar that I’d been working at for the past three months didn’t require its bartenders to wear high heels, and so far, nobody had commented about my frequent tardiness. Still, I needed to keep this job. Slipping my feet into running shoes, I shoved my cowboy boots into my backpack and zipped it up before returning to the kitchen to reengage in dinner negotiations with my five-year-old son.

“Take a bite, Trent,” I said in my best no-nonsense mom voice, sliding the plate he kept pushing away back in front of him.

He curled up his lip in disgust. “But you said I could have cereal for dinner since I didn’t get it for breakfast. You promised,” he complained. Again. We’d been over this so many times, even I wanted cereal for dinner.

“I know, but you forgot to remind me that we needed milk and we didn’t stop by the grocery store.”

“You didn’t tell me I was supposed to remind you. Or I would have. My memory is way better than yours.”

Reasonably certain my sweet little monster had siphoned away my brain cells during his trip down my birth canal, I had to agree. “Yes, Trent. You remember everything.” Unfortunately. I shoved silver hoops through the holes in my ears and glanced at the clock again. Six forty-two.

“Like I remember you said I could have cereal for dinner,” my relentless little tyrant replied.

And we were back to square one. Truthfully, we’d never left square one. At this point, I wasn’t even sure there was a square two. I was sadly outmatched with no hope of ever winning… against a preschooler. This was my life, every damn day. Still, I could be almost as relentless as Trent, especially when I was desperate, so I kept trying. “You like chicken nuggets,” I pleaded, picking one up and dancing it toward his mouth.

“But you said—” His lips clamped down as soon as I reached them. Nugget, denied.

Frustrated, I tossed the nugget back onto his plate and pushed away from our small wooden table. “I know, Trent. I know.” And I’d failed him. Again. It was amazing how a simple act like forgetting milk could make me question my entire ability to parent.

“You’re still here?” our roommate, Jessica, asked as she stepped into the kitchen. “Go. I’ve got the little man.”

Jessica was a Godsend. I’d first called her from a hotel in Kennewick, Washington a little over three months ago, when I found her “roommate wanted” listing online during a mad dash to Seattle from my hometown of Silver City, Idaho. Jessica and I had agreed to meet up for coffee as soon as I made it into town to discuss the possibility of me and Trent invading her space. But, when my nineteen-ninety-seven Honda Civic with about a billion miles on it limped into Seattle’s city limits and promptly wheezed its last breath, I had nobody else to call for help. Thankfully, Jessica rescued me and Trent from the side of the freeway, stuffed the trunk of her car with our clothes, and took us home. Then she helped me call around until we found a donation center willing to tow my hooptie and take it off my hands.

Now she was doing me a huge favor by watching Trent in the evenings, so I didn’t have to pay a sitter. She was an angel, and there was no way I’d leave her to face the fiery wrath of a five-year-old who had been promised cereal.

“Mom forgot milk,” Trent blurted out, throwing me right under the bus.

“I have coconut milk,” she offered.

See? She’s an Angel. “Thanks, but he won’t drink it.” I knew from experience since I’d “borrowed” a little of her coconut milk last time we had this issue.

My problem wasn’t forgetfulness, it was time. Every day felt like a battle against the clock, and between my two jobs and taking care of Trent, I rarely managed to get in a full five hours of sleep. Squeezing in time to hit the grocery store was a luxury I couldn’t usually afford. Not to mention the little problem of no car to carry the groceries in. A gallon of milk got pretty damn heavy after four blocks, especially when I had to balance it with bags of groceries while keeping Trent close and making sure nobody snatched him. Trips to the grocery store gave me anxiety.

Another glance at the clock told me it was six-forty-eight. Time to tap into my single mom superpowers and get creative. I popped open the fridge and studied its contents, homing in on a pint of vanilla creamer. I shook it, estimating that there was maybe a half cup left.

Vanilla creamer had zero nutritional value and all sorts of harmful chemicals that the school’s mommy group would ostracize me for, but I was desperate. I added water to the container until it was roughly the consistency of two percent milk, and then dumped it over Trent’s granola. At least the granola was healthy. That was something, right? Smiling widely, like I’d made him some sort of treat rather than MacGyvering his dinner to atone for my failure as a mother, I offered it to him and held my breath.

Trent looked from me to the creamer container, eyeing us both skeptically. He took a small bite, chewed, and then smiled. “Thanks, Mom.”

How could two words be so powerful? They filled me with pride and love as I released my breath and bent to kiss his forehead. Maybe I wasn’t a complete parental failure after all. “You’re welcome.”

“This is yummy. You should let me have this milk all the time.”

Nope, I was a failure for sure.

“I don’t know whether to be appalled or impressed,” Jessica said, shaking her head.

“I have that effect on people.” I peppered the rest of Trent’s face with kisses, until he waved me off, and then I slipped the straps of my backpack over my shoulders. “I gotta get out of here. Trent, be good for Jess.”

He saluted me with his spoon. Smiling at his silly soldier impersonation, I waved and hurried out of the house, keeping an eye out for both the nutrition police and the mommy group.

*          *          *

The Copper Penny Bar and Grill always had at least one biker at the door checking IDs. Tonight’s burly, tattooed stud was a Hispanic guy who went by the name of Spade. All the bikers had nicknames, and since I kept to myself and didn’t mingle with the Dead Presidents, I hadn’t asked why. Truthfully, I didn’t even care why. I was in survival mode: blinders on, staying in my lane, minding my own damn business, and taking care of my son. I rarely even noticed how hot the bikers were.

At least I tried not to notice.

Spade worked the door often, and as soon as he saw me he waved me past the forming line.

“Thanks, Spade!” I shouted as I ran by.

“No prob, babe, I got you!” he shouted back.

Babe. That was a biker thing, not a term of endearment. Probably due to the bikers all being man-whores who couldn’t remember the names of the many women swarming around them, vying for the “D.” And reminding myself that they were hit-it-and-quit-it kind of guys made it a little easier not to notice their hotness.

Still winded from my jog, I breathed deeply and entered the building, tugging my backpack off. Since it was summer and still sunny outside, I had to give my eyes a second to adjust to the dim hanging lights. Like everything else in the club, the glass fixtures were coated with a layer of nicotine and time that no amount of scrubbing could hope to remove.

With its wood floors, wood paneling, and an arched wood ceiling, walking into the bar always felt like stepping back in time to the late seventies. Scents assaulted me: perfume, cologne, alcohol, sweat, leather, all fermenting with the underlying stench of old cigarette smoke. I hurried past speakers that played a mix of old-school rock bands with a few new songs sprinkled in and into the employee break room. Tugging my boots from my backpack, I replaced my tennis shoes and shoved everything else in my locker, sliding the key into the pocket of my Daisy Dukes.

Glancing into the mirror, I straightened my Copper Penny logoed tank top, tightened my pony tail, and wiped away the sweat-smudged makeup beneath my eyes. By the time I clocked in, grabbed my apron, and headed for the bar, I was nine minutes late. Time had won yet another round.

Flint, the bar manager, was pouring drinks, which was never a good sign since he should be doing manager-type shit rather than covering for my tardy ass. Still tying on my apron, I slid in beside him.

“Hey, Boss, where’s Jen?” I asked, looking around for the other bartender on the schedule.

“She’s sick, so I sent her home,” Flint replied, drawing a beer and handing it to one of at least twenty sexy bikers crowding the bar. Seriously, my workplace held so much man-candy it should be named Vaginal Diabetes. But I was determined not to notice, blinders on, staying in my lane, minding my own damn business, and all that bullshit.

“Sorry I’m late.” I washed my hands at the bar-side sink then spun around, preparing to take my first order.

“Shit happens,” Flint replied.

Wasp, the biggest, sexiest biker of the group was perched on the stool directly in front of me, half leaning over the bar. “That’s okay, babe. I’d say you’re right on time.”

An involuntary shiver went up my spine as his gaze swept down my body. His eyes were dark grey, his dishwater blond hair hung just below his shoulders, and his arms were easily the size of my legs. Like the rest of the bikers, he wore jeans, a T-shirt, and a biker vest with patches to show his rank and name. Wasp was the Vice President of the Dead Presidents MC. I knew, because I often studied his patches while trying to avoid his hungry eyes, mischievous smile, and stubble-covered jaw.

“What can I get for you, Wasp?” I asked, trying to keep my tone business-like.

“A pint of that pilsner on tap.” He grinned, flashing me perfect teeth. “And… your number.”

I was a single mom with a stellar track record for attracting the wrong kind of men. Okay man. There was only one, but he was bad enough. I had no time for games, and Wasp was clearly a player. I could see it in the confident way he held himself and the easy way he asked for my number every damn time he ordered.

Not like I was special. He probably asked for every woman’s phone number, and most of these biker sluts wouldn’t hesitate to hand theirs over. But I wasn’t about that life, so I poured his beer and set it down in front of him. “Put it on your tab?”

He tilted his head to the side, studying me. “Aren’t you forgetting something, babe?”

Even his voice was sexy. Deep. Commanding. A total contrast to his easygoing jokester personality. Refusing to let it—or the lick-worthy biceps peeking out from beneath his sleeves—affect me, I leaned over the bar, looked him square in the eyes, and let him know where we stood. “You’re not getting my number, Wasp. Ever.”

I probably sounded like a bitch, but I needed to be direct with guys, sternly voicing my disinterest. I’d learned that lesson the hard way, and no one would be getting mixed signals from me ever again.

Wasp returned my stare, his gaze full of heat and the kinds of promises that made my thighs clench. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”

“Dammit, Wasp,” Flint roared. “How many times do I gotta tell you to stay the fuck off my girls? Leave Carly alone and let her work.”

Beer in one hand, the other held up in surrender, Wasp backed off, but the smirk he gave me promised he’d be back to harass me later. Another shiver went up my spine. I had no intention of dating a biker—of dating anyone for that matter—but it was nice to still feel desired every once in a while. And man, did Wasp ever make his desires known.

With him heading back into the crowd, I focused on the steady stream of customers and lost the night in a blur of leather and alcohol. By the time Flint kicked everyone out so we could clean up, I was spent. Determined to get home with enough time to at least get in a nap before I had to take Trent to school and go to my second job, I fought through the exhaustion and busted my ass cleaning up.

It was a little after two-thirty a.m. by the time I got home and found Trent curled up next to Jessica on the sofa. Jessica had some trashy romance novel covering her face, and Trent had every plastic army man he owned on the floor surrounding them. The scene made my heart break a little as I swooped in to scoop up my kid.

Jessica stirred and sat up, placing her book on the coffee table and rubbing her eyes.

“Another nightmare?” I whispered, patting Trent on the back.

“Yeah. It wasn’t as bad as the last one, but he still decided we needed protection.” She gestured at the platoon of green soldiers.

My sweet little man had seen way more than any child should, and although the nightmares were lessening, I worried that they’d never go away completely. We’d escaped the fire of our past, for now, but it felt like we’d forever be singed.

Carrying him into the bedroom we shared, I glanced at his little race car bed and dismissed it, tucking him into mine instead. He was a kicker, and I’d most likely regret it, but I wanted him beside me if he had another nightmare. I kissed his forehead, and before I could walk away, his little fingers clutched my shirt, holding me beside him.

“Hey buddy,” I said, brushing his hair out of his face as I smiled down on him, trying not to let my concerns or exhaustion show.

Trent’s eyes snapped open, his expression hopeful. “Mom, the bad man came, but the soldiers saved us.”

I kissed his forehead. “Of course they did.”

He’d been obsessed with soldiers since they’d started volunteering at his preschool with some anti-bullying initiative. They’d somehow convinced him that soldiers could do anything and save anyone.

I knew better. I’d seen way too much shit to believe in heroes. The only person we could depend on to keep us safe, was me.

Still, if lining our entire apartment with a protective barrier of army men made my little man feel safer, I’d buy him every plastic soldier in Seattle. And, if the bad man ever found us, I’d wish like hell they were real.

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Breaking Bones Sneak Peek

Breaking Bones - eBook Cover - RGB.jpgCHAPTER ONE

Bones

 MY POPS ONCE told me that a real man provides for his family, no matter what the circumstances. Ironic since he disappeared when I was ten, leaving my mom to raise me and my two brothers alone. For months, I watched Ma sit by the phone, waiting for the call that he’d been found. Every time the doorbell rang, dread would fill her eyes as she dropped her head and shuffled to the door.

But the bastard never showed. Pops went to work one day, and we never saw his face again.

Ma did her best, but raising three growing boys was no picnic. Especially since Pops had married her right out of high school and hadn’t allowed her to work. With no skills and no work history, she did what she could and went to work cleaning houses. She exhausted herself, pulling double minimum-wage shifts for fucking peanuts.

So, when I saw an opportunity to help her out, I jumped on it.

It all started outside my grade school…

Principal Jones leaned against the bike rack beside me, waiting for Ma to show as he blabbed on about the importance of keeping my hands to myself. I wanted to point out that if my classmates weren’t such loud-mouthed assholes I wouldn’t have to use my fists to shut them up, but knew that’d just dig me further into the hole.

While we waited, a decked-out black-and-chrome Jaguar slid into one of the handicap spaces. The front doors opened, and two men dressed in suits and shiny black shoes emerged. The driver hung back, taking his time, while the passenger, a broad-shouldered, no-necked, mean-looking bastard, approached me and Principal Jones with his head on a swivel and one hand in his pocket. Still watching us, he stepped aside and waited as the driver approached.

The driver was tall with dark hair and features. His suit jacket was stretched across a generous potbelly, and a lit cigarette hung from his lips. After he straightened his jacket, he took a drag as his gaze drifted from Principal Jones to me. He gave me a calculated smile, like he was sizing me up.

Refusing to be intimidated by some rich old asshole, I stood straighter and met his gaze. He chuckled, flicking the butt of his cigarette away. Expecting my principal to go ballistic about the man smoking on school property, I turned to watch the fireworks, but Principal Jones was walking back toward the school, leaving me alone with the two suits.

“You Gino Leone’s boy?” the older man asked, still watching me. He had a scar on his cheek and the bridge of his nose zigzagged like it had been broken a time or two.

The mention of my pops gave me pause. When Ma had reported his disappearance, she told me and my brothers the cops would be by to ask us questions. It had been months and the pigs hadn’t bothered. The men in front of me didn’t look like any cops I’d ever seen, but I wasn’t going to risk it. If they knew something about Pops, I wanted to hear what they had to say. I nodded. Then, because my inner voice of self-preservation told me to be a little more respectful, I added a hasty, “Yes sir. How do you know my father?”

Instead of answering, the old man stepped closer and patted me on the shoulder. I was big for a ten-year-old, but his hand was enormous. It slid down to my bicep and wrapped around my arm. Shocked, I watched his giant mitt probe my muscles. A few of his knuckles were bent funny, like they’d been broken or popped out of place too many times. He was a fighter, which seemed odd paired with his nice suit and round gut.

“We can work with this,” the old man said to his companion. “It’ll take some training, but you got balls, kid, and that’s what matters. You did a good thing today,” he said, pulling my attention back to his face. Something lingered behind his eyes. Pride? Amusement? I couldn’t get a read on him.

A good thing? I searched for sarcasm in his tone, but he seemed genuinely pleased with me, which didn’t make sense since I’d been suspended for breaking a kid’s arm. Hell, I wasn’t pleased with myself. Principal Jones said Mom would most likely get stuck with the kid’s hospital bill. She’d probably ground me for life. Then she’d have to pick up a third job. Just thinking about her having to work more because of my temper made me sick to my stomach. She was already so damn tired all the time.

I hadn’t done a good thing; I’d royally fucked up.

The old man grinned, splitting his face in two and making him look like a frog. “Not just a good thing. A great thing. A smart thing.” He leaned closer to me and added, “You opened doors for your future today, kid. Doors that pay well.” He eyed my too-small T-shirt, my faded jeans, and my worn sneakers. “You look like you could use a little extra cash.”

I knew exactly what I looked like, but his words still stung. I scowled at him, and he held up his hands and shook his head.

“Just an observation. No offense meant. Look, you did me a favor today, so I’m trying to return the gesture. That’s how it works with the Family. You scratch our backs, we scratch yours. Now, you interested in some work or not?”

I glanced back at the school and then scanned the street. Principal Jones hadn’t returned, there was no sign of my mom, and the entire conversation was confusing me. “I did you a favor?” I asked.

“You helped my nephew.”

I blinked. Nephew?

“The boy being harassed by that little shithead you attacked.”

My mind raced, trying to think of who he could be talking about. My fight today had been to fulfill my own personal vendetta. Some new kid, a jackass richie-rich, had been pissing all over the school, trying to mark his territory. Yesterday he’d been in the lunch line behind me, close enough to see the free-lunch status on the check-in computer and had been talking shit about it ever since. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to teach him a lesson, which came today when he was stuffing a kid into a locker after recess. I hadn’t even seen who was being bullied, just saw the richie-rich with his back turned and pounced. I thought back to the layout of the lockers, trying to figure out who the poor sap shoved into his locker could have been. “D’Angelo Mariani?” I asked.

“His friends and family call him Angel,” the old man said. “Mariani.”

Even if I had never heard the name before, the reverent way he uttered it spoke of power and authority. But all Vegas natives knew who the Marianis were. They were one of the big Families who ran several of the casinos and businesses. The name was everywhere. I don’t know why I’d never made the connection with D’Angelo. Probably because he was a scrawny, nice kid. Not at all what I’d expect a Mariani to be like.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked.

He cracked a smile and turned toward his associate. “Gets right down to business. Just like his old man.”

“How do you know my father?” I asked again.

Emotion flickered across the old guy’s face, but before I could place it, it was gone. He nodded. “Don’t worry about it, kid.” When I didn’t respond, he added, “Good man. Stand-up guy.”

The way he didn’t use tense wasn’t lost on me. Nobody seemed to know whether Pops was alive or dead, and if this guy knew, he wasn’t telling. Pops had warned me to stay away from the families. I knew he’d tell me to run… to get the hell away from the Marianis.

But if Pops wanted a say in my life, he should have come home.

The old man pulled out a billfold and made a big show of thumbing through his wad of cash. Hundreds, fifties, and twenties floated through his fingers like they were Monopoly money of no real consequence, but it was more cash than I’d ever seen. He tugged several bills loose and offered them to me. It had to be at least four hundred dollars. My mind raced, imagining what I could do with it. I had to force my gaze back to his face and remind myself I still didn’t know what he wanted from me.

“My nephew needs a friend. A guy on the inside who can look out for him. He’s a smart kid, but his blood will earn him some enemies. You do this for me, and I’ll make sure your family is taken care of. Protected. Capisce? Understand?”

My attention drifted back to the cash. I was young, but I wasn’t stupid. There were no Good Samaritans in Vegas. Everyone sought the big payout, and nobody gave away anything for free. “You want me to be his friend and protect him? That’s it?” And he was willing to pay me hundreds for it? There had to be some sort of catch.

“Yeah. You’ll get training. Like I said, you got balls, but we gotta get you in shape and teach you some shit. Other opportunities might arise—chances for you to earn more—but Angel will always be your primary responsibility. What do you say, kid?” He added a few more twenties to the stack, sweetening the deal. “You ready to step up and become a man? Ready to help your mom out?”

The mention of Ma made me pause. Whoever this man was, he was too personal… too familiar. It felt strange, worrisome.

He chuckled. “I’m asking you to be my nephew’s friend and bodyguard, Franco Leone. You better believe I know everything there is to know about you. My family is my world, and I protect them. Can I count on you to protect them, too?”

I knew nothing about the old man. Not a damn thing. Angel, however, I did know. He was a quiet kid. Respectful. Smart. A little geeky. I could hang out with him and watch his back. Especially if it meant helping out my mom.

Before I could agree the old man said, “Leave everything to me. Don’t worry about this bullshit suspension. I’ll have a chat with your principal and set him straight. You make sure your ass is in school tomorrow and every day after. Your mom will never see a hospital bill for what you did to that kid. I’ll handle it.”

It was too good to be true. “You can really do all that?” I asked.

“‘All that’?” He laughed, and his associate joined in. They carried on for an uncomfortable minute while I wondered what was so funny. Finally, the old guy wiped a tear from his eye and said, “Kid, you have no idea what I’m capable of.”

Something in his tone made the hair on the back of my neck stand up, but I was desperate. He offered me the money again, and this time I took it.

“I’ll be his friend. I’ll protect him,” I promised.

Mom’s beat-up old sedan turned the corner and came barreling toward us. Bracing for the verbal ass-whipping I was about to receive, I stashed the cash in my pocket and tried to look apologetic. “I don’t suppose you can help me with her?”

The old man chuckled. “I’ll see what I can do.” He squeezed my shoulder in a gesture that bordered on painful, getting my attention. When I looked up at him, his smile had disappeared.

“He’s putting a lot of faith in you. Do not disappoint him, Franco,” he said.

Before I could ask who this mysterious ‘he’ was, the old man’s smile was back and directed toward the Celica, which screeched to a stop beside his Jaguar.

“Make sure she gets those brakes looked at,” the old man said. “Ron’s Brake and Tire on Decatur will help you out. Tell ’em Carlo sent you. You take care of your mom now. We owe her that much at least.” He shuffled me toward the car as my mom was getting out, extending his hand to Mom. “Mrs. Leone, hello, so nice to meet you. You’ve got a great boy here. You should be proud.”

Mom’s brows knit together in confusion as she looked from the man to me.

“Now don’t you worry about this little misunderstanding one bit. A bully was picking on my great nephew and Franco here stepped in and defended him. It was admirable, and I’m fixin’ to go in there and talk to the principal right now. You have my word Franco’s suspension will be lifted. You’ll be getting an apology call from the principal tonight.”

Ma’s expression softened. “You helped a kid?” she asked me.

I decided right then that protecting Angel Mariani would start with making him sound less like a pussy. If I was going to be his best friend, he needed to be someone I could respect. “He got jumped. It wasn’t a fair fight.”

The old man released my shoulder to pat me on the back and I knew I’d said the right thing. He headed toward the school and I climbed into Ma’s car and put on my seatbelt.

“You really helped a kid?” she asked again.

Well if that didn’t make me feel like shit. Was it so difficult to believe I’d done something nice? “Ma—”

“Don’t look at me like that, Franco. This is the third suspension since your father… disappeared. You can’t blame me for expecting this time to be like the others.”

No, I couldn’t. Especially since I couldn’t have cared less about D’Angelo Mariani when I’d done it. “Yeah.” I patted the cash in my pocket. “Seemed like the right thing to do.”

I watched the old man disappear behind the school doors, realizing I hadn’t gotten a phone number from him. Somehow, I knew it didn’t matter. He seemed like the type of guy who could find me if he needed me.

It’s been thirteen years since I accepted the cash from Angel’s great uncle, Carlo Mariani, sealing my position as Angel’s best friend and bodyguard. In that thirteen years, I’d seen Carlo deal with a lot of shit, but I’d never seen him look as unsettled as he did today. Suit rumpled, he waved me into his office and paused in front of his desk long enough to extinguish his cigarette before lighting up another one. He took a long drag and turned his attention to me.

“Sit.”

Parking my ass in the nearest chair, I watched him as he resumed his pacing.

“We got a problem, Bones. One of the Durantes has popped his head out of whatever hole he’s been hiding in.”

The Durantes had run the underworld of Las Vegas before Angel’s dad, Dominico Mariani, took them down about twenty-five years ago. The Marianis didn’t just take the Durantes down, they wiped them out. Every male—regardless of age—was supposed to be dead. That was how families made sure the younger generations didn’t come seeking revenge.

“Someone lived?”

Carlo snorted, spearing me with a look. “Turns out the inside man I trusted to do the job didn’t get it done. Joey Durante lived. He’s Maurizio’s youngest, and was only a few years old when Dom took over Vegas. This Joey son-of-a-bitch is back in town now, talking about how he’s come to reclaim his throne.”

One guy, talking shit out of the side of his mouth. He didn’t even have a family to back him. Wondering why this had Carlo so keyed up, I said, “I’ll set him straight.”

Carlo stopped pacing and stared at me, taking another drag from his cigarette. “This asshole could destroy everything we’ve built, Bones. I don’t want him talking to anyone, you hear me?”

I nodded. “Yessir.”

“Whack him and anyone he’s with, regardless of sex, age, whatever. I want this loose end tied off.”

I couldn’t help but wonder why one man had my boss so unhinged, but the whys were far above my pay grade. Besides, I couldn’t help but feel relieved that Carlo wasn’t calling me to the carpet over a weasel named Matt Deter who used to be one of my distributors. Matt had stiffed me and disappeared on Halloween. I’d been after the little piss ant ever since, but he always seemed to be one step ahead of me. I’d paid out the money Matt owed to Carlo, but I couldn’t let that shit slide. It was bad for business. I had every intention of catching Matt and snapping his scrawny little neck… for several reasons. First, I planned to do whatever was necessary to get him to squeal about who was flooding the streets with dirty dope.

But, apparently revenge on Matt would have to be tabled for now.

Nodding, I said, “You got it, boss. What do we have on Joey Durante?”

Breaking Bones promo 1.jpg

Releasing 6/25/18
 
Bodyguard and hitman, Franco “Bones” Leone, has prospered in the most powerful Las Vegas crime family by following three rules:
 
– Show no weaknesses. 
– Allow no distractions. 
– Never question the family.
 
Then Ariana Davis almost dies in his arms.
 
With a past full of mistakes, a withering dream of singing professionally, and a vulnerable allure he can’t resist, she’s one tempting complication Bones doesn’t need.
 
Or does he?
 
Amazon US: https://amzn.to/2MJwU5C 
UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07DCN3QFW
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Wreaking Havoc Sneak Peek

Wreaking Havoc - SmallCHAPTER ONE

Julia

MY LITTLE SISTER, Laura, stood in the doorway of my bathroom, watching me darken my lashes and color my lips. With blonde hair and pale blue eyes, she looked like the female version of our father. But where he was serious and handsome, she was a jovial beauty with an easy smile and carefree nature that made people gravitate toward her. She pulled people in, and I did my best to repel them. As the recipient of Mom’s fiery red hair, intense green eyes, and savage resting bitch face, I couldn’t pull off beautiful or innocent. But strikingly terrifying… I had that shit down.

And because I was a contouring wizard, I could paint myself into something more approachable when the situation required it. Luckily, few situations did. Brushing my newest purchase—a shade of blush called ‘Party Girl’—on my cheek, I frowned. “Too pink.”

Laura nodded. “Scoot over and let me try it,” she said, joining me in front of the mirror.

I passed her the new blush, wiped the pink crap off, and went back to the earthier tone I normally wore. Laura being in my space felt comfortable now, but it hadn’t always been that way between us. In fact, I could pinpoint the exact moment she became more than the annoying baby sister who stole my clothes and makeup and narked to my parents when I ditched her at the mall. It happened about ten years ago in front of a different bathroom mirror.

I was preparing for my first day of college and Laura was about to head to her high school freshman orientation. She stood at my bathroom doorway watching me work then, too.

Nervous about being a little fish on a big campus where people didn’t automatically know and fear me and my family, I didn’t have the time or energy to deal with the brat, so I cut her an annoyed look and asked, “Can I help you?”

Normally so damn bubbly and sweet she gave me a freaking toothache, that day Laura looked somber and subdued. I’d never seen her like that, and it made me uncomfortable. She stepped into the bathroom, nodding. “I… I have a zit.” Turning her head to the side and brushing her hair back, she revealed the bright red blemish taking up the lower quarter of her cheek. “You’re really amazing at makeup. Will you please show me how to hide it?” 

I considered her predicament for a solid ten seconds while my inner bitch reveled in her misery. After all the times she’d stolen my makeup, this felt like karma. And who was I to question karma? But, she was also my little sister, and therefore a reflection on me. I couldn’t let her begin high school sporting such a heinous imperfection. Pointing at the toilet, I said, “Sit.”

A smile lit up her face as she skittered over to the toilet, sat, and looked up at me expectantly. I opened the top drawer of my bathroom vanity and started pulling out products. As I went to work evening out her skin tone and contouring away the swelling, I gave her a mini tutorial, explaining the purpose and use for each product.

When I finished, she stood in front of the mirror, sweeping back her hair. “I can’t even see it anymore. That’s… that’s incredible.” She met my gaze in the mirror, her eyes glistening. “Thank you, Julia. You’re like the best sister ever.”

I wasn’t, but her praise made me feel more warm and fuzzy than I’d ever admit.

“You’re not as bitchy as everyone says you are.”

By everyone, she meant our peers. The children of Seattle’s filthy rich and terrifyingly powerful (kind of like the Illuminati, but localized and more devious). They built, and they destroyed. I knew, because I was their star pupil, their protégé, their sword. Laura and our peers had no idea how bitchy I could be. I was learning to pull strings, play friends against each other, manipulate the results. I was learning to play the game, and I fucking loved it.

But I never let my little sister see that side of me.

And years later, when karma came knocking at my door, Laura was the one person who warned me to check the peep hole before I opened it.

I would do anything for my sister.

“Keep the blush. It looks better on you,” I said, smiling at her in the mirror.

She grinned, her dimples making her look fourteen again instead of twenty-four as she closed the compact and slipped it into her purse. “It really does. Thanks.”

But she was still a snarky little brat.

I straightened and took one last look in the mirror. “Let’s do this.”

Laura pushed off the counter. “I’m so beyond ready to be pampered. Wedding planning is stressful.”

Sure. Like Mom would actually allow Laura to plan anything. My sister was just another piece in our parents’ game. And now, with her nuptials less than a week away, we needed to hit the spa so we could look our best for the upcoming festivities. God forbid we attend a bridal shower or a bachelorette party with imperfect nails, faded highlights, or unsightly body hair.

Some things simply were not done.

Especially not if you were an Edwards. We’d spent our entire lives conforming to the image of perfection demanded by our family name and status, and although I’d turned out to be a huge disappointment, Laura was still going strong. I didn’t agree with her commitment to the cause, but I supported her and would do what I could to help.

“Have you decided on a plus-one for the wedding yet?” she asked, her tone light and conversational with a tiny hint of panic.

I understood her worry, because every time I so much as thought about attending her wedding, my chest would squeeze, my eyes would burn, and I’d break out in cold sweats. Giving myself a much-needed moment to respond, I locked up my condo and slid the keys into my purse.

“Not yet. Has Wesley RSVP’d?”

Wesley. There were too many emotions wrapped up in that one name. He’d been my husband, my partner, and now he was dead to me. Too bad he was still very much alive to my family.

Laura nodded, looking away.

My stomach sank. “Who’s he bringing?”

“Jozette.”

The rage I’d been working so diligently to keep bottled, bubbled to the surface, blurring my vision and making the world sway. Leaning against the wall, I took a couple of deep breaths and counted to ten. Jozette West had been my friend since grade school. We’d co-chaired committees together in high school, she’d been my college roommate, and she’d been one of the six bridesmaids at my wedding. I could crush her. I could make her regret ever betraying me.

But I was out of the game. I didn’t want to be that person anymore.

“I’m sorry, Julia.”

I swallowed back pain and anger, pushing myself off the wall. Hoping Laura would drop the subject and give me a moment to breathe, I led her down the stairs.

“Michael said Joel doesn’t have a date yet, and he’d love to accompany you.”

She didn’t know when to give up. Although I understood and appreciated her need to be helpful, my pride wouldn’t allow me to accept a pity date with the friend of my little sister’s fiancé.

“No.”

She grabbed my arm and tugged, turning me around to face her. She stood on the step above me, giving herself a rare height advantage. “Joel’s a really nice guy. Nothing at all like Wesley. He’s always had a crush on you. You should give him a chance.”

“I can’t, Em. He’s part of the circle.”

She threw her hands in the air. “You talk about us like we’re some kind of cult.”

Cults weren’t usually as resourceful or dangerous. I didn’t need a date for Laura’s wedding; I needed a shield to hide me from prying eyes and whispering voices, so I could survive the event without going nuclear. He had to be handsome, loyal, fearless, and ferocious, and I was pretty sure men like that had gone extinct.

“I’ll find a date.”

Finished with the conversation, I rushed the rest of the way down the stairs and made my way through the small, cramped bookstore I owned and managed named One More Chapter. The smell of books greeted me, calming me down like a drug. I took in a hit through my nose and felt my shoulders relax as I made a mental note of the elderly couple browsing the westerns section.

“You heading out?” My assistant, Justine, asked without looking up from one of the many thick textbooks piled on the counter in front of her. As a first-year pre-med student at Seattle Pacific, her coursework was the stuff of nightmares. She’d come into the bookstore about six months ago, searching for the type of part-time employment that would allow her to collect a paycheck while she studied. I didn’t really need the help, but she was from a middle-class family and needed the money, and I enjoyed the company and freedom her presence allotted.

“Yep,” Laura said with a smile. “I’ll have her back in time to lock up.”

“An order should be coming in soon,” I said, dragging my feet. “Some new releases, so check the dates to make sure you can put them out. If you have any questions, you know how to reach me.”

Still not taking her eyes off her textbook, Justine waved me off. “Go. Have fun. I’ve got this.”

When I didn’t immediately run out the door, Laura grabbed my hand and dragged me to the double-parked Town Car waiting for us. A gray-haired man wearing a suit sprang from the driver’s seat and hurried around to open the back door for us.

“Hi Franck,” I said, greeting him as I slid in.

“Ms. Edwards.” He nodded. “Nice to see you again.”

Franck was French, since all uppity families should have at least one French employee. A kind widower in his late sixties with an easy smile and a mischievous twinkle in his eye, he mostly drove for my family, but also sometimes filled in for the butler. Although he was loyal to my parents, he practiced discretion, and didn’t tattle unless directly asked. When I was young, he’d patiently retrieved me from several places I shouldn’t have been, and very few of my exploits got back to my parents. I liked to think I added a little excitement to Franck’s otherwise boring job.

“Will you be heading to the club for your spa day?” he asked.

Along with the rest of Seattle’s rich and snobby, my family frequented a country club on Bainbridge Island. Despite their world-famous golf course, fantastic spa, and attentive staff, my sister’s wedding would be the one and only time I returned to the club.

“No,” I said, settling in my seat. “Laura has reluctantly agreed to go slumming with me at the spa on the corner of Pine and Fourth.”

He grinned. “How very kind of her.”

Laura climbed in, scowling at us both. “Indeed. I should probably get nominated for sainthood for this.”

“Noted. Immediately following your wedding, I will send a request to the Pope.”

Franck chuckled and returned to his seat.

Twisting in my seat to face my sister, I asked, “Speaking of the wedding, how’s the seating chart coming?”

“Good. Mom finished it off last night. Since Mayor Kinlan’s family won’t be able to attend, she invited the Cowleys.”

“I can’t believe the drama going down with the Kinlans. I’m too busy to follow the gossip, but I’ve seen the headlines. Everyone must feel so scandalized.” I rolled my eyes to show her exactly how I felt about Seattle’s ex-Mayor Kinlan and his son, Noah, who had recently been convicted of all sorts of crimes ranging from tax evasion to sex trafficking. Everyone knew the top one-percent skirted the law, but the sex trafficking had been a surprise. That was taking influence and privilege a bit too far. Still, it would be strange not seeing them at the wedding. There were two things you could count on during any high society social event. My great aunt, Martha, would get plastered and flirt with the young, attractive male servers, and Mayor Kinlan would be schmoozing his loyal followers and fishing for campaign contributions.

“Scandalized,” she asked, eyeing me like I had said something wrong. “Don’t you think you’re being a little heartless?”

I blinked. “No?”

“The Kinlans are dead, Julia.”

Certain I must have misheard her, I asked, “What?”

“You haven’t heard?” she asked.

“No. Last I’d heard they were on trial and the evidence was mounting against them. I haven’t picked up a paper in a few days.”

“Yesterday morning they were found hanging in their jail cells.”

“Like some sort of double suicide? They don’t seem like the type.” I’d already tugged my phone from my purse and was thumbing it on to see what I could find.

A picture of Emily Stafford popped up. She was the attorney who’d taken the case defending the biker accused of beating the shit out of Noah. I’d met Emily Stafford at charity dinners, and she tried to speak to me once while we were waiting for our coats. I was a card-carrying entitled bitch at the time, and she wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be seen with, so I ignored her and walked off while she was mid-sentence. Not my best moment. Not my worst, either.

I kept scanning articles until I found information on the hangings. “Says here they used their pants to create the ropes to hang themselves.”

“To hang themselves?” Laura’s eyes widened as she glanced toward the front of the car and leaned toward me, lowering her voice. “I’m not supposed to talk about it, but everyone is saying they were murdered.”

Murdered sounded a lot more realistic than some sort of father-son suicide pact, but… “In jail?” I asked, still skeptical.

She nodded.

Our parents rarely encouraged Laura to discuss anything related to the community’s power plays. My sister wasn’t stupid, but she was innocent and naïve, and sometimes she stumbled across truths she couldn’t handle. Truths that could get her in trouble if she voiced them in front of the wrong person. Thankfully, she usually came to me with her ideas, and I’d gotten great at derailing them before she sped into dangerous territory. Laura was the kind of person to be protected, shielded, not involved. I held up a hand, preparing to once again lead her to a safer path. “This sounds like another one of your crazy conspiracy theories.”

Hurt flashed across her eyes, making me feel like a total bitch. “There are rumors that they were talking about a deal. About rolling over on someone to get their sentences reduced.”

“That usually happens before the trial,” I pointed out.

She sighed, frowning. “I know you don’t care about the gossip anymore, but you should keep reading.” She gestured at the phone in my lap. “There’s a lot of shady stuff going on.”

I couldn’t care less about the lives of my old peers, but their deaths… and Laura’s insistence that foul play was involved… that interested me. Besides, the side-eye look she was giving me promised she wouldn’t let up until I complied. Rolling my eyes like it was a bother, I continued to scan the articles. My gaze stopped when it landed on a head shot of the biker who’d attacked Noah. Dark skin, short dark hair, dark intelligent eyes, slight smirk gracing his plump lips, thick neck promising a muscular build. He was the exact opposite of my pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed, slender ex-husband, and maybe that’s why I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Hello, handsome.

“Hottie, isn’t he?” Laura asked, leaning over my shoulder to see what had caught my attention.

I nodded, although ‘hottie’ didn’t do him justice. More like sexy-as-hell. That slight smirk of his made the kind of promises that heated my blood and made my stomach flutter. My gaze dropped down to his name. Marcus “Havoc” Wilson.

“Think I just found a date for your wedding,” I said.

Her eyes widened. “A biker? One of the bikers who helped with the Kinlan conviction? I bet Mom would just love that.”

“You’re only making him look more appealing.”

She grabbed my phone and studied the photo, pulling out her own phone. “He’s part of the Dead Presidents Motorcycle Club. This says they do a lot for the community, so I bet the number is listed.” She punched in the information on her own phone. “Yep. Here it is. I’ll send it to you.”

My phone dinged with the incoming text and I rolled my eyes again.

“What?” she asked, smiling sweetly. “I’m trying to get my big sister a date for my wedding.”

“I’m not calling a complete stranger and asking him out.”

“Fine. Back to the seating chart,” Laura said, growing suddenly somber. “You’re at the family table. Across from Mom and Dad.”

I threw back my head, bouncing it off the back of the seat. “Kill me now.”

“It’s the family table and you’re family.”

“Family would have told me about Wesley. They knew, and they kept it from me. Family doesn’t do that. You’re my only family.”

“I know. They know. They’re super sorry and it’s been almost a year and they’re hoping you’ll forgive them.”

Her claim held a major flaw. My parents never apologized for anything. “They’re sorry, huh?”

“I’m sure they are. They miss you.”

“And they said all of this?”

Her gaze drifted around the Town Car’s interior, looking anywhere but at me. Such a horrible liar. “You know how they are. They don’t say things like that.”

“God forbid someone think they’re less than perfect.”

“I know you’re still angry, Julia, but this is my wedding. How would it look if my sister was sitting at the wrong table?”

The Edwards family appearances… that’s what everything came down to. It might not matter to me anymore, but the family image was still important to Laura. I couldn’t fault her for sipping the Kool-Aid when I’d gulped it down for years.

“Please do this for me,” she begged.

“Fine.”

She grinned, once again showing off her dimples. “You’re the best sister ever.”

There it was again, that heart-felt compliment that made me feel like shit. “Yeah, yeah.”

She wiggled in her seat, letting out a little squeal. “I’m so excited! Can you believe my bachelorette party is tomorrow? I saw the RSVP list you sent. I know this isn’t easy on you, and I appreciate all you’ve done.”

My baby sister’s special day was approaching, and I was her maid of honor. Thank god she had an amazing wedding coordinator, or nothing would have gotten done. All I’d done was show up for my dress fitting and put together her party RSVP list while dreading her big event. Best sister ever, indeed.

“I still can’t believe I’m getting married!” she squealed again.

Despite my lack of faith in the sanctity of marriage, her enthusiasm was contagious. By the time Franck dropped us off, I was dreading her big day marginally less. Determined to put on my big girl panties and make it through the upcoming parties and ceremony with a smile, I hooked my arm in hers and we marched right into the spa to get pampered.

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