Happy book birthday to my latest project, MEN OF PSI: LUKE! *throws confetti*
Not gonna lie, it took a while to get to Luke’s story. I went back to see when he first popped up, and it was waaaaaay back in 2016, in HOUSE OF PAYNE: STEELE. Can you believe it??? It took that long to build the perfect counterpart to Luke, but the wait was worth it. Luke’s ultimate, Loki-inspired match, Eden Steadfast, is one of my all-time favorite characters. Thankfully, the reviewers seem to agree!
Dar from DarGeeReads writes: “Wow, just, well that was ‘edge of your seat’ and “I can’t believe that just happened’ awesomeness! More than just suspense, more than just a psychological mind-warp, this had all that, and easily woven into it all, a love story.” — 5 stars
AnnMarie, Alphas Do It Better Book Blog “Romantic suspense is my favorite genre for a reason and man was this story a fantastic thrill ride! Rarely does a book flat out shock me but this one sure did. Luke and Eden were out of this world together but it wasn’t an easy fall for either of them. The brains on these two characters were mensa level and the verbal sparing was utterly fascinating. Throw in a stalker and some alpha goodness and this read was unputdownable!” — 5 stars
Also: Bookerina Lovington, Goodreads reviewer: “This was so so good!
The story completely sucked me in, and the main characters had me rooting for their HEA. The writing was fun to read, and the secondary characters and ending had me excited for the potential for more stories to come.” — 5 stars
I’m so thrilled with how this first book in the PSI series turned out, and I cannot wait for you to see how Luke’s long-awaited story winds up. I hope you like it! *crosses fingers*
Merry Christmas! Here’s the 1st chapter of MEN OF PSI: LUKE (out 1/10/23)–my gift to you! ❤ I hope you like it!
Who Are You?
“Ms. Steadfast? Can I get you anything while you wait?”
I looked back at the receptionist manning the autumn-decorated desk of Private Security International. Like the open-air lobby of the converted century-old warehouse with its white-washed interior and exposed brick walls, Mary Jane Case was not what she seemed. Her smile was professional, of course, as was the rest of her appearance. Her curly brown hair had been tamed in a neat topknot, and her makeup and nails were all perfectly on point for the role she played at PSI. On the surface, she was the expected pretty face fronting a professional business that catered to the wealthiest, most special snowflakes in the world.
But Mary Jane’s calf muscles were way too defined for a run-of-the-mill receptionist.
Her eyes were also not that of a normal meet-and-greeter. I’d been sitting long enough in PSI’s Zen-inducing waiting area to note that whenever the front door opened, the receptionist’s eyes were already trained on the visitor, looking them over in a visual frisk that missed nothing. I’d clocked the cameras outside before heading into the building myself, so it didn’t surprise me that Mary Jane had fair warning someone was about to enter her domain. What did surprise me was that in a converted warehouse full of mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, whoever was in charge had decided the building’s first line of defense—the gatekeeper—had to be this woman.
Bottom-lining it, Mary Jane Case was someone I would never mess with.
I rearranged my face into a polite smile while searching her eyes to see if she had any wayward suspicions about me. “No, but thank you. I appreciate it.”
“Of course.” Her professional smile didn’t alter as she went back to her desk, revealing absolutely nothing except those overly developed calf muscles. Talk about a standoff. Good ol’ Mary Jane and I could sit in that lobby for the next year and probably never learn what the other was thinking. Either she was as good at guarding herself as I was, or I had lost my touch when it came to sussing out a potential mark.
Maybe I’d gotten soft since trying to live on the straight and narrow.
I almost grimaced at the thought before catching the telltale expression and renewed my concentration of keeping a blank face. Yup. Definitely getting soft. I seriously needed to work on that.
“Ms. Steadfast.” A man with short graying hair and horn-rimmed glasses approached where I sat, and his suit breathed top-of-the-line in its simplicity of cut and style. Tom Ford’s Royal line for summer, if I didn’t miss my guess. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I’m Cap Fogelmann, head of PSI. Will your father be joining us?”
Well, well, the head man of PSI himself. Didn’t I feel special. “My father?”
“Yes, your email said you both have been threatened in recent weeks.”
“Ah.” What I hadn’t put in my email request for a meeting with the private security business was that my father and I hadn’t actually spoken in three years. I’d texted him to join me today—something that had twisted my stomach into queasy knots—but silence had been my only response. “I’m afraid my father’s schedule is quite a monster, Mr. Fogelmann, Not that he isn’t taking this seriously,” I hurried to assure him, trying my best to push the earnestness of a doting and dutiful daughter into my tone. “It’s just that he packs his schedule so much, trying to help those who come to his House of Enlightened Greatness, that he barely has time to take care of himself. That’s where I come in.”
Cap Fogelmann nodded. “I can understand that, and I’m sure my daughter can relate as well.” He tilted his head toward Mary Jane. “Isn’t that right, kiddo?”
“He’ll skip things like lunch and dinner if I don’t stay on him,” Mary Jane said without glancing up from reading an email. Which was just as well, since I was trying to recover from the surprise that Mary Jane and Cap were related, and I hadn’t detected even the slightest resemblance between the two. “I totally understand where you’re coming from when it comes to workaholic fathers, Miss Steadfast.”
“Please, make it Eden.” Since we had so much in common, I tried a long-suffering smile with her. “Us helicopter daughters of the world have to stick together.”
That had Mary Jane glancing up with a grin. “Absolutely, and feel free to call me Mary Jane.”
“I’ve always loved the complexity of that particular name—blessed, but bitter, and all things in between.” Eden wrinkled her nose. “Mine’s just a boring garden.”
“I would hardly call Eden boring.” With an aura of unshakable calm I could only admire, Cap Fogelmann gestured toward a hall leading into the depths of the building. “Now, if you’d like to come this way—”
The front door suddenly burst open and a man strode into the lobby, his shock of frost-tipped hair cut short on the sides and gelled into coiffed perfection an all too familiar sight.
What in the world…?
“Sorry I’m late.” My father’s right-hand man and the one person I could have pointed to as a best friend walked right up to where I stood and caught me up in a bearhug. “Traffic was murder, hon, but I got here as fast as I could. Have I missed anything?”
“Kels?” For crying out loud. I was good at putting on a front as the next person, but if no one kept me in the loop, there was nothing I could do about showing the world how flummoxed I was. “What are you doing here? My father didn’t say anything about sending you.” He hadn’t said anything at all, but that was beside the point.
Kels rolled his eyes as he let me go. “It was a last-minute thing that came up that needed his attention, so he packed everything into an envelope and shoved me out the door. Kelsey Crosby, Kels to my friends,” he added, offering a hand to Cap. “Attorney for the aforementioned Truman Steadfast and the House of Enlightened Greatness, as well as childhood friend of Eden Steadfast. We were raised like siblings, so it’s understandable Tru would send me in his stead for this all-important meeting. So.” Looking from Cap to me and back again, Kels offered a toothsome smile. “Shall we begin?”
Okie dokie, then.
A handful of minutes later we walked into a conference room with mellow cream walls and one burnt umber accent wall that had a wall-mounted flatscreen TV and an electronic console that looked like it had been boosted off the space shuttle. Professional decorator accents were all over the place, in the bronze overhead pendant lighting, the lush potted plants in the corners and the twelve umber-colored leather swivel chairs around a gleaming conference table. The color of rich brown carpeting beneath our feet was echoed in the drapes pulled back to show a view of the street below, and the interior walls of glass looking out at the hall from which we’d just come also had drapes that could be pulled for absolute privacy.
Like everywhere else I’d been in this building, discreet cameras in the upper corners of the room blinked silently, reminding me that every move was being watched. Pretending to tuck my hair back behind my ear, I used the movement to glance at Kels. He’d spotted the cameras too, and wore a placid expression.
He’d been trained by my father.
Just like me.
“If you decide to go with PSI’s security detail—and if we decide to take your case—you and your father will each be assigned a bodyguard detail. But first and foremost, our job here today is to get to know everything about you—who you are, and why you’re here.” Cap gestured to the padded leather chairs. “Have a seat. Can we get you anything before we begin?”
“Coffee with lots of cream, please.” Kels offered up a grateful smile while I shook my head and slid into a chair just one over from where Cap sat at the head of the table. Kels sat beside me, placed a soft-sided case on the table and pulled a file out of it. “While we’re waiting for that, I’d be grateful if you’d review this standard NDA that protects the interests of both Truman and his daughter, along with the Steadfast Corporation, which includes the House of Enlightened Greatness, his main charity New Hope Teen Shelters, and all business holdings pertaining to said entity.”
As Kels handed the file over and an assistant brought in his requested coffee, I turned to stare at him to see if I could actually kill someone with the force of my gaze. Nope. “This is just an initial meeting, Kels.”
“All the more reason to make certain that whatever is revealed here, stays here. I’m sure NDAs are par for the course for a private security company, since keeping secrets goes hand in hand with maintaining proper security for people who live life in the spotlight. Isn’t that right?” Kels added, looking to Cap with raised brows.
Cap tilted his head in faint acknowledgment while perusing the file’s contents. “More often than not, PSI works with people who have nondisclosure agreements at the ready—like you, Mr. Crosby. However, I have a certain soft spot for those who walk through our doors who don’t question our discretion, like your client’s daughter.” With that, he set the file aside. “I’ll have our legal department look this over and have it back to you by the end of the workday. Pending that, would you like to postpone this initial meeting?”
“Yes,” Kels said.
“No,” I said at the same time.
Kels tried to swivel my chair toward him. “Eden, I think—”
“If you were actually thinking, Kels, you’d leave my chair exactly where I want it to be.” I gave him what he wanted for just a moment and faced him. In that heartbeat of time Kels looked into my eyes and accurately read all about the murder I wanted to commit, and hastily backed away. Then I concentrated on pulling a file of my own out of my bag, and by the time I faced Cap once more I had my serene face firmly in place. “Where would you like me to begin?”
Cap lifted a shoulder. “At the beginning.”
“Of course.” I wanted desperately to grip my hands together as the tension inside me twisted my stomach into knots, but that would never do. Giving away my true feelings had been knocked out of me by the time I’d hit double digits in age. My hands remained loose and still on the chair’s armrests. “The first incident I experienced was over two months ago, in a Grover’s Food Market parking lot. A note was left on my windshield, threatening both me and my father. I’m the only one who’s touched that note, so it’s in that file in a protective plastic bag in the same condition as when I found it. Also, there’s a USB drive in there showing video of all the cars in the parking lot at the time I discovered the note. Then—”
“Who took the video?”
“I did. Then about a week later, a dead cat was left on the hood of my car, a cat that looked virtually identical to a cat I’d been photographed with when I was a child. The image of that cat can still be found all over the internet, as my father once used a New Year’s photo of us—with me holding that cat—as part of a promotional campaign to show how family-oriented HEG is. Again, I took video of all the cars and people around me the moment I found the dead animal.”
Cap went through the file and paused on the picture of the dead animal that clearly had been shot. “HEG?”
“House of Enlightened Greatness,” Kels supplied. “It’s not a church, but rather a nondenominational gathering place for people seeking enlightenment.”
“But it does practice the basics of prosperity theology, correct?”
So he knew what HEG was, I thought, watching his face for any telltale expressions. Yet there he sat, asking us questions about it. Why? What was he looking for?
“It’s more of a prosperity belief system,” Kels said, looking earnest. It was a look that rubes had fallen for since the time he’d been a teen, and I almost grinned with nostalgia when I saw it now. “Tru Steadfast refuses to call his belief system a theology, as that might have connotations of a specific religion, and he’s all about welcoming everyone looking for answers on how to unlock their potential greatness. Motivational speaker is his official job description, though he’s been called a guru, a mentor, even a rabbi, but I assure you he’s none of these things. He refuses to allow the world’s stifling labels or preconceived notions of religion to prevent him from reaching out to anyone who wants to unlock their potential greatness.”
“I see.” As Kels spoke, I watched Cap’s expression and had to give him props for taking all this in without a blink or even a dubious scoff. Instead, he glanced over at me and tapped a finger on the file I’d given him. “This is a pretty thick file. How many instances of harassment and stalking have you documented?”
“Six. The last occurred almost four weeks ago when my tires were slashed at my house in the middle of the night. But that was also the event where I almost caught them, whoever they are. I haven’t been bothered with another visit since.”
Cap’s brows drew together. “What do you mean, you almost caught them?”
In half a heartbeat I weighed all the possible outcomes of telling the truth, and ultimately couldn’t find a downside. “I mean that I have a decent security system at my place, though I’m sure it’s nothing that you all are used to. The video footage of the intruder coming up to slash my tires is also on that thumb drive, and though he or she is wearing a ski mask, they show up pretty well on the video. What you don’t see is that as they run out of frame, I’m running out of the house barefoot and in my pajamas. I chased them down the driveway while shooting at them with a BB gun.”
Cap’s brows remained raised. “A BB gun.”
“It looks like a handgun, but it’s actually just a BB gun. It’s a leftover from my childhood,” I explained on a pained sigh when he continued to stare at me. “When my father first started HEG, he wanted to show off what his darling daughter could do.” I thought it best not to mention that my skills up to that point in life were things that could have gotten the both of us arrested, so I kept to another set of facts. “I don’t know how to play any musical instruments, seeing me dance might cause terminal hysteria, and my singing usually makes people run to the other side of the globe.”
I didn’t bother to roll my eyes. “The one thing I’ve always been able to do is hit a target, whether it’s with a pellet gun or darts, or even a bean bag. When my father realized this, he enrolled me in junior shooting competitions and took videos of me doing my thing. Our internal research showed that those videos played well, especially in the southern and southwestern demographics.”
Cap seemed to take all of this in stride. “If you’re that good of a shot, and you know you’ve got a stalker problem, why use a BB gun? Why not an actual gun?”
I wondered if feeling the blood drain to my knees was just my imagination, or if I’d actually lost color. “I might be able to shoot, Mr. Fogelmann, but you’re talking about shooting at another human being. I would think you’d understand better than most that there’s a difference between being able to shoot, and being able to shoot a person.”
Again, Cap tilted his head in acknowledgment. “All right, I think that’ll do for our basic assessment.” He motioned to one of the cameras. “Come on in, Luke. Let’s talk.”
“Luke?” Beside me, Kels looked from the camera to Cap. “What is this? Weren’t you supposed to be doing the evaluation?”
“I never said that.” Cap’s poker face didn’t ripple as someone moved past the glass walls of the conference room toward the door. “I’m a good read when it comes to people, but I’m nothing compared to our Quantico-trained profiler. When I was in the military I did a tour of duty with this man, and I can guarantee you that he’s the best profiler this world has to offer. He’s the man I asked to evaluate you and your story while I conducted this little interview.”
Kels’s scowl was impressive. “Our story? I find that insulting. Do you usually treat prospective clients as potential guilty parties?”
“The famous ones, yes,” came the jaw-dropping reply. “Past history has shown me that famous people usually have much more to hide than regular folks, and the things they hide could get my people killed. Over the years I’ve learned to make sure I turn over as many rocks as possible before taking on famous clientele. If you don’t like that, you know where the door is, Mr. Crosby.”
Predictably, Kels came to his feet. “Fine. Eden?”
I remained seated, turning only to watch the man—Luke—enter the room.
That’s what this man was—absolute hell on wheels, at least when it came to someone like me. Open books and wilting flowers wouldn’t have a problem with this guy, because he’d no doubt tear them apart in thirty seconds and walk away with their souls tucked in his pocket before they even knew what had hit them. If I’d run into him as a child, it would have been on accident and not as the usual ruse to pick his pocket. This man was no easy mark.
So what was he?
Dangerous, my mind whispered back while my heart began to pound. So, so dangerous.
His eyes were as beautiful as they were terrifying. Electric blue and somehow unblinking, it was as if he had the ability to see everything—in the room, in my mind, maybe even in that thing I optimistically called my soul.
How was it possible those eyes could be both breathtaking and my worst possible nightmare?
Grimly I stared back at him, though it took all my will to do it, and tried to assess the rest of him. Bronze-colored hair that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be brown or dark red, cut short and in a subtle fade, and so thick my fingers had the oddest urge to sift through it. Broad shoulders told the story of a man who didn’t just sit around evaluating people all day—another reason not to mess with him, my mind diligently noted while I watched him round the table to take a chair directly opposite me. His skin was a pale gold, like his summer tan was slowly fading, and a smattering of freckles across the bridge of his perfectly straight, aristocratic nose did their damnedest to charm me.
I wasn’t about to be charmed.
But not charmed.
How could I be charmed when every instinct I had screamed that an enemy had just entered the room?
“Well.” Clearly flustered that I hadn’t gotten up in a huff, Kels looked like he didn’t know whether to retake his seat or drag me out of my chair. “Eden, let’s go. We don’t approve of being treated like common criminals.”
To my shock, the man seated across from me burst out laughing, all the while never looking away from me.
“Damn, that’s hilarious,” he announced to no one in particular, while his eyes bored into mine.
Blink, you fucker. Blink, for God’s sake…
Life was strange. One minute my family’s being harassed by a stalker, the next I’m in a staring contest with the world’s most dangerous man. Any second now I expected a meteor to come barreling in and wipe us all off the map. It wouldn’t even surprise me.
“I beg your pardon?” Kels sputtered, sounding like he was about to blow a gasket.
The blue-eyed monster seated across from me ignored him. “Who are you?”
Without warning, my throat locked up.
“This is my client, Eden Steadfast, the daughter of Truman Steadfast, quite possibly the greatest motivational speaker who ever lived,” Kels all but shouted. Clearly he didn’t appreciate being ignored, if his volume stuck on high was any indication. “And I will ask you again, what’s hilarious?”
“You’re hilarious, telling this woman what to think. Or feel. Or do. Or say.” Slowly the man named Luke shook his head. “Nah, that’s never going to fly with this lady.”
“Interesting.” Braiding his fingers together, Cap leaned back in his chair. “Luke Keyes, Eden Steadfast and her family’s attorney, Kelsey Crosby. Why do you say that would never fly with this lady, Luke?”
“I’m not getting a lot off of her yet, but this much I do know—she doesn’t scare easily, if at all.”
How amazing it was, that they were so comfortable talking about me like I wasn’t even there. If I could get my damn throat open, I’d tell them both to go to hell.
“I mean, think about it, Cap,” the blue-eyed devil went on. “Someone gets harassed, they don’t usually respond by filming all the nearby cars and people around them so they can get their hands on them later if they need to. Nor do they think to put the harassing note in a baggie, at least not right away. Normal people freak the hell out, then get scared, then call the police. That’s just the natural order of things.”
“That may be the natural order of things for normal people, as you say, but the police have never been overly helpful in situations like this.” At last Kels retook his seat, and I had to admire the tone he’d chosen to hit—vaguely condescending to cover up the defensiveness he had to be feeling. The way he kept glancing at Luke Keyes told me he was about as thrilled with having PSI’s expert profiler there as I was. “This isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve dealt with overzealous fans in the past, and contacting the authorities isn’t worth the publicity. All it usually does is create an outbreak of copycat stalkers, and before you know it a small flame suddenly becomes a raging forest fire.”
“That’s why I came to Private Security International, rather than the police.” At last my throat loosened enough for me to speak, and I gave myself a mental pat on the back for sounding calm, if stressed. Considering the situation stress was a given, so I leaned into it and hoped I’d score some sympathy points. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to shake off this stalker by myself—you know, trying to show a brave front to make them think I wasn’t scared. Refusing to give a bully what they want, which is usually fear or distress, seemed like the fastest way to get rid of them.”
“I take it that didn’t work?” Cap asked, not sounding surprised.
I shook my head, wondering if I should throw in a dainty, woe-is-me sniffle. Probably not. “No, but I didn’t feel that the situation was escalating. As I said, I really haven’t been bothered since the slashed tires incident almost a month ago, and I thought I was coping pretty well. But then I caught my father’s latest podcast two nights ago. That’s when I realized I wasn’t the only one having problems.” With that, I took my phone out of my bag, hit the right app, and set the phone down with the volume up.
“…and sad to say, sometimes you can measure the success you’ve garnered for yourself by the amount of strife the outside world throws at you.” My father’s voice, folksy with echoes of his Kentucky boyhood, filled the room. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, y’all. For weeks now, I’ve been plagued by all manner of slings and arrows—harassing calls in the middle of the night, packages addressed to me filled with unspeakable foulness, even a brick thrown through the window of our New Hope Teen Shelter in downtown Chicago just last night. Where’s it all coming from? I’ll tell you where. Small-minded people whose jealousy and resentment have stunted their inner growth, and honestly, I pity them. Their pettiness keeps them chained to an existence that has no meaning. They have yet to realize all the energy they’re expending on me should be used on fixing what’s wrong with them. How I wish I could sit down with them, share with them a space that’s peaceful and welcoming. Then I’d look them in the eye, tell them they’re forgiven, they’re loved, and they’ll always be safe with me as they work on confronting their innermost truths. Then I’d invite them to dig down into their heart to work on those truths, and I wouldn’t leave their side until they unravel what’s holding them back from their greatness. We all have that greatness inside of us, you know. I have it, and I’m not ashamed to tell y’all about it. I know you have it, because you’re smart enough to be listening to me now. Don’t be ashamed to admit you’re brilliant. In fact, say it with me. You. Are. Brilliant. You know it. Let’s focus now on that breathtaking greatness of yours, and manifest it into the kind of success you damn well know you deser—”
I reached over and hit pause, then forced my gaze back to the blue-eyed monster across from me. “A minute later I texted my father, wanting details. The harassment he’s been experiencing has been going on for weeks. That’s when I decided to call PSI, and here we are.”
“So you don’t live with your father?”
“What an odd question.” I tilted my head, trying to see him from another perspective. Nope. Still terrifying. “By any chance were you raised by a domineering, older male chauvinist? Or perhaps you belong to some orthodox religious order where all the females of the family have to stay at home until they marry?”
His smile was sharp enough to cut. “We ask the questions, Ms. Steadfast, not the other way around.”
I changed my face, aiming for bewildered. “Okay. Sorry. Far be it from me to question the male authority who thinks that I should still live with my father at the age of twenty-eight.”
“The man I just heard on that pod is all about control—controlling people by pushing their buttons without them ever even realizing he’s playing them. He works to get them hooked on all those feel-good dopamine hits by telling them how great they are. A man like that doesn’t like to lose control of the people in his sphere, especially those who are closest to him. Like a daughter, for instance.”
Holy crap, he got all that from just a few measly sentences off a podcast? “If Truman Steadfast were such a control freak, he would have been the one to contact PSI for help, not me.”
He shook his head, and still he didn’t frigging blink. “Nope. Generally speaking, control freaks never admit they need help, so it’s no wonder that you—not your father—were the one to send up a flare. Then again, you sent that flare up because you believed he needed help. Not you.”
Was he probing around to see if I had any control-freak tendencies myself, or was he looking for something more? When in doubt, staying in the neighborhood of the truth had to be my best policy. “It doesn’t make sense that I’m the actual target. When it comes to HEG, I’m not important. I’m not even in the public eye anymore, I haven’t been for years. My father is.”
Luke Keyes lifted a careless shoulder. “The majority of stalking victims aren’t famous, they’re just regular people trying to live regular lives. What’s more, you used to be famous—Tru’s perfect little blonde baby angel with eyes as big and green as a kitten’s, and a smile pure enough to make the heavens weep. It makes perfect sense that you’d be a target.”
It had to be my imagination that his gaze lingered caressingly over my hair, eyes and mouth as he spoke of them. “You’re not helping the state of my nerves.”
“I’m not here to help the state of your nerves.”
Clearly. “Then what are you here for?”
“To find the truth of you.”
I’d die before admitting his statement made my blood run cold. “The only truth that matters to me is that I’m not the real target here. My father is the one with a target on his back, and that’s what has me worried enough to be here today.”
“But it can’t be overlooked that you’ve been attacked as well.” This came from Cap, who tapped the folder I’d given him. “Threatening notes, a dead animal, slashed tires. What else?”
Ugh. “It’s sophomoric, really. The day after I got the note on my windshield, a dead rat came in the mail. There were a couple of whispery phone calls that may or may not have been a bad connection. Just last week there was a delivery order of my favorite combo plate of salmon sashimi and a California roll. Strangely enough it was paid for, but of course I didn’t eat it. I no longer go into my DMs on any of my social media platforms because they’ve been inundated with garbage—as much as twenty DMs in a single day, all saying basically the same thing as the note on my car. I turned off my notifications weeks ago and just stopped looking.”
“‘Eden Steadfast, you dumb bitch, you’re first. Then your bullshit-artist father will meet you in hell.’ Charming.” Cap read the plastic-covered note, then handed it over to Luke. “If we were to take your case, we would need full access to all your social media platforms, as well as computers and phones, both at home and at work.”
I nodded. “Of course.”
“Because Eden no longer has any affiliation with House of Enlightened Greatness, the verbal agreement she just gave does not encompass her father, HEG, New Hope Teen Shelters in Illinois or surrounding states, or any of Tru Steadfast’s legal holdings and subsidiaries,” Kels said, and it took all my strength to not turn and give him another death glare. Nitpicking was the hallmark of any decent attorney, certainly. But if he kept going on as if this were just a dry contract negotiation, I was going to have to knock his block off.
Instead, I plucked my phone off the table. “Do you know if any of HEG’s social media platforms or my father’s Twitter feed has gotten anything like what’s going on in my DMs?” I opened up a social media platform at random and gave Kels my phone so he could scroll through my DMs. When his eyes widened, I knew I’d gotten through to him. “That’s just one social media site, Kels. I have four, and they’re all like that, or at least they were the last time I checked on them a few weeks ago. Tell me, do you like the pictures taken of me while I’m in line waiting for my coffee order? Or how about that one of me getting my hair done? I look so sexy with aluminum all over my head while getting those post-summer honey-toned highlights, don’t you think? The real question is, is my father getting this much harassment as well?”
“If he is, we’ll find out.” Cap took the phone when Kels tried handing it back to me, scrolled through it for a while, then handed it to Luke. “Though Mr. Crosby is correct, Ms. Steadfast. Your father will have to agree to allow us full entry into all his devices, and his life, if we are to provide security for him.”
“I’ll talk to him first thing tomorrow.” Though the very thought of coming face-to-face with my father after three years made me want to hyperventilate.
“Good. But whether or not he agrees with our policies is irrelevant at the moment. Right now you are my main concern.”
I blinked. What did I do? “Me? Why?”
He nodded at my phone, still in Luke’s hands. “That’s a hell of a lot of pressure being thrown your way, from someone who’s very clearly stalking you. When someone takes pictures of you as you go through your everyday life, they want you to know how close they are. How easy it would be for them to reach out and get you. They’re doing it to scare you. To threaten you. To make your life unlivable.”
“And you’re helping them,” Luke Keyes put in as he at last handed my phone back, and for some reason he looked pissed off, like he thought it was my fault I was being targeted. “You’re helping them, because you’re not taking this threat seriously.”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” I countered on a huff. Damn it, this wasn’t my fault. “Isn’t that proof I’m taking this situation very seriously?”
“You came in only after learning your father was also being harassed. And you said you’ve had six instances of being targeted, yeah? I just scrolled through at least fifty threats on your phone, and that was just me looking for the highlights. Obviously you need to get your damn eyes open and see how much danger you’re in.”
“My team and I will have a meeting on whether or not we’ll accept your case,” Cap put in calmly before I could answer. “If everyone’s on board, we’ll get a standard contract drawn up and have your family’s attorney look through it. Once you sign on the dotted line, you will have around-the-clock protection.”
Wow. That escalated quickly. “I… understand.”
“I hope you do, Ms. Steadfast,” came the swift reply. “We’re a professional outfit, and when we’re on bodyguard detail, we do our best to be unobtrusive and accommodating. But in the past we’ve had clients who hired us, then turned right around and tried to ditch us, like our job is some cutesy little game of hide-and-seek. Then there are those clients who withhold crucial information from us. One time a PSI team member nearly shot the secret lover of a client because said client did their best to hide that person’s existence from us. So be warned now—we do not put up with any interference in how we guard you. We know how to do our job, and our job is to keep you alive. Not happy, not pampered, not at your convenience. Alive. Understood?”
What I understood was that my life was about to get turned upside down, and I was paying for the privilege of it. “Understood.” “Once my team gives the go-ahead on your case, we’ll send over the contract.”
I hope you all enjoyed my gift to you! From my family to yours, I wish you a warm, safe and joy-filled holiday season!
We’re getting sooooo close to the release day of MEN OF PSI: LUKE! This book is the start of a brand new romantic suspense series, chock full of yummy Alpha heroes who know what they want and won’t stop until they get it. LUKE was a fan favorite from the completed HOUSE OF PAYNE series, so it just made sense to kick off MEN OF PSI with Luke’s story. Thank you all so much for letting me know how much you loved Luke. ❤ Without you, I may not have ever given him life. So here he is, just for you… LUKE!
Polite society referred to my father as a “motivational speaker.” Fact is, he’s the kind of cult leader that makes national news, and never in a good way. For years I was part of that world—Tru Steadfast’s darling daughter, living in the spotlight while helping dear old Dad sucker his brainwashed followers out of every penny they had. Ultimately I couldn’t take that way of life, so I struck out on my own, trying to live quietly and hoping against hope that I could balance the scales of karma.
Then the stalking began, and I had to ask for help. That “help” came in the form of psychological profiler, Luke Keyes. From the moment I looked into his eyes—eyes that could see all the way to my tainted soul—I knew he was more dangerous than any stalker ever could be.
When Eden Steadfast parked her high-class ass on Private Security International’s doorstep, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing… and not seeing. Maybe the statuesque blonde with kitten green eyes had knocked me off my game, but she wasn’t showing me any of the usual tells everyone else on the planet had. She was smart, maybe even smarter than me, because no matter how hard I looked I couldn’t see past her defenses. Who knew smart could be so damn sexy?
Eden was more of a mystery to me than her stalker, and I wanted to unravel her in the most carnal way possible. But before I could do that, I had to find the man who’d decided that if he couldn’t have Eden, no one would.
Private Security International is the one-stop shopping for all your personal security needs. From bodyguards, to private couriers, to an added layer of military-trained security for high-target events or items, the Men of PSI are the best private security that money can buy.
***MEN OF PSI: LUKE, THE PROFILER is a work of romantic suspense, which includes a genius Alpha male who’s met his match in more ways than one. As always, no cliffhangers, love triangles, or cheating. Due to adult language and several sex scenes—with a teensy bit of spanking and light bondage thrown in for giggles (you’re good with that, right?)—this book is not intended for readers under the age of eighteen.***
Hi, remember me? I can’t believe it’s been six months since I last published anything (gasp!). Honestly, it feels like it’s been soooooo much longer than that.
I’ve been going through some things.
The holidays were the best they’d been since the madness of COVID began—full of ice shows, shopping, gift-giving and reconnecting with friends and family. As usual, I didn’t get a lot of writing done in the month of December, though I had a novella that was more than halfway done. I had no worries about that, though. I could finish up PARTY GIRL in January and launch into a new series, THE MEN OF PSI, in the upcoming year. Piece of cake.
Then one morning in January, my mother had a pulse-ox level of 67%.
The ER visit morphed into a terrifiying ICU stay as her condition deteriorated. The doctors weren’t sure what was wrong with her, and it took days before most of the docs decided she was suffering from congestive heart failure (though one doc to this day is still certain she had COVID despite six separate tests coming back negative).
After the diagnosis, life became a series of stress-filled days and sleepless nights. Writing? My mother was dying. Who gave a damn about writing?
February came and went with a couple more hair-raising hospital stays, a pastor coming in to pray over her, a Digoxin toxicity scare, and a nightmarish sojourn into a Skilled Nursing Facility (swear to God, I will NEVER put my mother in one of those places again). Getting her stabilized seemed like the impossible dream.
March rolled around, and… something worked. I still don’t know what. Whether it was a medication change or an attitude change, something wonderful happened. One morning my mother (who is living with me) walked into the kitchen, announced she was hungry and wanted to get her hair done. She felt great. Peppy. Her old self. So I loaded up the car with her new wheelchair, her oxygen tank and her walker (in case she didn’t want the chair), and off we went to the salon. We then had lunch at one of her favorite restaurants and laughed over how it was the first outing we’d had in months that didn’t involve a doctor or blood samples.
That evening, I sat down at the computer and opened up the long-ignored file for PARTY GIRL.
So far, my mom’s doing well. We battle over her salt intake. When I hover too much she kicks me into the office to write, because apparently I’m a much more pleasant person when I’m writing.
I have to admit, she’s right about that. Nothing makes me happier than to slip into the world that exists in my head. I’ve learned to write when I can, and not beat myself up about not being able to write when I’m stressed. Come to find out, I’m unable to make words when I’m sick with worry and sleep-deprived. Who knew?
I don’t know what the future holds, but then again, who does? For now, I’m enjoying the moment and back to writing as much as I can. I guess that’s the biggest takeaway I have from these past six months—enjoy what you can, while you can. There is no promise of tomorrow, so go ahead and smile now (or in my case, write).
With that being said…
IT’S COVER REVEAL/BLURB TIME!
TRIGGER WARNING: This book deals with a character dosed with Rohypnol, a date-rape drug. Though the assault goes no further than that, if this is a trigger, this book is not for you.
Content creator. Trendsetting influencer. Society columnist.
Hannah Raven has worked nonstop since she was sixteen to make it big. Abandoned by her mother to a grandmother who didn’t want her, Hannah fought to create a space for herself where she belonged. So what if it was on the internet? That didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
Decorated military hero. Doctor. One of Chicago’s prized eligible bachelors.
Dalton Derico thought he’d seen it all, and what he’d seen wasn’t worth a damn. Then a stunning woman collapses in his arms after being slipped a roofie, and everything changes. There is beauty in the world, and he will have it for himself… as long as he can convince Hannah that all her roads lead to him.
Flitting from party to party has always been Hannah’s way, but now that she knows the darker side of party life, she’s reconsidering where she belongs. Is she destined to cover the celebrations of other people forever, or should she risk putting her faith in Dalton by creating a new world that could belong to them both?
***This contemporary romance includes a fiercely protective Alpha who’s hot enough to raise temperatures and drop panties. As always, no cheating, no love triangles, no cliffhangers. HEA guaranteed, with an epilogue built to make you happy-sigh. Due to adult language and sexual content, this book is not intended for people under the age of eighteen.***
There’s a lot to hit in this post, so buckle up. Ready? Here we gooooooo!
This week, HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI is on sale for only $1.99! *throws confetti* Alice and Loki are one of my favorite couples in the HoP series, so please feel free to spread the word far and wide that LOKI is just one little clicky away for only a $1.99. With over a hundred 5-star ratings for LOKI on Goodreads, let’s see what readers are saying about it:
“MAN, I love the people who associate with the House of Payne. They’re decisive, passionate (seriously, some of them will fight about ANYTHING), and they know what they want as soon as they lay eyes on it. It might be a bumpy ride before they can get what they want, but OH they know it.” ~ Kelly Roubidoux, Reading the Paranormal, Amazon Vine Voice, 5 stars
“The flashfire attraction, the slow burn for ignition, the build-up of emotions, it all cumulated in a way that was perfect for Loki and Alice, with them being the highlight and centre of each other’s universe!” ~ Darlene Good, DarGeeReads, 5 stars
“Loki is a member of a powerful MC but he spends his days and nights slinging ink for HOP. Alice is a foster kid and was placed with the rich family from Chicago, when their worlds collide sparks fly. I’m amazed by this author’s ability to create unique storylines on the 10th book of the series. This is an all consuming book with witty banter and drama. I can’t wait to see what this author has in store for us next!!”Ashley Carr, Little Shop of Readers, 5 stars
“Loki is a tattoo artist working with the House of Payne and he is part of the Grave Diggers MC. Alice is pissed at Loki due to the fact that she’s being evicted and her life is being turned upside down. She literally knocks Loki on his butt when they first meet. Loki never had a chance of resisting Alice. These two were steamy hot and electrifying together. Another great read in this series.” ~ Pamela, Dreamer’s Books, 4 stars
And to make sure I’ve got your attention, I’m doing a giveaway to kick off this awesome price drop! What’s the prize? An ecopy of HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI (or a $5 GC if you’ve already read it), ANNNNND…
A HOUSE OF PAYNE mug, designed by yours truly! Ta-da!
Aside from writing PARTY GIRL (Releasing late autumn/early winter) I’ve been working on designs for a line of merch—yay! While I’m starting with designs centered around the HoP series, I will have more designs available in the future to cover the Brody Brothers, as well as the upcoming Men of PSI series, and the Gravediggers MC series.
You know, because I have so much time on my hands. *eyeroll*
All right, that’s it for now. 🙂 Good luck on the Rafflecopter giveaway, lovelies!
RAFFLECOPTER GIVEAWAY LINK (giveaway runs from 10/06/21 to 10/13/21):
Welp. It’s done. The final chapter in the House of Payne saga is officially LIVE!
It’s hard to say goodbye to our friends at the House, but they go out with a bang in this final installment. (Bang. Heh. See what I did there? 😀 )
There are plenty of “last times” in this final book, but there are also plenty of “first times” as well. The first time our hero, Talon, meets the heroine, Zenni. The first time that attraction sparks and takes their breath away. And, of course, their first kiss.
First kisses are a BIG FREAKING DEAL for me in my projects, because they’re the last first kiss our lovebirds will ever have. Here’s a peek at Talon and Zenni’s first kiss. Enjoy!
It was like every cell in Zenni’s body decided to throw a party the moment Talon’s lips captured hers. That was the best way to describe the sudden whoosh of wild joy that hit her like a tsunami, while her brain was filled with one word only.
There was no hesitation. No awkwardness. Zenni melted into the kiss, rolling up on her tiptoes to meet him halfway while her arms curled around his neck, just in case he had some whacked-out idea about getting away. Clearly he didn’t, as he wrapped her up in those muscle-padded arms like he feared she’d disappear if he didn’t lock her to him. His hold was so firm she almost physically left the ground, and that would have been fine with her. In every other way that mattered, she had already been launched into the stratosphere by the power of his kiss alone.
It had to be said; until the night before when they’d had their series of almost-kisses, she’d never seriously believed she and Talon made any kind of sense. Their first meeting had been so disastrous she’d assumed nothing could overcome it. She’d screwed up with him by sneaking into places she knew she didn’t belong, provoking him to then screw up with her by throwing her out instead of letting security handle her.
That should have been the end of it.
The end of them.
But Talon hadn’t let that be the end. Clearly the man believed in impossibilities, because he’d accepted her apology for being a gatecrasher, then moved on like he’d been happy to turn the page to get to the good stuff.
Once he’d done that, it had been easy for her to do the same.
But damn, she still hadn’t imagined getting the breath kissed out of her less than forty-eight hours after crossing paths with him again.
Was it any wonder she was breathless? This man knew how to freaking kiss. His mouth sealed over hers in a way that made her irrationally think they’d never separate again. His lips were strong, yet soft enough to meld with hers, a heady combination she couldn’t get enough of.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
She couldn’t get enough of him.
Luckily Talon seemed to be in the same boat. The press of his mouth was demanding, almost urgent, like the earth would stop spinning if he didn’t make her bend to his absolute will. The tightening of his fingers in her short hair tilted her head back even more, opening her mouth to the bold thrust of his tongue.
It was like he’d invented the deep kiss and couldn’t wait to show off his expertise.
Lucky, lucky her.
She wouldn’t have been surprised if he felt the wild, bungee-jump ride her heart went on as his mouth made savage love to hers. She could feel the hammering of his heart as her breasts pressed against his torso, and she loved the raw intimacy of it. But as thrilling as it was, it was nothing compared to the increasing hardness of his cock pressed against her belly.
Now that was something to be thrilled about.
When his mouth at last lifted from hers, she opened her eyes, reveling in how her lips throbbed as if branded by his.
“Not too shabby,” she managed, licking her lips to soothe that distracting throb. When his eyes dropped to the motion and watched as if that was the most riveting thing he’d ever seen, she shocked herself by almost moaning out loud. “If I’d known you could kiss like that, I never would have thought of you as a big, scary bad guy.”
His eyes were as hot as she felt. “Now that you know, what do you think of me?”
“Well, you’re not scary. People who kiss in a way that make me believe in miracles can’t possibly be scary.”
“Damn, that good.” An arrogant smile curled a corner of his mouth, though his eyes still burned over her like fire. “I might be big, but what about the bad guy part? After a kiss like that, you should be ready to hit the eject button on that as well, yeah?”
Ha. He was cute when he was fishing for compliments. “Oh, you can kiss like a miracle and still be those other things.”
“Aren’t you the guy who nearly dislocated some dude’s arm last night?”
“Don’t tell me you would have preferred it if I’d let that date rape-drugging motherfucker hit you?”
“You make a good point,” she decided, then gave him a saucy smile. “It’s entirely possible I need to rethink a few things.”
Look for HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, the twelfth and final book in the House of Payne series on these platforms:
Hey there, all! I can hardly wait to share Talon’s story with you, so I’m going to go ahead and give you a sneak preview! Ready for the first chapter? Technically speaking, it’s the prologue, not the actual fist chapter, but the question still stands. Are you ready? Then here… we… go!
The lively beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” echoed through the lower level of House Of Payne. A couple hundred of Chicago’s finest art aficionados, star athletes and TV personalities dressed in their glittery holiday finest chatted, laughed and hobnobbed amongst the studio’s white modular walls covered in original works of art. From the look of it, the Give and Grab Fine Art Charity Auction was another smashing success for the world-famous tattoo studio.
But that wasn’t the story Zenni Greer was after.
Flashing her press pass at one of the overly muscled security guards, she held her head high and swept in like she was supposed to be there. She should have been invited, damn it. She’d been covering House Of Payne from the time she’d been promoted to the Gossip section at her paper, Chicago Pulse, two years ago. Right from the beginning, she’d been determined to get to the bottom of why this one Chicago-based tattoo studio had become internationally known, when countless other studios never got to be a household name. Hell, she got her own ink done at an amazing little studio down south in Beverley, but nobody outside of that particular neighborhood knew Shamrock Tattoos even existed.
What was it about House Of Payne, and its founder, Sebastian Payne, that made it so unique?
That was the story that needed to be told, and she was the journalist who needed to tell it.
Unfortunately, somehow along the way she’d gotten on the bad side of those who ran the House. She wasn’t sure what she’d done; she’d simply asked what she thought were normal questions whenever House Of Payne held a presser, which seemed to be every other week since the studio tended to suffer a chaos outbreak on a regular basis. But even in those times of chaos, the famous tattoo studio always managed to land on its feet.
Chaos was basically how she viewed House Of Payne—constantly flirting with disaster, only to come out smelling like a rose. That wasn’t natural. There had to be something behind it. Bribes to health inspectors, perhaps? Or maybe there was something behind the whispers she’d heard recently of stolen artwork being used in tattoos without the authorization of the artists—something she was very sensitive about since her own father was a famous artist. There could even be under-the-table payments to celebrities to get their tattoos, and then splash the House Of Payne name all over the place. Paying off celebrities wasn’t illegal, of course. It was just shady.
There had to be something there.
All she had to do was find it.
Once she did, she’d finally get the hell out of Chicago Pulse’s god-awful, terminally shallow Gossip section.
Trying to look like she belonged there and wasn’t at all a bald-faced gatecrasher, Zenni did a quick sweep of the well-heeled crowd. Her heart nearly stopped when she spied Sebastian Payne and his wife, famed 3D artist, Becks, no more than six feet away. Trying to look casual, she stepped behind a tower of flatscreens flashing the pictures of the House’s all-star, award-winning tattooists, and feigned interest.
Max, AKA “Mad Max” won an international award for best spin on retro tattoos.
Angel Taylor-Santiago was the recipient of the Colorist of the Year award from Inked Out magazine.
Mads Daniels was the House’s “Fresh Face” after winning the Best Debut Artist award at InkCon.
Talon Levesque won Best in Show in Chicago’s For the Troops Tattoo-A-Thon.
Good for him.
Taking a chance, Zenni peeked around the flatscreen tower and breathed a sigh of relief. Whew. Sebastian Payne had moved off, his arm around his wife and flanked by a couple teenaged boys who looked like younger versions of himself, and a pair of girls so identical it was hard to believe they hadn’t come from the Overlook Hotel.
Excellent. His family should keep him nice and distracted.
Now all she had to do was fly under the radar of the manager and assistant manager of the place, Scout and Sunny. Honest to God, those two sharp-eyed women had mental telepathy or something. But if she could avoid them, she’d be good to go.
And speaking of going…
Grabbing a champagne glass from a passing server, Zenni pretended to sip at the bubbly as she made her way toward a flight of glass brick and metal stairs leading to the mezzanine level.
As long as she stayed down on the first floor where the charity event was happening, she could plausibly explain why she was there—she’d been sent by her paper to cover a social event, because that was what reporters from the Gossip section did. True, she hadn’t been on the list of members of the media invited to cover the event, but her presence wasn’t that alarming. She could even get a nice, gossipy story out of who was attending the auction, who put in bids for what pieces of art, and how much the event ultimately raised for a charity championing the plight of the homeless.
She could do that.
She could head upstairs and see what she could find snooping around in places the public had been banned from entering.
Playing it safe, or possibly finding something that would get her the hell out of the paper’s stupid society section.
There probably should have been better security at the stairs, Zenni thought as she zipped up to the second level. Looking at it from that perspective, it was practically their fault she wandered up there so easily.
As she reached the open space of the mezzanine level, she again pretended to sip at her champagne. Ugh. Generally speaking, she wasn’t a huge fan of any type of wine, though a good, earthy ale was something she enjoyed. Being a pop culture reporter for the Gossip section meant hitting all the swankiest soirees the Windy City had to offer, which sounded kickass at first. But after about a month of loud parties, cheap champagne and an endless parade of shallow people trying to out-glam everyone else in the room, she’d had her fill of it. Unfortunately, the job hadn’t had its fill of her, but that was okay. She knew how the ladder to success worked in the world of journalism. She had to pay her dues on her climb up, so that meant lots of pretending to drink champagne while keeping a sharp eye out for the story that would push her into the ranks of a true journalist.
Maybe tonight would be the night she found her story.
There were only a few partygoers up on the second level, probably because all the action was downstairs. A set of important-looking double doors loomed directly in front of her, but as she approached she spied a sign taped to the door.
Private. Do Not Enter.
Undeterred, she reached out and tried the handle.
Would now be a good time to see if she had any talent for picking locks?
She tried another door off to the right of those impressive double doors, tucked away in its own alcove and plastered with that same sign to stay out. That door was also locked. She was just about to give up when she saw caution tape draped in a dramatic X across the entrance of what she surmised were the tattooing booths.
Another Keep Out place.
Only this time the barrier was tape instead of a locked door.
She clicked her tongue as she stared at the tape. What was so important about keeping people out of tattooing booths? What could possibly be so sensitive that they had to warn the public away?
Putting up a big X of caution tape like that was just begging for trouble.
With a quick glance around, she set her champagne glass on the mezzanine railing and casually made her way toward the caution tape blocking the entrance of a wide hall created by frosted-glass booths. A light was placed above the door of each booth. All of them were dark, and she imagined that those lights were lit whenever the booths were occupied. Above the mouth of the hallway glowed a neon sign written in bold script.
From pain, beauty is born.
Considering the art she’d had tattooed on her own body, she could attest to that.
Private. DO NOT ENTER.
Zenni stared at the handwritten paper that had been torn out of a spiral notebook and stuck to the caution tape.
All caps meant yelling.
But since she’d come this far, it wouldn’t hurt to take a teensy peek.
When it came to height, Mother Nature had shortchanged her by a lot, so she barely had to duck when she moved past the boundary and into forbidden territory. Idly she hummed along with the music playing overhead, now Brian Setzer’s rowdy version of “Jingle Bells” as she dipped into a random booth, praying it was empty. If someone was there, she would be so totally busted…
An empty, neatly ordered booth greeted her. Square in shape, the area was big enough to comfortably hold a tattoo table, a steel workbench, a rolling tray table and a wheeled padded chair. Closer inspection of the chair revealed that it was actually a seat from what looked to be an army-style Jeep.
The army theme was also apparent in the rest of the booth’s décor, from a green and yellow US Army Military Police Corp flag with two crossed pistols, to several framed photos of soldiers, some of whom were injured, some who were gathered around a battered Humvee, and all dressed in brown khakis in some far-off rocky terrain. Aside from the collection of photos, a massive poster, displaying every patch and insignia of the US military, hung front and center on the wall facing the door. The workbench was immediately to her right, and in addition to holding all the usual tattooing equipment one would expect to see, there was also a shadowbox displaying some sort of military medal, with the words “Heroic and Meritorious Service in a Combat Zone” engraved on a small metal plaque.
Wow, she thought, reaching for the box. Now there was a story. If there was a real, honest-to-goodness war hero under the roof of House Of—
“What the fuck are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to b—” The rest of her automatic mea culpa ended in a hiss when her arm was wrenched behind her back to the point where she could scratch her own shoulder blade. Before she could do anything more than yelp in surprised pain, she found herself plastered face-first against the outside of the booth, the frosted glass cold against her stinging hot cheek.
“Holy crap, stop, stop, stop,” she squealed between grunts of pain. Ignoring her, the person who’d wrenched her arm behind her back—clearly a hulk of a man, going by the deep voice and the strength of the grip holding her in place—took his free hand and frisked her in a quick but thorough search. Holy shit. “For God’s sake, what are you doing?”
“Making sure you’re not boosting shit that doesn’t belong to you. Did you take anything? Answer now.”
“Boost…? Geez, no of course not,” Zenni said, horrified. “I’m no thief—”
“I’ll be the judge of that. What else did you touch? All the booths have been sterilized, which is why they’re off-fucking-limits. What else did you contaminate?”
Oops. Well, that explained why the tattooing booths were cordoned off. “Nothing. Look, I’m with the press, okay?” She tried looking around at the person, only to cry out when the armlock intensified and her shoulder spasmed with a cramp. “I swear, I’m a member of the press, from Chicago Pulse, covering the event downstairs.”
“Which is, as you say, downstairs.”
Okay, fair point. “I-I will be covering it, once I get down there…”
“You say you’re a member of the press?”
Thank God, she was getting through to him at last. The shoulder cramp had reached screaming levels, making it hard to breathe, much less think. “Yes. My press badge is in my right front pocket. Ask your fellow security guards downstairs, they checked my credentials and let me in—”
“What do you mean, they checked your credentials? Didn’t you have an invitation? Members of the press who were invited to cover this charity event tonight were all given invitations.”
Crap. “Yeah, well, I didn’t have one of those.”
“Uh-huh. If you’re a reporter, you should be able to read, right?”
What in the world? “Of course I can read.”
“Prove it. What does that sign say?” His free hand cupped the back of her head none too gently and jerked it around hard enough to make something pop in her neck. All at once she was fiercely grateful she kept her pale hair in a hyper-short pixie cut. She had the horrifying feeling the brute who’d captured her would have gleefully yanked on any hair he could have gotten a firm grip on. “Answer now, or I swear to God I’ll find ways of making you answer.”
He meant it. He actually fucking meant it.
Genuine fear rippled through her for the first time, the kind of fear that was wrapped around the core need to survive. She couldn’t move. She was helpless. At his mercy. This big, scary man didn’t mind that he was hurting her. Maybe he was even getting off on it.
But the main thing was that she couldn’t… fucking… move.
Did anyone know she was up here? Alone, with this monster?
If she screamed, would anyone even hear her over the party downstairs?
Her mouth had gone so dry she had to lick her lips to unglue them. “It says ‘private. Do not enter.’”
“Yet here you are. You must think rules don’t apply to you—” Abruptly he let go of her head, and half a second later she felt a tug on the pocket she’d indicated. “Zenobia Greer. Zenobia, huh? Too bad you’re named after a queen. A bottom-feeding, nosy-as-shit reporter like you is nowhere near deserving of such a kickass name.”
Great. An educated monster who enjoyed manhandling women while passing judgment. Just what the world needed. “Look, I’m sorry, I swear. Please, just let my arm—”
“Sorry? Nah. Not good enough.” Before she knew it, he spun her around and pushed her up against the wall. The relief of her arm being released was almost immediately swamped by a new wave of alarm as the man used the foot of height he had on her to loom over her like a nightmare. “You’re going to tell me exactly who you are, and what you’re doing nosing around in here. Tell me what you’re looking for.”
Staggered, she stared up into a face that would have made angels weep. Black curling hair in need of a trim tumbled over a scowling, square forehead. Winged brows shadowed eyes the color of a stormy sea—not gray or blue, but somewhere in between. Scruff that could have been labeled an actual beard framed a grimly held mouth. Everything about his face was grim. Grim and scary.
And suddenly familiar.
“Talon Levesque,” she whispered, stunned that the person who’d caught her hadn’t been a member of a crack security team after all, but rather one of the tattooists. Damn, the man certainly knew what he was about when it came to frisking a person.
His expression went from menacing to explosively violent. “That’s it. I’m throwing your trespassing ass out of here myself, and I’m going to love every fucking second of it. That’ll teach you to target me.”
“What? No, I saw your picture downstairs, on one of the monitors,” she blurted as he clamped a bear-sized hand around her upper arm and frog-marched her toward the stairs. “I swear, that’s how I know your name, so there’s no need to be alarmed. And I always try to tell the truth, so you know you can trust me on this. I’m not some weird stalker, or whatever it is you’re thinking. I’m not targeting you.”
“Pull the other one, lady,” he snarled, dragging her down the stairs in full view of all the glittering luminaries of Chicago. It would have been humiliating beyond words if she hadn’t been so caught up in trying not to trip on the stairs and break her neck. “I don’t know what you want from me, but I can guarantee you’re going to get nothing but my boot in your ass for your efforts. You can quote me, if that helps.”
“Talon?” A smart-looking woman in winter white and short, dark hair with platinum tips met them at the base of the stairs. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting rid of a gatecrasher who deserves to be thrown through the nearest goddamn window. Honest to Christ, Sunny, who the hell gatecrashes a fucking charity event for the homeless? I don’t think you can get any lower than that.”
Shit, shit, shit… “My name is Zenni Greer, and I’m a journalist. Your name is Sunny, right? We met briefly at your first press conference here at House Of Payne—”
“Talon, let go of the journalist, or I’ll deck you.” It was amazing how the woman, Sunny, managed to push those dangerous words through a sweet, clenched-teeth smile. “Better yet, I’ll get Scout. How’s that for scary?”
That seemed to actually give her violent-eyed captor pause. “Zenobia Greer doesn’t have an invite. She snuck in here on her press pass, then went upstairs where she knows she’s not supposed to be. It’d serve her right if we called the cops and pressed charges. At the very least we should give a hard shot at trying to ruin her career.”
Oh, dear God, no. “Look, I’m truly sorry, I know I went out of bounds, but I didn’t mean any harm. I swear I’ll never return to House Of Payne, if that’s what you want to hear, okay?”
Sunny put a smartphone to her ear, murmured something, then tilted her head toward the front of the building. “Talon, just hand her over to security and let them do their job. And do it quietly, please. No crazy scene, got it? Oh, and you’re needed on the showroom floor, so wrap this up quickly, yeah?”
The crazy didn’t leave her captor’s furious sea-colored eyes. “If the security team had done their fucking job, this pint-sized pain in the ass wouldn’t have gotten through in the first place. No way am I handing her off to them. I’ll take care of her myself.”
“Not through the window,” Sunny called after him, sounding alarmed.
“Fine,” he muttered under his breath and headed for the revolving door. As they approached and Zenni thought he might let up on her, she tried pulling away from him to go through the door under her own power.
Thank God, this nightmare was almost over…
“Where do you think you’re going? I didn’t give you permission to move, did I?” His hands tightened on her. She gasped as her feet suddenly left the ground, then the wind left her lungs in a whoosh when his shoulder hit her stomach in a none-too-gentle fireman’s lift.
So much for taking care of her quietly and not making a scene.
A handful of seconds later he tossed her—tossed her!—through the air. She had a jumbled vision of speeding toward the heavy revolving door, and automatically put up her hands to stop herself from smashing face-first into the wood, brass and glass. Sharp pain shot through her pinky as it bent backwards with the impact, and with genuine terror she looked back at the monster of a man even as she scrambled to find her feet.
“Don’t forget,” he growled, reaching out to spin the door with a brutish, muscled arm tattooed with Polynesian-styled tattoos, “don’t you ever fucking darken the door of House Of Payne again, you got that? If you do, you’ll have to deal with me, and I fucking hate journalists.”
Ta-da! There it is, the opening to HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! *crosses fingers*
Be sure to keep a lookout for further updates as we get closer to TALON’s release on Monday, August 16th. Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo
HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON releases two weeks from today!
It’s about time to share the cover and blurb, dontcha think?
Just remember, this is THE LAST FIRST-GEN HOUSE OF PAYNE COVER EVER!!!
So I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Annnnnd, now for the blurb!
When ambitious journalist Zenni Greer snuck into a House of Payne charity event, she’d hoped to discover what made the famous tattoo studio tick. What she found was a furious tattooist who didn’t appreciate her snooping around in his booth. When he threw her out the door—literally—she vowed to never cross paths with that terrifying man again.
Talon Levesque, former military police officer and tattooist at House of Payne, isn’t thrilled to be landed with the task of babysitting Zenni when her paper assigns her to profile him and his fellow tattooists. But his first impression of the nosy reporter changes when he sees Zenni in action. Her intellect, her compassion, her sharp wit, her pixie-like perfection—all that and more make for one sexy riddle he’s only too happy to solve.
No way can Zenni write a profile on Talon. He’s too dominating, too arrogant, too pushy… and too damn hot to be legal. She can’t resist his dirty-talking seduction, but she also can’t resist his mysterious past the military has labeled “classified.” When clues to a secret rescue mission that Talon was involved in fall into her lap, she has to decide what’s more important—her career, or Talon?
***This is the twelfth and final book in the HOUSE OF PAYNE series. This contemporary romance includes a rocky prologue, a satisfying epilogue and a whole lot of sexy-times shenanigans in between with an Alpha male that will make your toes curl. No cheating, no love triangles, no cliffhangers. HEA guaranteed. Due to adult language and sexual content, this book is not intended for people under the age of eighteen.***
There you have it! HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, the final book in the House of Payne series, releases August 16th!
Next week, keep an eye out for TALON’s 1st chapter. If you want the most up-to-date news on what I’m doing, please consider giving me a follow on Facebook, or joining my private “Readers Only” FB room, Stacy Gail’s Very Important Readers Room. That’s usually where I do all my first-look reveals!
So, I’ve just wrapped up HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, which means I can now share a couple of secrets with you, my lovely readers!
1. TALON’s release date! The timing’s been tricky with this one, since my other job as a figure skating coach is wrapping up the summer training sesh with competitions and test sessions, and I’m traveling (FINALLY!) for a family reunion at the end of August. All that activity explains the slightly weird release date of…
2. This next bit of news is a VERY BIG DEAL. Ready?
HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON will be the final HOUSE OF PAYNE book! *gasp*
At least for a long while.
I didn’t make this decision lightly. In fact, there will be a character left in that storyline that clearly needs to have their own HEA, and I show glimpses of Sebastian Payne’s teenaged kids, who are getting ready to be the next gen. BUT… for the most part, this generation of HoP characters and storylines are coming to a close. *wipes away tear*
I did my best to make sure TALON goes out with a bang, and the farewell in the epilogue… Well, you all know me by now, yeah? I LOVE ME A GOOD EPILOGUE. 😀
With the first gen of HoP behind me, I’m now free to turn my sights on two series I’ve been wanting to get to for a long, long time. The Gravediggers MC, and the Private Security International (PSI) men. I’ve been researching like crazy, and I can’t wait to get these two new series going! (And yes, for those of you who’ve asked, Luke Keyes will finally get his HEA ❤ )
3. The last piece of news is that I will be releasing a third (and final) novella linked to the HOUSE OF PAYNE series, entitled PARTY GIRL. Hannah Raven (a character named by my lovely peeps in my FB readers group) appears in TALON, and she had quite a rough go of it. I felt bad about that, so I thought she needed her own hero (who also happens to show up in TALON). Look for PARTY GIRL in late autumn/early winter!
So, there you have it! Lots of things are in the works. I’m so excited to explore this new territory with you. I hope you all have enjoyed the ride we took together for this first generation at HOUSE OF PAYNE. I promise, there are many more fun times to be had in the coming months!
What the heck do I mean by a novel novella? Welp, it’s simple. I had meant to write a novella–you know, just a fun little tale around 30K words. Instead, I wrote a 50K word full-length novel in less than three months, with lots of depth and secondary characters that made me grin.
But don’t worry! I’m still selling GOOD GIRL at a novella price of $2.99. Maybe that’ll make up for the fact that this book came out a month late!
Now, enough chitchat. Let’s get to that yummy 1st chapter of GOOD GIRL!
Serena Daniels looked up from securing her work locker’s padlock to find her friend and fellow pediatric nurse, Hannah Saito, heading her way. “Who?”
“Serena, come on.” Hannah spared her a chiding glance before opening her own locker a few doors down. “You know who I’m talking about.”
“I really don’t.” Liar. “By the way, your new scrubs are beyond cute, with all those Archie comic book characters,” she added, trying desperately to change the subject. “I used to love reading those comics when I was a kid, though I hated it whenever Archie went all gooey for Veronica. I’m a total Betty stan.”
“Ugh, you and me both. Unfortunately men seem to go for the mean girls, including Archie.” Hannah shot a pleased glance at her colorful new scrubs before she waved an impatient hand. “And speaking of mean, you totally know the guy I’m talking about. Remember that tall, dark and pushy guy who looks like a Greek god and supposedly owns the building? He came in with his super-bitey demon spawn last month around Christmas. Salvador or Salvatore. Something like that.”
“Salvatore.” At the name, Serena’s blood pressure put on a jetpack and shot straight up. The one person she’d be happy to never hear from again was Lorenzo Salvatore. “Did you say he’s back?”
“Yup.” Hannah nodded and pulled a hairband from her glossy black hair. “You know what they say about bad pennies—they always turn up when you least expect it. Though that dude is so hot I might be able to overlook that whole bad penny issue.”
Wasn’t that the truth. “His kid didn’t try to take his skateboard off the roof again, did he?”
“Thankfully I didn’t see his spawn’s name on the white board. I just caught a glimpse of the man hanging around with Heidi King. I wonder why we never see a Mrs. Moneybags? The kid’s got to have a mother.”
“Divorced.” When Hannah shot her a searching glance, Serena aimed for a casual shrug. “The kid mentioned it when he was here. He also told me that if his mom ever showed up, he’d throw himself out the window rather than see her.”
Hannah winced. “Yeesh. That doesn’t sound good.”
Her sentiments exactly. “She must have gotten that message, because I never saw her around here, did you?”
Hannah shook her head. “The kid’s yummy-looking father was the only parent I ever saw. Then again he was kind of hard to miss. Talk about a helicopter parent. You’d think his kid was dying, instead of in with a busted arm.”
“Maybe she doesn’t live anywhere close by.”
“Maybe,” came the absent reply as Hannah rooted through her locker. “Question is, what’s Mr. Moneybags doing back here now?”
“What if he’s here for some sort of I-own-this-place meeting that changes our lives around here forever? Guys like that love to throw their weight around. They never give a damn about how they upend everyone’s lives just because they want to run the show their way.”
“I’ve been thinking about all those rumors swirling around that guy.” Serena zipped up her insulated jacket and pulled out the red knit beret and mittens she’d stuffed into the jacket’s pockets when her shift started twelve long hours ago. She gave a ridiculous amount of attention to putting them on, because she didn’t want to admit she’d actually been thinking about Lorenzo the man, rather than the rumors about him. “This is Cook County’s brand-new Pediatric and Women’s Health Center, right?”
“Last time I checked.”
“Doesn’t that mean Cook County owns the hospital? There are all these rumors about Lorenzo Salvatore owning this place, but I’m not buying it. It doesn’t seem plausible that one dude could own a whole frigging hospital.”
“Somebody’s got to own it. Why not tall, dark and insanely pushy while still being a total sex bomb?”
“I don’t know.” Trying not to freak that Lorenzo Salvatore might actually be in the same building as her, Serena again tried for an air of nonchalance. “Maybe he just decided to float that rumor around when his kid was here.”
Hannah stared at her. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he thought sounding like some big shot would get his kid preferential treatment. Maybe he’s got inferiority issues and overcompensates by pumping himself up to godlike levels. Maybe he’s a pathological liar and a total epic dick.” And maybe she needed Lorenzo Salvatore to be as bad as could be, so she could convince herself she’d dodged a bullet when it came to having him in her life. “Remember that one lady who claimed she was the concubine of Justin Trudeau, and her child was—oh, how did she put it?—the fruit of their union?”
“Yeah, but that lady wound up in the psychiatric ward because the only thing wrong with her poor child was her,” Hannah drawled. “That’s life in the world of pediatric medicine.”
“Exactly. Which means I’m not going to believe anything I hear through the grapevine until I see his name on the deed to this lovely piece of real estate.”
Not that she cared enough to look into who exactly owned the hospital where she worked, Serena thought, digging for her car keys as she headed out of the locker room. Lozo’s signature wasn’t on her paycheck, so she’d be smart to not give him another thought.
An instinctive wince scrunched her nose before she could corral it. Grimly she pushed the wayward thought away and headed down a quiet back hallway lined with closed administration office doors, heading for the employees’ exit. Lozo was what Lorenzo Salvatore’s friends called him, or so he’d claimed on the one and only date she’d ever gone on with him. At the time she’d had the weirdest flutter when he’d insisted she call him that. Like he’d wanted her to think she was special. A friend. Maybe even on her way to being something more.
What a gullible rube she was.
She should have realized a jerk like Lorenzo Salvatore couldn’t possibly have any friends who called him anything, much less Lozo.
An office door belonging to her supervisor, Heidi King, opened up moments after she passed by. Hastily Serena quickened her pace and didn’t look back. No way was she going to get caught up in idle chitchat when all that mattered now was getting off of feet that felt every single one of the fourteen-thousand steps she’d already taken today—
“Ah, speak of the devil, there she is. Serena, do you have a minute?’
Grrrrrrr. “No, I don’t, Heidi. I’m sorry, but I’m already off the clock and I’ve got…” She made the unforgivable mistake of looking back, and her gaze ran slam-bang into Lorenzo Salvatore’s.
“Uh.” Furiously she tried to remember what she’d been saying, only to almost lose the thread all over again when Lorenzo’s sculpted face lit up with a crooked, predatory smile. Eek. “I’ve got two hard-earned days off, so guess what that means? So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.”
“This won’t take but a minute, I swear.” Heidi, middle-aged, the mother of five and married since the dawn of time, seemed to be in a hormonal tailspin in the presence of such absurd levels of drool-worthy testosterone. As Serena watched, the other woman sent a fluttery gesture toward Lorenzo, and the glance she sent his way was downright coquettish. “Serena Daniels, pediatric RN, this is Lorenzo Salvatore, one of this hospital’s biggest benefactors.”
“I believe we’ve met.” Serena kept her voice neutral through sheer force of will. Oh, yes. She and Lorenzo Salvatore had definitely met. When his son, Matthew, had come in with a broken arm that needed to be surgically repaired, Lorenzo had demanded a nurse be in his son’s room every minute of the day. Never mind that there were other, far sicker children who needed that kind of attention. That didn’t matter to the great Lorenzo Salvatore. Oh, no. What had mattered was that his beloved son—who’d screamed and cursed at the hospital staff, bit Hannah, then went on a hunger strike because he wasn’t getting his way—was in pain.
Ultimately she’d had a showdown with the overbearing helicopter father. After he’d complained one time too many that she wasn’t giving his kid enough attention, she’d literally dragged him to the window of an isolation room occupied by a child who’d fallen through thin ice and had been underwater for several minutes. Then she’d told him in no uncertain terms that he should thank whatever pantheon of gods he believed in that his kid was destined to walk out of there with him someday, happy and whole. Some parents weren’t so lucky.
At the time she’d had no idea if she’d gotten through to him. Mainly because he was a frantic parent, and frantic parents were understandably not too big on calm and logic. But also because he’d accused her of not being able to comprehend what it was to have family, and to love them more than anything.
That was the exact moment she’d lost her mind.
Because that was the moment when she’d rashly invited him to a family dinner at her sister Mads’s house.
No one could have been more surprised than Serena when Lorenzo Salvatore actually said yes.
She honestly hadn’t liked Lorenzo when she’d accidentally invited him to dinner. Sure, he was gorgeous, with thick black hair that had a tendency to curl, scruff that was almost a beard, and onyx eyes so mesmerizing it was all she could do to stop herself from falling into them. But those hot Italian good looks were nothing when they were wedded to a self-absorbed personality. All she’d cared about in that moment was proving a point.
But then Lorenzo had shown up to that family dinner, complete with wine and flowers, and acted like a totally charming human being. As the night had progressed, she’d found herself staring at him time and again, amazed at how the rumble of his rare laughter moved through her like wine, and thrilling over how he’d insisted she call him Lozo.
She’d been stupid enough to think that dinner date might have been the start of something special. Vital, even. That was why she’d invited Lorenzo to a Christmas Eve art auction at her sister’s work, the famous tattoo studio, House Of Payne. She’d even worn her sexiest dress, strapped her hard-working feet into killer heels and dreamed of fenagling Lorenzo under the nearest mistletoe to see what that crooked mouth of his knew about kissing.
The bastard stood her up.
Which was fine, she’d told herself firmly. Totally. Utterly. Fine. Considering how they’d started out, she was obviously better off without having a pain in the ass like him around. The night he’d stood her up was the night she’d decided to forget he existed. In her opinion, it was the best damn Christmas present she’d ever given herself.
Yet now, here he was.
Fighting the desire to stomp her foot, Serena barely flicked a glance his way before pinning her attention on her supervisor. “I was on duty when his son, Matthew, was brought in for surgery for a badly broken arm. If his son is back, Darius Johns is the duty nurse now. As for me, I’m out, Heidi.”
“Mattie’s fine.” Lozo—no, Lorenzo Salvatore, she corrected herself fiercely—spoke for the first time. Grudgingly she turned her attention his way, only to find his gaze focused on her like a lion that had locked on to a wounded gazelle. “I’m not here because of my kid, Nurse Meanie. I’m here because of you.”
Nurse Meanie. Just one of the names his hunger-striking brat of a kid had come up with for her. Then the rest of his words sank in. “Wait, what? Because of me?” What the hell had she done now?
“That’s right.” Clearly delighted by this unexpected turn of events, Heidi clapped her hands together. “In the wake of the excellent care young Matthew received here, Mr. Salvatore has decided to fund a new activity center here on the pediatric floor, and guess what? You were the one who inspired this amazing generosity.”
“Oh. Really. Huh.” Well aware that nothing she’d done for Matthew had been good enough for either of the Salvatores, Heidi’s comment hit her like a joke, and she was the punch line. “Funny, I find that hard to believe.”
“What’s hard to believe? That you did a good job?” Much to her alarm, Lorenzo wandered closer, hands in his pockets. With a casual pose like that he should have looked harmless, but harmless was the one thing he’d never be. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who doubts her abilities.”
“Oh, it’s not myself I’m doubting in this particular equation. I’m a freaking goddess, pal.” When Heidi gave her a vaguely horrified look, Serena looked to the ceiling and struggled for a more professional tone. “Whatever motivated you, I’m thrilled to hear there’s going to be a dedicated space for our recovering young patients to have some fun and normalcy brought into their lives.” With a smile that felt as fake as a three-dollar bill, she backed down the hall toward the exit. “Thanks for letting me know. Have a good weekend. Toodles.”
Thankfully Heidi was too aghast to say a word, so Serena took advantage by booking it as fast as she could to the stairwell door. She was just about convinced she’d made her escape when a large hand came from behind to clamp down on the door’s metal push-handle.
“I wasn’t finished. Which means you’re not finished, either… Nurse Meanie.”
Her stomach sank at Lorenzo’s gravelly baritone next to her ear, and the sudden heat radiating off his body told her just how much her personal space had been invaded. Instinctively she half-hopped sideways, not even caring how silly that probably looked, before she turned the full force of her glare on the man who clearly was intent on ruining her weekend.
On the surface, Lorenzo Salvatore was just about every woman’s lust-fueled dream. Even though she hated him, her hands still itched to smooth his curling black hair that always looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, and his liquid black eyes were so dark she couldn’t even see his pupils. The first time she’d locked gazes with him, she’d imagined that the devil himself had eyes like that—full of scorn and sin and the hottest black fire. His aggressively square jaw seemed to be perpetually covered in a five o’clock shadow, the scruff that much darker in the twin dimpled grooves on either side of his crooked mouth.
It was the tilt of that mouth that irked her. Even when she hadn’t known his name, she’d had that agitated reaction at the mere sight of it. It had a twist to one side, a perpetual, sardonic smirk that made him seem like he was scoffing at everything in general, and her in particular whenever he chose to focus on her.
And to think she’d been brainless enough to invite this smirking, black-eyed devil out on a date on Christmas Eve. What a moronic move that had been.
Good thing he’d ghosted her.
“Wow, look at you, thinking you can actually tell me when I’m done.” She sent him a scorching look. “Know your place.”
“Damn.” Far from being slapped back like she’d hoped, Lorenzo grinned as if delighted. “I knew you were pissed at me for not showing for our date, but I think I underestimated the level of pissiness you’ve got going on. You mad, Serena?”
The taunting tone—when he was the one who’d stood her up, goddamn it—told her that he didn’t like it when people called him out on his bad behavior. That was just the kind of person she didn’t need in her life. “I cannot stress this enough, so listen closely when I say it. Ready? Here it is. Fuck off.” With that, she shouldered his arm out of the way and pushed through the door leading to the stairwell.
There. Mission accomplished.
She could hear his steps on the stairs right behind her.
Maybe he was leaving too, she thought nervously, fighting the nearly crushing urge to look over her shoulder. Maybe he had somehow parked in the gated and guarded Employees Only parking lot, and this was the fastest way out to his car.
“I’m not saying I don’t deserve you being pissed off at me.” He dropped into step beside her the moment she pushed through the heavy metal exit door and into the twilight-shrouded, freshly plowed parking lot. “But it’s only fair you give me a chance to make up for it.”
She snorted and hit her car’s key fob. “Dude, you stood me up, then didn’t get in touch with me for literally weeks. Barring an excuse that involves a zombie apocalypse or a death in the family, everyone knows that the stand-uppee doesn’t have to give the stand-upper the sweat off her brow. Go away.”
“I had a Christmas Eve emergency. Shit like that happens when you have kids.”
That sounded somewhat plausible, but… “Have you looked at the calendar lately? It’s mid-January. Here’s a pro tip for you in case you ever plan on hooking up with someone after you stand them up. Letting weeks go by after you ghost a woman isn’t the way to win her over.”
“The emergency I had to take care of… it’s taken a while to clean that shit up. But now that I’ve got everything locked down tight and I know my kid’s okay with how things are, we’re good to go. By the way, that’s probably the most important thing you should know about me—Mattie always comes first. I’m not even going to apologize for it. That’s just how I parent.”
What the hell did he mean, they were good to go? “Good for you.”
“The only reason I’m telling you this is because you need to know that’s the only thing that has more priority than you when we’re together.”
She stopped by her car and grimaced at all the snow that had accumulated on it during her twelve-hour shift. “One, Mr. Salvatore, we are not together—”
“Lozo. I told you, my friends call me Lozo.”
Which meant she’d bite her tongue out before ever using that name. “Two, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We’re strangers, and we’re going to keep it that way.” Hauling her car door open, she sat behind the wheel just long enough to start it up and get the defrosters going full blast, before snagging up her trusty ice scraper. “And three, we are not going to be together. Why? Because you didn’t even call to let me know you had a so-called emergency.”
“Yes, I did.”
“You called the place we were supposed to meet, three hours after our date was supposed to start. So if you think I’m kidding when I say fuck off and go away, I’m not. From the bottom of my little black heart, I seriously mean it.”
“I didn’t call you personally because my phone took a swim in the toilet. And I did try calling House Of Payne several times that evening to let you know what was going on, but I wasn’t able to get through.”
She didn’t bother to roll her eyes as she stood on her tiptoes and tried to sweep all the snow off the windshield in one go. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you? You should’ve gone into politics.”
He took the scraper from her before she could dodge him. “You’re a nurse,” he muttered, using those long, well-muscled arms of his to efficiently wipe the snow off her car. “Aren’t you supposed to have a sweetly giving and understanding nature?”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m Nurse Meanie.” Apparently.
“Mattie won’t call you that anymore,” he said, surprising her. “I’ve told him that you’re Nurse Serena from now on, or else.”
“And as for my nature,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken, because she doubted very much that she’d ever see his food tray-throwing son ever again, “I’m very sweet and understanding when it comes to my patients. If you want to become a patient, I’m sure I can make that happen.”
The look he shot her as he moved to the back window could have melted all the snow in Chicago. “Feisty, aren’t you?”
“What I am is tired. This was a hell of a long shift after a hell of a long week, and my feet hurt all the way to my knees. So, if you’ve got something to say, just say it, because all I can think about now is going home, curling up on the couch next to a cozy fire, and conking out for the next forty-eight hours.”
“That’s a waste of a perfectly good weekend.”
“Any nurse coming off their shift would beg to differ.”
“You have to eat some time.” With one last swipe at the side windows, he returned to her and handed her the ice scraper. “Might as well eat with me.”
The fact that she hesitated only underscored just how exhausted she was. “I’m literally too tired to be hungry.” Yeah, she thought as she absently tossed the scraper back into her car. She had to be loopy if she felt even a teensy bit tempted to let her guard down and give him another chance. “I’m standing here now, and I can’t even remember what hunger feels like.”
Again, her exhaustion got the better of her, because it had her imagining a hint of concern flashing across those devil-black eyes. “You work too hard.”
“It’s the true plague of any medical professional—workaholism. We all have it.” When he continued to gaze down at her as if she were the most interesting thing he’d seen all year—though, admittedly it was a brand-new year, so that didn’t mean much—she cleared her throat and moved toward her car. “Well, um… thanks again for funding the new activity room. Getting children involved in interactive events like arts and crafts or music or gaming, is as important as any medicine we can give them when they’re healing.”
“I remember you had your sister do Mattie’s portrait when he was throwing his food trays against the wall and refusing to eat. He still talks about you,” he added when she slid into the driver’s seat and would have closed the door on him. “I’ve heard the story of how you finally got him to eat, by the way.”
“Oh, yeah? He told on me, did he?”
The crooked mouth of his smirked all the harder. “At first, that’s pretty much what it was—tattling on Nurse Meanie who wouldn’t take his shit.”
“That’s me, all right.”
“He described in great detail how you went into his room to eat your dinner right in front of him—the biggest, juiciest cheeseburger he’d ever seen in his life, according to him.” The other side of his mouth curled, and he graced her with one of those rare, out-of-this-world smiles. “Now he laughs about it. He calls that move your ultimate cheeseburger gambit.”
“I shared with him. Eventually.” She couldn’t help but smile as she thought of his nine-year-old kid, a sullen little replica of his father if there ever was one. “But I made him work for it.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“What can I say, he was being a stubborn jerk. The only thing left to do was give him exactly what he said he wanted—no food—until he couldn’t stand it. You would’ve done the same thing in my position.”
“Hell, I’ve been in your position. Babying him only feeds the troll.”
She scoffed. “Baby him? No way was I about to baby him when he was clearly furious with everyone who was trying to help him. I make it a rule to never reward bad behavior.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is that why you’re making me think you don’t want anything to do with me now? You’re punishing me for my bad behavior?”
The way he put it made her blink her bleary eyes. “Wait, what? Why I’m making you think… what now?”
“Because if that’s the case,” he went on, ignoring her, “that actually means you’re holding out in order to get me to do what you want.”
“Huh? Wait, no—”
“In the case of my son, you told him you didn’t care if he was a bonehead who starved himself to death. Then you proceeded to eat right in front of him until he caved and demanded half your cheeseburger. Now you’re doing it again, only this time you’re doing it with me.”
She gaped at him. Maybe his demon kid had driven him insane. “I’m doing what again?”
“Really, I’m not.”
He shook his head, his dark eyes alight. “That’s exactly what you’re doing, but it’s cool, Serena. I see you.”
Holy shit. “And what do you see me doing, exactly?”
“You’re still interested in me.” That flabbergasting announcement came with a smile that was so arrogant it made her want to get back up on her aching feet, grab her trusty snow scraper, and bonk him repeatedly over the head with it. “That’s why you’re showing me the door so hard. With you pushing on me like that, you’ve got to know there’s no way I’m going to walk through it.”
“But I am showing you the door,” she said so loudly it was almost a shout. “In fact, if a magic door suddenly popped up in this parking lot, I’d shove you through it so hard you’d land in the factory where Sully and Mike Wazowski work.”
“It’s good that you like kid’s movies,” he remarked on a chuckle, and that weird warmth filled her yet again, like she’d drunk too much wine. “Monsters, Inc. is one of Mattie’s favorites. We should all watch it some time. You like family movie nights, yeah?”
What the hell. “Um, yeah. With family.”
“Mattie and I are a family. That’ll be good enough for you. Drive safely, you hear me?” he added, backing away, and his tone shifted to one of great seriousness. “I know your ass is dragging, so don’t you dare fall asleep behind that wheel.”
More unnerved than she wanted to admit, Serena reached for her seatbelt. “I won’t.”
“And give me a call when you get home so I know you made it there in one piece.”
“I don’t have your phone number anymore,” she told him with no small amount of relish. “Rude people who stand me up get deleted.”
He pulled out his phone. “Give me your number again. I lost it when my phone went for a swim.”
“I can’t remember it,” she lied, then shut the car door before he could say another word.
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