Early Release for LOKI!

Announcement! I’m releasing HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI early! *throws confetti*


The reason for the schedule change? One of my beta readers found a couple of issues, but by the time I got those issues fixed, Amazon had locked the proverbial gates and editing wasn’t possible. So, since I’m determined to put my very best effort out into the world, I’m pulling LOKI’s pre-order and hitting the “PUBLISH NOW!” button! Wheeee!

But since the book still won’t release for a few hours, why not get a sneak preview right now? Here’s the first chapter of HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI!

Chapter One

Slow boil. Usually Alice prided herself in being the epitome of caution, refusing to give in to that legendary Halliday rage that burned so easily inside.

But now?

If she made it through the day without strangling someone, it’d be a miracle.

“Welcome to House Of Payne.” A tall woman approached, decked out in a ‘50s-style dress with petticoats for days, and hair as bright fuchsia as her dress. “Are you here for a tattoo? If so, I can get you checked in over there at the front desk.”

Alice didn’t bother glancing in the direction the shockingly pink woman indicated. “I’m not here for a tattoo. I’m here because I want to kill someone with my bare hands. Or at the very least, talk to him. Is a guy by the name of Loki in?”

She had to hand it to the pink lady. Her spectacularly made-up eyes barely widened. “Are you armed?”

For crying out loud. “Of course not.”

The pink woman seemed unimpressed with her indignation. “You did say you wanted to kill someone.”

“With my freaking hands, not with a gun. Guns are barbaric.” Then she took a deep breath and gripped her hands together, grappling with the horrible fury thrumming inside. Wanting to kill someone with her bare hands wasn’t cool. Saying she wanted to kill someone with her bare hands was even worse.

Considering that she was the child of a man who’d died as a rage monster, she seriously needed to get her shit together.

“Are you a woman he’s done wrong?” Understandably, the pink woman didn’t appear to be overly anxious to let Alice enter any deeper into the building, much less talk to one of their employees. “Because if you are, my sympathies, sister, and I sincerely mean that. But this is a place of business. That kind of soap-opera bullshit doesn’t get played out under this roof. You can wait to uncork whatever can of whoop-ass you want on Loki in the privacy of your own home. Dirty laundry doesn’t get aired here in the lobby, you understand me?”

“I don’t know him.” Nor did she want to, but by damn, someone had to hold the bastard accountable. “I’m not going to ask again. Is. Loki. Here?”

The pink lady took her time looking her over, and Alice was more than happy to shoot that look back in spades. They were almost the same height, though the pink chick had an inch or so on her, thanks to some wicked-looking stilettos. Flower tattoos decorated her upper chest and shoulders exposed by the dress’s scoop collar, as well as down the upper part of her arms. But, despite all the girly frills of pretty flower tats, spiky heels, cat’s eye makeup and ruffled petticoats, the set of the woman’s jaw and hard look in her eyes told Alice this woman had never been a pushover in her life. Not even in her diaper days.

“Yeah, you’ve got trouble written all over you,” the pink lady announced, and Alice blinked. It was like she was reading her mind. “You wanna know what I see when I look at you?”

“No offense, but I don’t actually care what you see.”

 “I see a hardcore, cast-iron bitch who gives zero fucks when it comes to playing nice with others,” the pink lady went on, clearly ignoring her. “How close am I?”

Alice gripped her hands that much tighter. “It’s like you’ve known me since birth. Do you have a point?”

“Yeah, you definitely don’t play nice,” she muttered, as if to herself. “Fact is, I spotted you from all the way across the lobby. That’s why I came over. Is there any point in trying to talk you out of this?”

“This is happening, one way or another.”

“Figured.” She studied Alice through narrowed eyes. “Before I say whether or not Loki is here, I’m going to give you some advice.”

Ugh. “Must you?”

“Yeah. I must.” The woman threw out a sassy hip and planted a manicured hand on it. “It’s more like information rather than advice, but here it is. While I give you props for your honesty, you need to know that everyone under this roof is considered family. Loki might be a dick, but he’s our dick. You roll up on him, you roll up on all of us. That should at least give you pause. Does it?”

“No.”

Pinkie’s mouth tightened. “He’s also about twice your size and weight, so that means the only person who’s going to get hurt around here is you if you keep bearing down on whatever problem it is you’ve got with him. Walk away now while you still can.”

“I get what it is to have family you find along the way.” Alice struggled to swallow the simple fuck you that desperately wanted to come out. Pinkie wasn’t the target of her anger, after all. “Loki busted up my foster brother, landed him in the hospital, and took the payroll he’d had with him. That, in turn, lost me my job at my foster brother’s gym, because he’s decided the only thing left for him to do is declare bankruptcy and crawl away with his tail tucked between his legs.”

Her eyes widened. “Why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“My foster brother won’t go. Out of all the injuries Loki gave him, the injury to his pride seems to be the most crippling.”

Pinkie waited a beat. “And you believe him?”

What the hell. “I believe my foster brother has a broken jaw and eight teeth he’s never going to see again. I believe I have an empty bank account and can’t make rent, just like all the other gym employees, because the payroll was taken by Loki. I believe this Loki asshole needs to give that money back before we’re all out on the streets, and I believe that I can persuade him to do it. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I won’t give up until I find a way to make him do what’s right.”

“Not under this roof, you won’t,” came the flat reply, and there was no softening in the other woman’s eyes. “Under this roof, it’s nothing but calm professionalism that caters solely to our clientele. I take great pleasure in crushing troublemakers like bugs if they come in here trying to disrupt that peace.”

Fuck. “Great. Thanks for wasting my time.”

“But,” the woman went on when Alice started to stomp away, “whatever happens beyond these walls isn’t my problem. You’re on a mission, I can see that. Gotta say, it’s an unbelievably stupid mission, because it won’t fix whatever actually happened to your foster brother and his money. Nor is it going to bring your job back, and it’ll likely get you landed in a hospital bed right next to your foster brother. So, yeah—stupid. But I can also see nothing is going to stop you until you land your stupid ass in that hospital bed, so I might as well try to minimize your damage as much as I can and keep some kind of control over this crappy situation.”

Alice scowled. How many times had she been called stupid? “Besides calling me stupid three times over, what exactly are you saying?”

“Loki parks his chopper out back in the employee parking lot.” The woman ignored her comment—no doubt Pinkie deemed it as stupid as the rest of her—and pulled a phone from her skirt’s slash pocket to tap on it. “It’s the only Harley out there, and he loves it more than anything. In fact, it’s probably the only thing in the world he’s ever loved, which tells you a lot about what kind of person he is, but whatever.” Clearing her throat, she brought the phone up, but didn’t put it to her ear like Alice had expected. Instead, she put it to her mouth, looking up toward the second-floor level. “Attention, House employees. Attention.”

Alice’s eyes widened as the woman’s voice sounded throughout the building over some internal PA system.

“Loki, your presence is required downstairs. It seems someone is messing with your bike.” With that, the woman pointed toward a metal door partially hidden beneath a set of glass block and metal stairs. “Employee parking lot’s through there. You have about thirty seconds to get there. Try not to die. I’d hate to have you on my conscience for the rest of my life.”

“Thanks.” Alice paused just long enough to give her a tight smile. “Seriously. Thank you.”

“Lady, I just organized your death, so don’t thank me for it. Oh, but I should probably know your name. You know, for your epitaph.”

“Alice Halliday. Feel free to donate my body to science.” With a curt nod, she moved through the door and into the parking lot.

All she needed to do was convince this Loki asshole to return the money, she thought, moving past the railing that outlined a nearly full parking lot. She would do whatever it took to make that happen. Threaten to go to the police. Appeal to his sense of compassion—if he had any—about the many lives he’d hurt with his selfish actions. Beat the shit out of him.

No, she chided herself, clamping down on the errant thought like the rabid thing it was. No violence. No matter how desperate her situation was, she wouldn’t give in to that horrible Halliday temper she’d inherited. No matter what, she was going to be the cautious, logically detached person she always tried to be. All she had to do was remember what her first taekwondo instructor had taught her when it came to self-discipline—he who loses control, loses.

Or, in her case, she.

She wasn’t going to lose control. She never lost control. It was a point of pride for her. From the age of twelve, she’d never lost control of her emotions. Not once. She was calm. She was careful. She was detached. Hell, she hadn’t even cried at her father’s funeral. She had this.

She had this.

The Harley was near the back and parked next to a pole bristling with security cameras that swiveled to track her movements. Eyeing the one that homed in on her first, she gave it a little wave.

It was always nice to be noticed.

The door exploded open, and a nightmarish beast of a man surged through.

Holy.

Fucking.

Shit.

Pinkie hadn’t been kidding about the man’s size. Most North American bears were smaller than this guy. He had the dangerous look down pat, too. Biker boots, a patch-covered jeans jacket with the arms cut off, or kutte, ripped jeans, Harley T-shirt and skull rings on several fingers. His close-cropped beard was a darker shade of blonde than his hair that glinted like hammered gold in the sun. He wore that hammered-gold hair longer than chin length, parted down the middle, with the sides tucked behind his multi-pierced ears in a way that should have lessened his overall masculine impact, but instead it only intensified it. She couldn’t tell what color his eyes were from that far away, but that was fine with her. She didn’t care.

The only thing she cared about was taking everything that had gone wrong in her life because of this bastard, and putting it right.

She could do this.

And yet…

Something told her that appealing to this hulk of a man’s compassion was going to be about as effective as asking water to not be wet.

“Get away from that bike, bitch,” he roared, his long legs eating up the distance at an alarming rate. Impossibly he seemed to increase in size as he went. The pink woman’s remark that she’d just arranged Alice’s funeral echoed through her head, but the memory of what this monster had done to poor Felix—and to her and the other gym employees—drowned it out.

No.

Survival instinct be damned.

No way was she running.

“I haven’t touched your dumbass, I’m-overcompensating-for-my-tiny-dick bike. But if you don’t like where I’m standing, why don’t you come over here and fucking move me, bitch?”

His fast roll came to such an abrupt stop it was like he hit an invisible wall. “What the fuck did you just say?”

Ha. “Oh. You don’t like being called bitch? I’ve been called that my whole life, so take it from an expert. Learn to embrace the label…bitch.”

“The name’s Loki, and I have no doubt you answer to bitch just fine. That wasn’t what I was talking about.” He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and cocked his head, his stance suddenly turning casual. “Did you just imply that I have a small dick?”

She blinked. Five seconds in, and they were already having a dick convo? That had to be some kind of record.

“Dude, you ride a Harley that has more chrome on it than all the cars from the 1950s put together. Either you have terminally shitty taste, or you’re packing a light load that no woman wants a part of.”

“Haven’t had any complaints so far.” The insult to his manhood didn’t seem to land the debilitating punch she’d been hoping for. If his lopsided grin was any indication, he thought she’d made a funny. “Wanna see?”

Geez. “If I wanted something to laugh at, I would’ve gone to the Comedy Club.”

“Such a mouthy brat,” he observed, but again his tone was surprisingly gentle as he stayed rooted to the spot, acting nothing at all like the berserker criminal Felix had described. “Mark my words, that mouth of yours is going to get you into a world of hurt someday.”

“But not today?” That would be very surprising, considering the amount of provocation she’d thrown his way. This wasn’t turning out the way she’d expected at all.

Crossing thickly muscled arms decorated with tattoos, he lifted a shoulder. “I don’t hurt women. It’s a personal code.”

“But you’re fine with hurting guys who are smaller than you, and then robbing them blind?”

That made his eyes narrow. “What?”

“You heard me.”

“I heard your words, but I have no fucking clue what they have to do with me. Who are you, exactly?”

“Answer the damn question. You get off on beating up helpless guys who are smaller than you and have no hope of laying you out, don’t you?”

“I’m going to be honest here—I get off on a lot of things. Long legs and pouty lips. Fragile porcelain skin and raven hair. Big, dark eyes that burn with a deep-seated need for murder. Oh, yeah. I get off on a lot of shit. Randomly attacking crybaby weaklings isn’t one of them.”

Grimly she ignored the basic description of how he obviously saw her and gripped her hands together in an effort to quell her anger. “I’m not into murder.”

“Trust me, you are. I’ve seen that look before.” He sucked in a sharp breath between his teeth and gave her a hot and heavy glance. “Mm. Gotta say, you make it look sexy as fuck.”

Good grief. “Also, Felix isn’t a crybaby, or weak. He’s just smaller than you.”

“Felix, huh? He’s your man?”

“My friend.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right. You got your pretty little ass down here to bitch me out over a friend. Uh-huh.”

She who loses control, loses, Alice chanted to herself, gripping her hands so tightly her fingers went numb. She who loses control… “That’s right, pal. You put that friend—who was also my employer—in the hospital. What’s more, you stole the payroll off him after you broke him up nine ways to Sunday, which means none of us got paid.”

That stopped him cold. “Bullshit.”

“On top of that,” she went on, undeterred, “I’m out of a job, because Felix has decided to declare bankruptcy now that he’s got months of rehabilitation to go through. I’ve literally got nothing in the bank, I have no job, and it’s all because of you. You’re going to give that payroll back, and I’m here to make you do it.”

“Lady, I have no fucking clue what you’re talking about,” he announced, his brows snapping together in a scowl so terrible it took most of her strength to not crawl away into the nearest hole she could find. “I didn’t jump your man, and I sure as hell am no thief.”

Wasn’t he listening? “Felix is not my man.”

“And if this Felix fuckface dude told you that I just randomly beat him up out of fucking nowhere, then he really is a damn weakling by not copping to his own actions,” he sneered in obvious disgust. “Damn, I’m sorry I wasted my time on such a spineless little pissant.”

“Aha! There! You just admitted to tuning Felix up.” Finally.

“I’m not admitting shit, lady. All I’m willing to say is that I may have tuned your man up, but I don’t know that for a fact.”

Clearly, he believed she was an idiot. “You honestly expect me to believe you don’t know the man you jumped and robbed?”

“Again, I’m no thief, so you’re barking up the wrong fucking tree on that score. And I don’t usually get the names of the people I bust up.”

“But you do bust people up.”

He gave a negligent shrug. “I do whatever I have to do whenever I need to blow off steam, but taking down names is the last thing on my mind whenever I’m in that kind of mood. Obviously that weak-ass Felix fuckface of yours is a different story. After all, he sent you here, so he must’ve picked up my name and where I work somewhere along the way.”

“Felix didn’t send me. It was my idea to come here.”

“Why? You want an apology?” A snort of what sounded like amusement escaped him. “That shit’s never going to happen, lady, no matter how hot you are.”

Holy crap. “I came here to make you clean up the vat of shit you’ve dumped onto Felix’s life—and therefore my life and the lives of all my fellow employees.”

“And how am I supposed to do that, Stems? Unbreak him?”

Stems? “You need to give the payroll back.”

“For the last time, I didn’t steal any fucking payroll, so there’s nothing for me to give back. I don’t know what happened to the money that this Felix fuckface dude says I took, but I’d be willing to bet he does. Talk to him again and see if his story changes.”

That dreaded Halliday rage built, fueled by desperation when she began to realize she might not be able to fix things after all. Don’t lose it, she silently pleaded with the rising tide of emotion. She who loses control… “I don’t have time for this shit. Give the money back, or I swear I’ll bring in the police.”

“Why haven’t you already?” Slowly he sauntered toward her, still looking surprisingly nonthreatening, despite being the largest tower of pure, muscle-bound masculinity she’d ever clapped eyes on. Even his tattoos looked like they had muscles, for crying out loud. “Why is it I’m talking to you, and not the police? If I robbed this Felix fuckface guy—”

“Are you seriously going to keep calling him that?”

“Yeah, I am. If Felix fuckface actually got robbed by me, why didn’t he call the cops? He obviously knows my name and where I work. If he really believed I took that money, all he had to do was pick up a damn phone. But it’s been ten days now, and no cops.”

Ten days,” she hissed, pouncing. “There. You see? You do remember robbing Felix and beating him to within an inch of his life.”

“Ten days ago was the last time I threw hands with someone, but that’s all it was. I never robbed anyone, Stems. You’ve been straight-up lied to, but you’re just too damn loyal and stubborn to see it.”

“Stop calling me Stems.”

“Your legs are the longest damn stems I’ve ever seen on a pretty little flower like you, so that’s never going to happen.”

Okay, screw this shit. “Look, if you don’t give the money back, then I’m going to have to go against Felix’s wishes and call the police.”

“Go ahead.” He stopped several paces away from her, a terrifyingly beautiful statue of masculine brutality just waiting to be unleashed, with the broadest shoulders she’d ever seen, a powerful chest Hercules would’ve been proud of, and muscle-corded arms as thick as her legs. “But before you do, answer the damn question. Why hasn’t Felix fuckface called the authorities himself? Think, Stems. I’ll bet deep down you know the answer.”

As much as she hated to admit it—least of all to this badass biker giant—that question had nagged at her from the get-go. There had been that one time, right before the death of Felix’s mother, that had shown Alice just how flawed her foster brother was… “I’ve tried reasoning with you. I tried appealing to your sense of compassion. Like I knew it would be, that was an epic fail. I’ve even threatened police. The only thing left to do is…is beat the money out of you.”

She waited for him to laugh. She supposed she should have been thankful he didn’t. “Uh… what?”

“You’ve left me with no other choice.” Methodically she plucked her phone and car keys from the pockets of her jeans, shoved them into her jacket’s pockets, then took her jacket off to drape it over the railing. For half a second she thought of setting her wallet aside for safekeeping as well, but this was Chicago, after all. She and her wallet would part ways only after her death.

Which, admittedly, might be in the next few minutes.

He looked like he was having trouble getting his jaw rehinged. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

“Since I was twelve years old, the only family I’ve had in this shitty world is Felix and his sister. I’d do anything for them. You went and fucked with Felix, so that means you fucked with me. Worse yet, I’m going to be homeless by this time next week if I don’t get back that payroll you stole. I literally haven’t slept in days, and I’m probably not thinking too clearly—”

“Yeah, that’s kinda apparent at this point.”

“And,” she plowed on, determinedly ignoring him, “beating the shit out of you won’t solve a thing. But I guarantee you it’s going to give me a moment’s true happiness in a world that’s been full of hurt for days on end. Right now, getting that kind of moment is good enough for me.”

He shook his head as if he needed to clear it. “So… basically you’re a ride-or-die chick for this Felix fuckface, is that it?”

 “In a nutshell.”

“That term’s been hijacked, you know. It used to mean that if bikers couldn’t ride and be as free as the wind, they’d rather be dead. Nowadays it describes women being goddamn idiots for shitbird men who don’t deserve that kind of brainwashed loyalty. In other words, you.”

Her eyes widened as her rage bounced up another notch, and the mantra of not losing control slipped away like it had never been. That was what losing control was all about, but she was too lost in it to notice. “Okay. Done talking now. Get your ass over here and take what’s coming to you.”

“No thanks.” The bastard had the audacity to yawn. “As much as I hate to repeat myself, I’m going to go ahead and repeat myself for you, because you’re sexy as hell, and you seem to be a slow-learner. Ready? Here it is. I. Don’t. Hurt. Women. Period. Even when they’re so fucking stupid, a good slap would probably knock some much-needed sense into their heads.”

Goddamn it. “You fucked with the only people I have as family. My life is in shambles. You should’ve thought of the consequences before you pulled any of that shit.”

“This Felix fuckface guy was the one who didn’t think of the consequences, lady. He should’ve thought of you and your life before he stepped up to me. Obviously, he didn’t.”

Her brain shut down. Everything in her shut down. Everything… but the Halliday rage. “Get over here.”

“No.”

Eyes on him, Alice put a hand on the bike’s chrome ape-hanger handlebars. Grim satisfaction speared through her when he went statue-still.

Hello, Achilles heel.

“Lady,” he said, his voice so soft it sent a shiver down her spine. “It’s your turn now to think about consequences, yeah? I don’t raise a hand to women, that’s true. But whether or not you’ve got a dick won’t mean fuckin’ shit to me if you’re looking to damage what’s mine.”

She gave the handlebar an experimental shake, then hesitated. It would take some muscle, but she could push it over. But the pink lady was right; it was clearly the one thing he loved, and enough damage had already been done. In good conscience, she couldn’t add to the misery. “Go ahead and try to stop me from—”

Holy shit, he was fast.

And he’d caught her in the middle of a sentence.

How rude.

It only took a couple steps for him to close the distance between them. As he did, his arms came up like a huge clamp to grab her in a smothering bearhug. She whirled away, keeping her weight on her toes before she dropped and spun into a low sweeping kick, the back of her leg slamming against his booted ankles.

She’d executed this sweep kick a thousand times before, both while in taekwondo tournaments and in teaching self-defense classes at Felix’s gym. She knew this move like she knew her own face. But, wow, pitting it against this breathtaking specimen of raw masculinity was something else again. It was like she’d kicked a tree trunk at its base. The impact of it jarred her so much it rattled her eyes in their sockets.

Holy crap, this guy was solid.

Luckily the ankle sweep did the trick—no doubt because she’d surprised him—and he went down on his ass. Smoothly she whirled with the momentum she’d created with the spin kick and struck a defensive pose. If she’d seen one of her self-defense students acting this way, she would have screamed at them for not running like hell at this point.

But she wasn’t trying to get away.

This man had to pay for the misery he’d caused, either in the money he’d stolen, or in blood.

The choice was his.

“Look at that.” The light in his eyes turned savage as he pushed to his booted feet with a fluidity that made her back up another step, her moves light and on her toes. “Little girl’s got some moves in her bag of tricks.”

“I haven’t been little since I was ten.”

“Yeah, you’ve got the kind of legs that probably looked gawky and ridiculous at that age. Bet all the kids called you names. Stretch, or Baby Giraffe, maybe.”

“Storky Alice, actually. But don’t worry about little ol’ me. I taught them not to.”

“Oh, I bet you did, Alice. Nice, old-fashioned name, by the way,” he went on, his smile a white slash in his beard while he watched her with eyes so strangely hot she felt scorched all over. “Good thing for you I’ve got a weakness for nice old-fashioned names and long, fuck-me-now legs. Good God, woman. You’re just about perfect, you know that?”

A wave of heat flashed through her that almost—almost—felt like alarm. “I just landed you on your finely toned ass, and you call me perfect? You must like it rough.”

“Oh, baby, I fuckin’ love it rough. And by the way, Stems, I’m thrilled you like the look of my ass. Believe me, that feeling’s more than mutual.”

Arrrgh. “Just get over here and take what’s coming to you.”

“Do I look stupid to you?”

“You look…” Hot. Indescribably, overwhelmingly hot, with eyes that were undressing her where she stood, and for some insane reason her brain was hopelessly distracted by it. “Powerful.”

“You know it.” He outright flexed, showing her without preening just how right she was. “Thing is, you’ve still got murder in your eyes. And while I’m crazy enough to find that so fucking hot I can hardly concentrate, I’m still smart enough to know you’re going to kick me to death with those heart-stopping stems once I get within range. Am I right?”

Shit. “You sound like you doubt I can do it. Come on over here. Let’s find out.”

“That’s the problem with pure kickers like you, Stems. Sure, you’ve got epic reach and speed, but you don’t have the greatest mobility when it comes to fighting, do you? Best fighters are a mongrel mix of wrestling, punching and kicking. Fighters like me.”

Damn him, he was bang-on target. “Come on over here and prove it.”

Again he shook his head. “See, when you’re a mongrel like me, your opponent never knows which form of attack is going to put you—”

He launched once more, this time interrupting himself. Idiot that she was, she fell for that distracting trick again, and reacted a half-second too late. She tried spinning away toward the main empty space separating the rows of parked cars, and almost made it.

Almost.

He caught her with one arm, and the next thing she knew her feet left the ground. A heartbeat after that, her back slammed the pavement, knocking the breath out of her. That was why it took her a second to realize that her head had hit too, but instead of hitting hard asphalt, it hit something… soft.

His hand.

Even as she’d been flying through the air, he’d clutched the massive mitt of his hand around the back of her head and kept it from splattering against the asphalt like an egg.

What…?

Did he actually just… save her? From his own attack?

No.

No, that couldn’t be.

The man her foster brother had described would never save her from harm. All he did was bring harm to others.

And yet…

His hand was still between her head and the pavement.

He most definitely saved her from a terrible injury.

What the actual fuck.

“You’re bad at this, Stems.” There was a hint of laughter in his voice, much to her outrage. Torn between that and genuine gratitude that her head wasn’t smashed like a melon all over the parking lot, her gaze jerked to his. Something weird fluttered in her chest when she looked into his eyes—only a handful of inches away—and discovered they were such a light brown they appeared gold. A heartbeat later she found she couldn’t move, with his body holding hers down, and his forearms trapping hers. “Props for your enthusiasm when it comes to caving my head in. I know you wanted to do me some damage, but you were too nice to push over my bike just now. You know what that tells me?”

This guy’s penchant for idle chats at weird moments was something else again. “Get… off… mother… fucker.”

“It tells me that you’re an inherently nice person. And, as an inherently nice person, you’re always going to be bad at this kind of shit, no matter how many moves you’ve got.” He pressed his weight down on her all the more, to show her that moving was something she’d be allowed to do only when he was in the mood for it. “Leave shit like this to the professional ass-kickers of the world, like me, because nice is one thing I’m not.”

An infuriated growl seethed out of her as she struggled uselessly to get out from under him. “Get off, you sonofabitch, or I’ll bite your damn nose off!”

When he burst out laughing, she honestly couldn’t blame him. Then, just as she gave serious consideration to headbutting him to get him to move, his mouth suddenly landed on hers.

What.

The.

hell.

By degrees, the rasp of his close-cropped beard on her skin and the press of his hard lips against hers seeped into her stunned senses. His touch was warm and vibrant and so overwhelmingly masculine it knocked every thought out of her head. Then it was over, and he was back to grinning down at her.

Like that, the rage inside her vanished without a trace. It was almost as if he’d thrown cold water on her. Or slapped her. Or…

Or kissed her.

Alice blinked, baffled and upset and holy crap, strangely unable to stop from focusing on how she could still feel the imprint of his lips on hers.

She who loses control, loses.

Yeah. That was her, all right.

A total loser.

“There we go.” He sounded inordinately pleased as he looked down at her, his hammered-gold hair hanging down in a way that seemed to almost curtain off the rest of the world. “That stopped the bite, or headbutt, or whatever the hell it was you were about to pull. Still wanna kill me?”

Yes.” She shouted it so loudly she hurt her throat, before huffing in a growing sense of soul-crushing humiliation. Dear God, she’d let her temper—that murderous Halliday temper—get the better of her, when she’d never allowed that to happen before. Never. How could she ever forgive herself for this horrible lapse? “Except I can’t. You’re way more than I can handle.”

“Yes, I am. Though, honestly, I doubt there’s a man alive who can handle you. ‘Cept me, of course.”

With the embarrassment of losing her vaunted cool swallowing her whole, she barely heard him. “I wanted so much to teach you a lesson… Damn it.”

“What lesson would that be?”

“The lesson that you can’t just screw with people’s lives and get away with it. But…” Again she struggled, hating how hot his thighs were against hers. Honestly, the man could rent himself out during the winter months as an organic space heater. “But I was the one who got taught a lesson instead.”

“Hell, yeah, you did.”

Great. Now he was laughing at her wild-eyed lunacy. She swallowed against the hard knot in her throat and looked away, all too aware that this was what she deserved for losing control of the dreaded Halliday temper. “Maybe I should be grateful I can still walk away… And I will walk away, I swear, just as soon as you let me up.” In point of fact, she’d run, not walk, as far from this place as she could to make sure they never crossed paths again. If she had to call the police to get that payroll back, then fine. But never again would she darken this man’s doorstep.

“Hm.” She felt his gaze slide over her for what seemed like forever. “Yeah, nah. I don’t believe you.”

Her eyes widened before she began struggling in earnest, knowing instinctively that her humiliation over her loss of control was about to find new depths. “Get off of me, you—”

“Here’s the way I see it,” he went on, ignoring her while at the same time refusing to let her go. “Either you’re going to crawl away like a whipped dog, or you’re going to get even more crazy and come at me like some vengeful maniac. I can’t have that, Alice, especially here at my place of work.”

Crazy.

Vengeful.

Maniac.

It was like he was trying to punch every button she’d had burned into her soul from the time she was twelve.

“You think I want a repeat performance of this?” she gritted out, torn between humiliation and fury. “I lost control, I admit it. That’s something that’s never happened before, and I never want it to happen again.”

A faint frown crossed his face. “What are you talking about? You seemed pretty much in control to me.”

“I came here to talk to you, not…this.” She wriggled her trapped arms against his for emphasis. “You’re obviously too much for me to handle. I might hate your guts for screwing up my life because you’re a selfish, violent asshole thief, but I’m not about to take you on again. I’m not frigging suicidal.”

Watching her with that curious frown in place, he slowly shook his head. “Try to understand my position, Stems. First off, you’re continuing to believe that I’m a thief who’s taken something from you. I haven’t taken a damn thing, but since you think I owe you something, you’re not going to stop until you feel you’ve exacted some kind of payment from me.”

“No, I—”

“Secondly, you’re the one who challenged me. Because of that, you promising to not be a pain in my ass somewhere down the road isn’t going to put my mind at ease, yeah? I need something more than that.”

What the hell could he possibly need from her? “Let me make this perfectly clear. I do not care what you need, because I’m not a part of your life, and you’re not a part of mine. Let me up, and I swear to everything I hold holy that you’ll never see me again.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.” God knew she never wanted to see him again. He was a living reminder that she was nothing more than a chip off her father’s block.

“Hm,” he said again, his head tilting as if in thought. Then he shrugged. “Too bad for you that’s not what I want.”

She scowled up at him, baffled. “What?”

“Never seeing you again is not what I want. What I want is an even playing field.”

“What does that even m—” Before she could finish the question, he was up on his feet and pulling her to a standing position as well. The moment she was vertical, she turned and began to walk away, only to be grabbed from behind. A massive, muscled arm slashed diagonally across her torso like a seatbelt, his forearm between her breasts and his hand clamped hard on her shoulder. Automatically she stomped down on his foot with her heel, then groaned when it felt like she’d stomped down on a rock.

Damn those steel-toed biker boots.

“Even playing field, Stems,” he said again, his mouth close to her ear. “You know way more about me than I know about you, but that’s about to change.” To her outrage, his hand groped her ass. In an instant she bucked, first trying to elbow him in the ribs, then crouching and trying to flip him over her own back. He seemed to know every trick she had and evaded every time. Then, just when she started to panic, she felt a tug at her back pocket before she was abruptly released. In an instant, she whirled around with a roundhouse kick—which he deftly avoided. He barely even looked at her, his attention instead on the wallet he held.

Her wallet.

Oh, no.

“Well, well. Hello there, Alice Kathleen Halliday, aged twenty-three,” he read out loud, then shot a frown her way. “What’s a good Irish girl like you doing with an apartment in Little Italy? You are Irish, right? According to your pictures here, you really go all out for Chicago’s annual St. Paddy’s Day festivities. Looks like you and I both have a fondness for green beer. Gotta love our hometown’s traditions, am I right?”

Fucking… fucker. “Give that back, you—”

“Loki.” The metal door leading into House of Payne slammed open, and suddenly the pink woman was there, hands on hips and death in her eyes. “Work. Now.”

“Ah. Looks like Mom got worried about me getting all handsy with you, Alice.” Plucking his phone from his back pocket, he took a pic—no doubt of her driver’s license—before he threw the wallet back to her. “But since she obviously set this meeting up between the two of us, she doesn’t have anything to bitch about. Do you, Scout?”

The pink woman, Scout, didn’t blink. “Don’t you make me fucking repeat myself.”

“See that, Alice? That right there is how to be genuinely scary. You should take notes.” With an unrepentant grin, he headed in Scout’s direction, only to detour to pick up the jacket Alice had draped over the railing. “Yours, right?”

Alice stepped forward, hand out. “Yes.”

“Not anymore.” With a shrug, he moved toward the door. “You want it back, meet me tonight at midnight outside Lyric Opera’s main entrance. Don’t be late.”

Oh, shit. “Wait, my car keys and phone are in there—”

But he was already gone.

“Like I said,” Scout offered after a moment, looking remarkably unsympathetic. “Stupid. From this point on, especially now that you’re on Loki’s radar, you might want to live a smarter life. Being TSTL—too stupid to live—doesn’t fly here at the House, Alice Halliday.”

With that pearl of wisdom dropping like an anvil on Alice’s head, Scout went back into the building with a sassy swirl of petticoats.

***

There you go! HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI will be releasing in the next 24-48 hours, so be sure to look for this Gravedigger bad boy. He may have gotten swept off his feet–literally!–by his Alice, but this protective Alpha male is certain to sweep YOU off your feet! (And if there’s anyone out there who loves a good grovel from a powerful male, this is DEFINITELY the book for you.)

Black Friday Sale PLUS An Update!

Happy Thanksgiving for those who celebrate! As much as I love Turkey Day, my favorite time of the year—Black Friday—is almost here! *happy dance*

To celebrate, HOUSE OF PAYNE: PAYNE, HOUSE OF PAYNE: SCOUT, HOUSE OF PAYNE: TWIST, and BRUISED will be on sale for $0.99 from Friday through Monday–yay!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year to fill your ereader or the ereader of your loved ones with all the hot Alpha male goodness my heroes have to offer. Don’t hesitate on that one-clicking—this sale ends Monday!

Also, quick update status on HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI. I’m about halfway through (Chapter 11 of an estimated 20 chapters). I was hoping to be a bit further along, but I got hit with a virus that turned into bronchitis and a double ear infection, so that slowed me down a bit (like, a lot). I’m still hoping for a late January release. Fingers crossed!

After LOKI, I’m already blocking out chapters for the final book in the Brody Brothers series, BROKEN. The biggest problem has been getting the right feeling for the heroine, but I think I’ve got that hammered out. I’m getting excited for Des’s story, so fleshing out his lady-love has been a real bonus.

I hope your Thanksgiving Day is filled with good food, good friends, happy family and memory-making moments that fill you with warmth and joy. I’m thankful for each and every one of you, my readers, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to entertain you with the greatest thing in the world—love everlasting!

CHECK OUT THE 1st CHAPTER OF HOUSE OF PAYNE: STYX!



I’m so excited to share Styx and Sydney’s story with you all, and it’s going to happen tomorrow! But I thought I’d give a little sneak peek of STYX’s first chapter NOW, because I’m funny like that. 🙂 Enjoy!

Chapter One

Gonna die, gonna die, gonna die.

Sydney’s hands were slick on her beloved Pokey’s steering wheel, and she threw another terrified glance at the rearview mirror.

The dark Caddy with no plates accelerated so fast all she could see was the car’s grill.

Ramming speed.

“Oh God, no.” She floored Pokey’s accelerator as hysteria-edged breaths panted out of her. She thought—prayed—she saw an opening in the traffic in the lane next to her. If she could just get off the freeway, she might have a chance of bringing this insane car chase to an end.

Why is this happening? Dear God, why?

She didn’t know.

Too bad she couldn’t stop and ask them.

Blindly she groped for the phone she’d left in her purse on the passenger seat. She cried in relief when she found it almost immediately and started dialing 911, only to drop the device when she had to grab the steering wheel to avoid hitting an idiotic car that cut in front of her.

Damn it.

Okay, screw the police, she thought, gripping the wheel with both hands once more while tears of frustration dripped down her face. She’d get herself to safety before calling them for help. The right lane next to her was clear. She could move over. The two lanes after that, though, were full of midday workers either going to or coming back from lunch—

A crunch of metal on metal ripped a scream from her even as her poor car fishtailed with the vicious bump from behind. She almost lost control as her trusty Camry tried to deal with the rear impact while going eighty down I-90.

“Go straight, go straight,” she screamed at her car, knowing with a clairvoyant-like clarity what would happen if she was forced sideways at that speed. Her car would flip, the roof of the car would crush in like a soda can, and there would be no livable space within the car’s interior.

In short, she’d die a grisly death.

It seemed to take forever to get Pokey back under control, but at last she got it, her icy hands wrapped around the steering wheel so hard they hurt. Just as she sent fervent thanks out to whatever guardian angels she had, she spotted a sign for a familiar exit.

Goose Island. Division Street.

Screw it.

She was done with waiting for people to kill her.

If she was going to die, it was going to be because she was trying to live, and not waiting for death to come get her.

With another scream tearing out of her, Sydney hit the brakes and wrenched the wheel sharply to the right, flew across four lanes of traffic, and shot onto the exit ramp. In her wake, the sound of screeching tires and blaring horns filled her ears.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” She didn’t care that the words were useless. They gave her comfort, because unlike the people chasing her, she had no intention of hurting anyone.

For a moment she was weightless as her car zoomed down the steep off-ramp. Then Pokey landed so heavily the undercarriage bottomed out and there was another horrible metallic crunching. She blew through a yellow-to-red light, turning a hard right amidst another symphony of car horns, but she didn’t bother to look at whatever she left in her wake.

The only thing that mattered now was escaping whoever was trying to murder her.

Home, her brain pounded at her, but logic overrode the instinct to hole up in what had always been a comfy, safe space. Home was one place she absolutely couldn’t go. The last thing she wanted to do was lead her attackers to her door. Bad enough they obviously knew what her car looked like. If they knew where she lived, she might as well get her final affairs in order.

What a nightmare.

In the minutes it took to shoot through Goose Island toward her neighborhood of Old Town, she racked her brain trying to figure out where she could go. A police station would have been ideal, but since she’d never been in this kind of trouble, she had no idea where the nearest station was. Second choice was getting pulled over by a cop for going sixty on a surface street, but clearly the old saying was true—there was never a cop around when you needed one.

Naturally.

Then she saw it.

A flash of a dark-colored car in her rearview mirror.

Wait.

Shit, was that the Caddy?

She wasn’t going to hang around to find out.

With her heart in her throat, Sydney swerved off Division Street, zigzagged randomly through the cross streets to wind up facing the other way on Division. With her dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree and something smoking under the hood, she parked in a lot in front of the strip mall located across the street from her apartment building.

It wasn’t home, but it was close.

The heavy humidity of an unusually warm autumn day slapped at Sydney the moment she dashed out of her smoking car, but she barely noticed as she tried to figure out what to do next. Again, her instinct was to run to a place where she knew was safe. Her best friend, Zemi, had a yoga studio, OMMniscience, tucked right in the middle of the strip mall, so maybe she could go there. Or maybe she should run into Edibles, the donut shop next to the studio, where she and Zemi usually landed after yoga class.

But to go to a place connected to her in any way could prove dangerous for everyone involved.

So no OMMniscience, and no Edibles.

But she couldn’t just stand there.

Without another thought, she sprinted past the strip mall and around the corner, eyes open wide for a random place to hide. The flash of light on a glass door as it slowly swung shut snagged her attention. Without another thought, she zipped through the glass door and into the high-rise building’s vestibule.

And crashed into a solid something that almost had her bouncing back out through the door.

“Whoa, lady.” Hands shot out to stabilize her even as a handful of mail scattered to the black and white tiled floor. “Where the hell’s the fire?”

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Out of breath and terrified she was going to throw up, Sydney glanced back through the glass door only to see a dark Cadillac—oh Geez, was that the same one? —drive by. “Oh my God, hide.”

“Are you fucking crazy?” the solid object demanded, but she didn’t listen as she grabbed him by his dark T-shirt and yanked him sharply to one side of the door with all the might she had in her 5’2” frame. For good measure she pivoted so that his back was to the glass door while she huddled as small as she could against him so that she was shielded by his rangy, solid body.

Any port in a storm.

“What. The. Hell.” The voice was aggravated, gruff, but he didn’t jump back or try to push her away. Instead arms came around her, and strangely, that feeling of being in a safe port while a storm raged around her increased. “Jesus. You’re shaking like a leaf.”

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” Apparently these were the only words her freaked-out brain was capable of producing. At least it was better than screaming.

He started to turn his head to look outside the glass door. “What are you so afrai—”

Don’t look.” Hastily she reached up and yanked his head back around…

And looked into the face of the man she’d been drooling over for the past two months.

Oh…

My…

God.

Every Thursday and Sunday, Sydney made sure she was at Market Place grocery store, ostensibly to work. But in actuality, she did her best to keep an avid lookout out for this delicious specimen of a man, who usually could be found putting a major dent in the frozen pizzas.

While he had dubious taste in food, the rest of him was perfection—short brown hair several shades darker than her own, strong dark brows that hooded pale blue eyes with long lashes, and a mouth that turned up at the corners even when fully relaxed. But even more fascinating than his riveting face was his ink.

The man was a walking work of art.

Literally.

His black T-shirt, emblazoned with the words House Of Payne, exposed muscular arms covered with tattoos all the way down to his wrists. His neck also sported some ink, just glimpses of colorful art peeking out from under his shirt’s neckline. She’d never been this close to him, so she hadn’t known about that intriguing art going up his neck. For a totally inappropriate second she wondered what she needed to do to get him to take his shirt off so she could get an even closer look.

Then she shook her head. Wow. She must be suffering some weird sort of nervous breakdown to wonder such a thing at a time like this.

 “It’s okay.” He looked down at her—way down, since she’s pretty much stopped growing around the age of thirteen—and gave her a smile that would have charmed the Devil himself. “You’re safe, all right? You got a boyfriend or something that’s hunting you down? I can take care of that shit, no worries.”

“No, I don’t have a boyfriend or anything like that.” Just to be on the safe side, she pulled him up against the wall, where all the apartment building’s mailboxes were located, and out of direct line of sight. “It’s the Brisket Bandit posse.”

He slow-blinked. “Uh…what?”

“I’m a secret shopper for Market Place grocery store, though that’s a secret, so don’t tell anyone. Otherwise I’d just be a shopper, not a secret one, and I’d certainly lose my Employee of the Month status if everyone knew I was a secret shopper.” Very carefully Sydney chanced a quick peek over his shoulder, then ducked back when a chatting couple walked by. Eek. “I finally caught the Brisket Bandit. Only come to find out, he’s not a solo act. He’s got a posse, and he sent them after me to murder me with their car.”

“Slow down.” Again he glanced over his shoulder, then gave her a look that clearly doubted her sanity. “A secret who? The brisket what? Wait, don’t answer,” he said when she opened her mouth to fill in the blanks. “I just need to know one thing. Are you supposed to be taking medication for anything? No judgment, I have impulse-control issues, so I know how it can be. I’m just wondering if you’ve missed a dose.”

For crying out loud… “Secret shoppers are employed by retailers to blend in with other shoppers, and we’re trained to spot shoplifters. Market Place has had a problem with big-ticket items disappearing, like brisket. That’s why this particular thief got branded with the name Brisket Bandit.”

“Catchy.”

“Thank you. I’m, uh, the one who made it up,” she added, while her face got hot. Great. Now she was babbling. Who cared about what name she’d slapped on her target? “Anyway, it’s taken a while, and we almost caught him over Labor Day weekend at the South Loop Market Place store a couple weeks back, but he got away before the cops could arrive.”

“So you work as a secret shopper slash undercover cop—”

“Oh, no. I’m not a cop. I mean, I don’t carry a gun, or anything like that.”

“I’m thinking you should.” Putting her firmly in the corner of the vestibule and out of sight, he bent to pick up his scattered mail, all the while keeping a sharp eye on the door. “So you work way the hell and gone down south, and these assholes chased you all the way up to Old Town?”

“I usually work at the Market Place store a few blocks from here.” What she didn’t mention was that was where she’d secretly perved all over him whenever he showed up on his frozen pizza shopping days. “I was subbing for another secret shopper who was out sick at a Market Place store over in South Loop. That’s where I finally caught the Brisket Bandit a couple hours ago. I did everything by the book, and I even had the police there waiting for me to run him out of the store right into their waiting arms, so he’s officially wrapped up and taken care of. Little did I know he had a crew watching and waiting for me in the parking lot. They saw me chase their guy, and decided to go after me on the freeway. I don’t even get why. I mean, I’m not the one who tackled him, slapped the handcuffs on him and carted him off to jail. The police did all that. What’s more, taking their anger out on me isn’t going to change anything. Why go after me?”

“Because they’re stupid, but not stupid enough to go after cops. A secret shopper like you is easy pickings. That pisses me off.”

“Sorry.” Belatedly she bent and gathered up the last of his dropped mail. “I’m really sorry I’m bothering you like this.”

“Stop apologizing, you haven’t done anything wrong. You got a name?”

“Sydney. Sydney Bishop.” She handed him his mail and tried to smile when all she felt like doing was bursting into freaked-out hysterics. “Hi.”

“Hi, Sydney Bishop. Terrance Hardwick, though everyone calls me Styx, except my mother.” His eyes never left hers as he took the mail from her. “You live in this building, Syd?”

Syd. That was cute. “I actually live across the street, in the red brick building with all those gorgeous big industrial windows. See?” Carefully she peeped through the glass door and pointed at her second-story window. “I just didn’t want to lead them right to my doorstep.”

“So you thought you’d lead them to mine? Kidding,” he chuckled when his statement filled her with such horror she gasped. “If they come here, they’ll get a helluva lot more than they ever bargained for. Not only do I know how to take care of assholes who like terrorizing women, but my family’s lousy with cops.” Rising from his crouch, he held out his hand to her. “One phone call, and I’ve got just about every hard case with a badge over here ready to defend you. That’s how my family rolls.”

“That’s great.” Sliding her hand into his, she slowly rose to her full height, and all the while she couldn’t seem to stop looking at him. Which wasn’t unusual when it came to her grocery store guy. From the moment she’d spotted him tossing frozen pizzas into his cart by the armload, she hadn’t been able to keep her eyes off him. “My family’s not at all like that.”

“Like what?”

“Supportive. If you’re not figuring out a way to make space travel fun and convenient for the masses, or winning a place on the Olympic team, then you’re ignored because you’re failing at life.” Too late, she bit her lip. Since when had she decided that sharing the pitiful low points of her life was a good way to flirt? She wouldn’t blame him if he ran for the nearest exit.

His dark brows shot up. “Your family’s into space travel… and the Olympics?”

“According to my parents, a goal isn’t worth aiming for unless you’re aiming for the very top.”

 “And I thought my family’s expectations were bad.” He cocked his head toward the sweeping lobby beyond an interior set of automatic glass doors. “You wanna come in and take a load off while I make a couple calls? You could say I’ve got the heart of Chicago PD on speed dial.”

“Um…” She looked into the lobby, not sure if he was inviting her into the building, or up to his place. At first glance, being invited up to her grocery store guy’s place was all sorts of awesome, but the fact was he was a stranger. He might be her idea of yummy, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t an ax murderer. “I’ve been too much trouble already. I’ll just hop across the street, get myself calmed down with a nice cup of tea, and call the police from there. At the very least, I’ve got to get them out here so they can take a look at the damage that was done to my poor Pokey and make a report.”

“Pokey?”

“My car. I name cars,” she added, then wondered if she had survived I-90 only to die of embarrassment at the feet of her grocery store guy. “I think it’s clear at this point that I’m easily amused.”

He took this in with a shake of the head. “You’re not walking across the street alone, Syd. Anything happens to you, that’s on me.”

Like that, the fear and dread flooded back in. “I can’t let you do that. For all I know, they’re right outside, waiting to run me over.”

“Calm down.” To her surprise, he reached out and hooked a strong hand around the nape of her neck. “What’d the car look like?”

“It, uh…” For some reason, it was hard to think with that warm, strong hand branding itself into her flesh. “A dark Cadillac sedan, dark gray or black. No license plate. It should have front-end damage because they rammed poor Pokey when we were on the freeway. If that car is waiting outside, we’re all going to die, so you are definitely not going out there with me. I’ll chance it alone.” She could dash across the street without getting hit. Probably.

Again, he shook his head as he let his hand drop. That’s very brave of you.”

“Thank you.”

“And unbelievably stupid.”

“Um…not thank you?”

“We’re not going to go playing in the street when there’s someone out there using their car as a fucking murder weapon.” With his mail clenched in one hand, his free hand grabbed hers. Before she was over the oddly delightful shock of his hand holding hers, he was dragging her through the automatic glass doors that led into the lobby. “I don’t have tea, but I make a mean cup of coffee, and I can get any number of cops you want here within the next five minutes. I’m not letting you go out there until I know you’re safe.”

“But—”

“No buts. Elevators are over here around the security desk—”

“Look, I just need to know one thing. Are you an ax murderer?”

That stopped him cold. “What?”

“I’ve had a hell of a day,” she said on a sigh, and she wasn’t surprised to see her free hand shake before she dragged it through her hair. “Catching the Brisket Bandit, nearly dying at eighty miles per hour on I-90, and then crashing headlong into you…” My crush for the past couple of months. “I just need to know I’m not jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire, because that’s pretty much how my luck has been today.”

“Ah, got it. You want assurances that I’ve never killed anyone with an ax.”

“Or any other implement. I’m not picky about details.”

“Uh-huh.” Without letting her go, he turned to the security desk, a good twenty feet away, sucked in a breath, and bellowed out, “Yo, Marty! Vouch for me, yeah? Lady here is worried I’m an ax murderer. Am I an ax murderer?”

An older man who strongly reminded her of Stan Lee leaned over the desk to get a good look at them. “Not that I know of. Why? Is she an ax murderer, and maybe she wants to meet like-minded people?”

“That’s a good question.” Turning back to her, the man known as Styx lowered his voice while Sydney gaped at them. “Are you an ax murderer?”

She shook her head, amazed that the majority of the people in the lobby ignored them, casually going about their business as if having a yelled-across-the-lobby conversation about ax murderers was a perfectly normal event. “You just yelled about murder in public.”

“It’s cool. Marty’s a retired badge and has seen it all when it comes to this city. Not to mention he used to be my dad’s partner when they were both in uniform, so he knows to just roll with whatever impulsive shit I toss his way. So? You an ax murderer?”

Wow. “I once killed a spider when I felt it crawling on my arm, but I swear it was an accident. I still feel guilty about it.”

“Spiders get my boot, with no guilt, but that’s about as scary as I get. That’s a promise, Syd. Okay?”

She took a deep breath, held it a moment, then took a leap of faith. “Okay.”

PRE-ORDER LINKS:⁠⠀⁠⠀⁠⠀
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HOUSE OF PAYNE: STYX Cover Reveal, Blurb and Release Date!

I’m so excited to finally share the cover and blurb for HOUSE OF PAYNE: STYX!

Fun fact: the cover I’m about to reveal is actually the second cover created for this project. The first one didn’t have the visual impact that I was going for, so I took another stab at it.

Gotta say, I’m pleased with how STYX turned out.

Very pleased. 🙂

HOUSE OF PAYNE: STYX

Sydney used to make plans. All her life she’d trained to be a ballerina, but that “plan” had turned out to be nothing more than a pipe dream. Reality now consisted of hunting down petty thieves and refusing to make any more pie-in-the-sky plans for her life. That’s why she never approaches the sexiest man she’s ever laid eyes on. Never again would she be crushed by pointless dreams.

Fate, however, had plans for her.

Styx Hardwick isn’t big on plans. As a tattooist at House Of Payne, he’s the black sheep in a family full of pragmatic cops. Now that his twin brother’s getting hitched, all eyes turn to him, the last of the single Hardwick siblings. Getting through his twin’s wedding is gonna be hell.

Or so he thinks.

When a pocket-sized goddess crashes into him with terror in her eyes, Styx’s world turns upside-down. Even scared out of her mind, Sydney is still the hottest thing to have ever graced his life. He offers her a deal—pretend to be his girlfriend until the wedding, while he does his damnedest to protect her from the danger closing in.

As a plan, it’s almost foolproof.

Almost.

92,000 words


***This standalone contemporary romance contains mild violence, a dash of instalove, and multiple sex scenes in lots of fun and possibly gravity-defying positions. 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***

The release date for HOUSE OF PAYNE: STYX is September 19th, 2019. Follow me on Twitter, Instagram (my favorite, heh) and Facebook for updates! ❤

BRUISED, the 3rd book in the Brody Brothers series, is LIVE!

Happy book birthday to Killian and Dallas, two of my all-time favorite characters!

To celebrate, I’m doing a little giveaway this Memorial Weekend–three $10 Amazon Gift Cards–so make sure to look at the entry at the bottom of this post. Winners will be randomly chosen by Rafflecopter. Good luck! 🙂

BLURB for BRUISED:

“You’re coming with me.”

When Killian Brody showed up at Dallas Faircloth’s work with news that her half-brother might die without her help, she never expected the oldest and sexiest Brody to freaking kidnap her to seal the deal on her cooperation. 

The scandalous affair between Dallas’s mother and Killian’s father made everything inside Dallas revolt at the Brody name. It was because of a Brody that her world had been left in ruins at the age of eight, and she’d had to rebuild all on her own. She hated the Brodys. Which was too bad, really. Killian Brody was take-charge, arrogant and so damn sexy she would have climbed that rugged cowboy like a tree if it weren’t for that last name of his. 

Her mother had proven that the men in the Brody family were as dangerously addictive as any drug, and Dallas didn’t want to get hooked. But when Killian turns his sights on her and makes her believe she’s the one he can’t live without, she has a choice—play it safe, or dive in headfirst and risk falling in love with a Brody man.

85,000 words

***This standalone contemporary romance contains multiple sex scenes. Also contains an Alpha with serious impulse issues, a spicy heroine, a felonious kidnapping that may or may not count, and one teeny little spanking. 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***

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BRUISED COVER, BLURB and FIRST CHAPTER!

Guess what? BRUISED, the third book in the Brody Brothers series, releases Thursday, May 23rd!!! *throws confetti*

I think it’s time to share the blurb, don’t you?

BLURB:

“You’re coming with me.”

When Killian Brody showed up at Dallas Faircloth’s work with news that her half-brother might die without her help, she never expected the oldest and sexiest Brody to freaking kidnap her to seal the deal on her cooperation.

The scandalous affair between Dallas’s mother and Killian’s father made everything inside Dallas revolt at the Brody name. It was because of a Brody her world had been left in ruins at the age of eight, and she’d had to rebuild all on her own. She hated the Brodys. Which was too bad, really. Killian Brody was take-charge, arrogant and so damn sexy she would have climbed that rugged cowboy like a tree if it weren’t for that last name of his.

Her mother had proven the men in the Brody family were as dangerously addictive as any drug, and Dallas didn’t want to get hooked. But when Killian turns his sights on her and makes her believe she’s the one he can’t live without, she has a choice—play it safe, or dive in headfirst and risk falling in love with a Brody man.

85,000 words

***This standalone contemporary romance contains multiple sex scenes. Also contains an Alpha with serious impulse issues, a spicy heroine, a felonious kidnapping that may or may not count, and one teeny little spanking. 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***

But wait! There’s more! I’m sharing the first chapter as well! Feel free to read on…

Chapter One

“Two orders for a shot and a beer chaser, and one Bud Light in the bottle, uncapped, for the table by the jukebox.” Dallas Faircloth set her tray on the bar that ran most of the length of The Dive, and gave the pockmarked man behind it a spectacular side-eye. “By the way, the assholes over at the snooker table will be filing a complaint with the management, or so I’m told.”

Manny Espadero, owner of The Dive, crossed himself. “Fuck me, D, what’d you do now?”

What’d you do now was probably going to be engraved on her headstone, but whatever. “I should be praised for what I didn’t do. I didn’t dislocate the thumb of the hand that groped my ass. I came close, but I didn’t. You’re welcome.”

“Yolanda never had this kind of trouble.”

“According to you, my predecessor had to retire because her varicose veins and arthritic hips made it impossible for her to do this job without the use of her scooter.”

“Look around. Do I got room for a scooter?”

Annnnd, there went the point, flying right over Manny’s balding head. It was a wonder he hadn’t felt the breeze. “No one’s going to grope the ass of someone who just became a great grandmother. Or if they do, they’re total sickos,” she thought it prudent to add. “You don’t want sickos in here, do you, Manny? What kind of place are you running here, anyway?”

“Every conversation I start with you, I somehow wind up being the bad guy and feel like I have to apologize for shit I didn’t do. Order’s up,” he added, slamming the drinks on her tray and shooing a hand at her. “Get outta my hair before I lose any more of it.”

“You got it, boss.” Checking her tray, Dallas scanned the bar with a critical eye. The Dive wasn’t the worst place she’d ever worked, but it wasn’t winning any awards, either. Dark and moody with reddish lighting that tended to make everything look like it belonged in hell, there were exactly fourteen tables crammed into a space that had once been a carriage house, then a three-car garage-slash-workshop. Manny had bought the building a decade ago, got himself a liquor license and hung out a sign.

Since that sign read “The Dive,” Manny obviously hadn’t been aiming for any Michelin stars.

But it wasn’t horrible. Manny was a twenty-year Army vet, and that weird meticulousness the military instilled in its soldiers had stuck. Everything in the bar was old and worn, but absolutely spotless. Arguably the only piece of junk to be found was a stand-up piano crammed in next to the snooker table. Every time she saw it, her fingers itched to play. She’d played it only once, but the poor thing was so out of tune it instantly sent her in search of a tuning wrench and hammer. When Manny demanded to know what she was up to—and she’d explained she’d once apprenticed at a piano-making workshop—he’d rolled his eyes and called her a bullshit artist.

She’d cop to being a bullshit artist. It was one of her many, many talents.

But she still knew how to tune a damn piano.

There were other attractions besides the piano. A flatscreen TV—not high-def—was placed over the bar and tuned into whatever boxing matches or baseball games Manny could find. The snooker table was set up in what had once been some sort of machine shop, and the faint scent of oil still hung in the air. The ‘50s-style jukebox by the door had an amazing collection of records, from the 90s dating all the way back to the days of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.

Dallas adored it.

At the moment, The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” was warbling out as she counted heads. Several stools at the bar were occupied by The Dive’s regulars. Imogene, who was clearly sweet on Manny, nursed her one light beer. Then there was the trio of ranch hands who usually came in smelling like they’d mucked out every stall in Texas. Then there was the grocery store manager from Abel’s Market, the hardware store guy who learned not to make a pass at her early on, and Bitterthorn’s high school principal. She wasn’t sure what the school board would do if they knew the principal of their one and only high school got semi-shitfaced every night at The Dive, but she wasn’t about to tell anyone about it.

Why would she?

It’s not like she lived in Bitterthorn.

Besides which, the customers at the bar weren’t her problem. They belonged to Manny. She had the table section, which was awesome tip-wise, considering The Dive had good crowds just about every night. There was just one downside to her current part-time job—all the touchy-feely jerks who thought she was there to serve them something else besides drinks. Thankfully, they were learning. After a month of serving drinks at The Dive, just about every guy who walked into the joint knew that while she might be the daughter of Delphine Faircloth, she wasn’t the freaky, home-wrecking woman her mother was.

Pfft. Like that kind of crap was genetic.

Mr. Grabby-Hands had taken his wounded thumb over to a corner table, looking sullen as he muttered to his snickering, bearded friend. In the far corner her official babysitter, Gus Anders, kept his nose in his book—a Larry McMurtry novel, by the look of it—and pretended he wasn’t even there. It didn’t surprise her in the least that good ol’ Gus hadn’t lifted a finger when Mr. Grabby-Hands did his thing. Watching over her to make sure she didn’t run was one thing. Helping her was another.

Not that she needed help.

And she had no intention of running. She was exactly where she wanted to be—Bitterthorn, Texas, her birthplace, and the backdrop of all her crazy, wake-up-screaming nightmares.

Her attention slid back to Grabby-Hands and his buddy. Their glasses were empty, which meant one thing—fate hated her, because life was nothing more than a never-ending string of shit she didn’t want to go through, but had no other option.

So what else was new.

Gritting her teeth, Dallas held her tray in front of her like a shield, glanced at Gus—who slumped even further behind his book—and headed in their direction just as the door squeaked open. When the general volume suddenly fell so that only the TV and jukebox could be heard, Dallas’s stomach clenched. Not now, she silently prayed while continuing toward Mr. Grabby-Hands. I don’t need this hassle now.

“The fuck do you want?” Grabby-Hands looked up from his sullen examination of his thumb, which Dallas had pushed back sharply against its socket the moment the perv had made contact with her ass. She hadn’t applied enough pressure to pop it out of joint, but he was acting like he’d been crippled, the pussy.

“I see your glasses are empty.” Gamely trying for a neutral tone, Dallas was still smart enough to stay out of reach. “Need a refill?”

“Fuck you,” Grabby-Hands rejoined. Clearly, being captain of the debating team wasn’t something that was going to be found on his résumé.

“Uh-huh. How ‘bout you?” Turning to his bearded friend, Dallas raised her brows. “Want a refill?”

“Um, yeah, I guess. I’ll have—”

“Fuck, no, he don’t want nothing from you, bitch. We’re ordering nothing until you give me a fucking apology.”

Forget the debating team. It was a wonder this dude could tie his shoes. “If you’re not going to order anything, hit the bricks, pal. The sign on the door of this fine establishment says No Loitering. If you’re not drinking, you’re leaving.”

Grabby-Hands made a weird choking sound. She’d bet her tip money that he’d just stopped himself from asking what the word loitering meant. “We’ll order something when you apologize.”

“Apologize for what?”

“For almost breaking my thumb, you dumb cunt.”

What a baby. “It wouldn’t have happened if you’d kept your damn hands out of dangerous places, fool. So I guess I’m sorry you’re so stupid you didn’t expect any consequences when you shoved your hand up my skirt and groped me. How’s that for an apology?”

“You fucking whore.” He shot out of his chair like he worked on a spring, and Dallas braced herself, flipping her tray, edge-out, so that she could smash it against his Adam’s apple. But before he reached her, a huge, muscle-padded arm shot out from behind her, and an equally huge hand planted itself in the middle of Grabby-Hands’s chest in a textbook stiff-arm.

What…?

Grabby-Hands bounced back like he’d hit a wall made of rubber. He flew—holy crap, flew!—back into his chair, sitting back in it so hard it would have tipped over backwards if it hadn’t been braced up against the wall.

“You keep your ass glued to that fucking chair, you little weed, or I swear to Christ I’m gonna see how far I can shove your beer mug up your ass,” came the feral baritone voice Dallas had been hoping against hope she wouldn’t hear. But when had she ever been cut a break? Long ago, some unseen jerk in charge of her fate had decided she was going to be the butt of every joke in the universe. Big laughs for everyone.

Except her.

“What the…” Grabby-Hands flailed like a muppet in the nearly tipped-over chair, before grabbing the edge of the table to stabilize himself. “Who the fuck you think you are?”

“Killian Brody.” One stride of those long legs brought him into the space of Grabby-Hands, a man who Dallas suspected might be the stupidest human being on earth. “Any other brilliant questions, asshole?”

If it had been quiet in The Dive before, that name dropped it into mausoleum-like stillness. Even Dallas found herself holding her breath, and she again glanced at Gus, only to find the older, bowlegged man beating a hasty retreat out the nearest exit. No surprise there. She didn’t remember much about her birthplace of Bitterthorn, Texas, but even she knew not to mess with a Brody. Worse yet, Killian wasn’t just any Brody. He was the Brody. The biggest. The oldest. The smartest. And, oh yeah, the baddest of all the infamous Brody brothers. He was the visionary who’d rocketed the family from millionaires to billionaires in less than a decade. Crossing him was akin to shoving one’s head into the mouth of a hungry lion. Depending on his mood, he was a benevolent god among men or the Devil himself, bent on ruining lives without even trying.

And, of course, he was her kidnapper.

Grabby-Hands’s eyes widened to the point where she half-feared they’d pop out of their sockets. “K-Kill…”

“My bothers call me Kill. You’re not my brother.” He leaned down to semi-whisper the words to Grabby-Hands, and Dallas was sure she wasn’t the only one who shivered at the lethal sound. “You’re nothing, weed. Nothing but a piss-poor excuse of a man who has to bully women just to feel even a little bit superior, so don’t think a piss-poor weed like you gets to say my name.”

“Bully?” The idiot shook his head in protest, clearly oblivious to the fact that keeping his mouth shut was his safest bet. “Y-you got it all wrong, man. That crazy redheaded bitch attacked me outta nowhere. Suddenly grabbing my thumb and, like, shoving it so hard I thought she was gonna break it—”

Killian stilled. “Did you say… thumb?”

Oh, boy.

“You idiot,” she sighed, and actually felt the faintest hint of pity for Grabby-Hands. “Now you’ve done it.”

“Yeah, see, me and my friend were just minding our own business, not bothering no one. Then without any warning, that fucking ginger cunt comes up to where we were playing some snooker and she, uh… Um, she somehow gets a hold of my thumb, right? And then she—”

The tall tale Grabby-Hands was spinning didn’t get a chance to go any further. With a muted roar, Killian grabbed him by his shirt front—and a fair amount of skin as well, if the way Grabby-Hands screeched was any indication—picked him up like a wrestler readying a body slam, and headed for the door. One kick had it almost flying off its hinges before Killian tossed the man through it and out into the parking lot.

“You’d better go, too,” Dallas drawled to Grabby-Hands’s friend, who was sitting so still it was like Elsa had come along and frozen him to his chair. “Unless you want to be airmailed out of here like your pal.”

She got out of the way as the man did an impressive dash straight from his seated position.

Wow. Not bad.

If sprinting out of a chair ever became a thing, that dude would definitely win a medal.

“It’s called a finger-lock or a thumb-hold in self-defense, you fucking weed,” she heard Killian bellow at the man whom she assumed was now splattered all over The Dive’s parking lot. “The only reason she would’ve gotten a hold of your thumb was if you put it on her—exactly where the fuck it doesn’t belong. You took your dirty fucking hands and you put them on her. That means you need to get the fuck out of Bitterthorn and never come back, weed, because I will never let you rest here. If I ever see your sorry ass again, I’ll bury your piece-of-shit body where no one can fucking find it.”

“Nice,” Dallas muttered, shaking her head before wandering back to the bar to slap her tray down in front of Manny. “Death threats where everyone and their dog can hear them. A real brain trust, that one.”

“Fuckin’ Brodys don’t care, D. They’re like kings of the world, but like any patriotic American, I hate the idea of kings.” Manny sent a surly look at his poor, abused front door even as Killian headed back through it. “You’re paying to have my door fixed.”

Killian’s black glare put Manny’s to shame. “I paid for the table I broke last week, didn’t I? I’m good for it.”

That clearly was not the best thing to say to pacify Manny. “You keep comin’ in here breakin’ my shit, Brody. I know my dinky little bar ain’t nothing to the likes of you, with your fancy mansions and your airplanes and your fuckin’ jillion-dollar parties. But this dinky little bar is where I rule, you got that? When you show up, people leave and I lose money—and usually some furniture. You’re bad for business, and I’m tired of it.”

“I’m not the one who’s bad for your business, Espadero.” Still wearing an expression that suggested murder was his favorite hobby, Killian slid onto a barstool. Immediately the people already sitting at the bar vanished like Houdini impersonators. “Do yourself a favor and fire Dallas Faircloth. I promise you’ll never see me again.”

“Just like a man,” Dallas gritted out, pumping up the fury so the despair that had been threatening to devour her for weeks now didn’t sink its dark, paralyzing teeth into her heart. “Blame me for your bad behavior, just like Grabby-Hands did. Come to think of it, the resemblance between you and that loser is striking. Are you guys related?”

That swung his ominous attention her way, and she had to lock her spine in place not to cower. At first glance, Killian Brody was every woman’s dream. With his curling black hair waving almost to his massive shoulders, both ears pierced with green-colored studs, and another green-studded barbell piercing in his left brow right through a wicked looking scar, he was certainly the type of man she would have gone for. Several inches over six feet, built like Superman on his best day, a close-cropped beard that framed perfect lips, and eyes that matched the dark green of the body jewelry he preferred, he was just about perfect to look at. When he’d walked into the Sugar Land music store where she’d been working as assistant manager, she’d taken one look at him and wondered how she could talk him into the storage room without getting fired.

Then he’d introduced himself, a frigging Brody, and it was all she could do to keep from throwing up on his highly polished custom-made boots.

From there, things had gone downhill. Fast.

“You’d better explain yourself, woman,” Killian said in that almost-whisper that made her think all he wanted to do was scream like a demon. “What makes you think I’m anything like that fucking little weed?”

“First of all,” she said, leaning against the bar to look him right in the eye, when all she really wanted to do was flee in terror when he spoke in that scary-soft tone, “the weed blamed me for not enjoying the oh-so manly way he slimed his disgusting hand up my skirt to pinch my ass so hard I’m going to be wearing his filthy mark on my skin for at least a couple days. And just now, when your shitty behavior was pointed out to you—”

Ay, Dios mio, don’t make it worse, D,” Manny groaned.

“—instead of manning up and proving you’ve got some kind of spine, your automatic default response was to blame me. For what, by the way? For being here at The Dive? For existing? And secondly… How’s your thumb, Brody?”

The massage Killian had absently been giving the joint at the base of his thumb came to an abrupt halt. “My point—you wouldn’t get touched by unworthy slimeballs like that if you weren’t working here.”

“There you go, blaming me for existing again.”

“Damn it, that’s the last thing I’m saying,” he muttered, shaking his head. “You’ve got the whole victim thing down pat, don’t you?”

God, the arrogance… “What I’ve got down pat is the truth. Do you even know what that truth is?”

“That your idiotic life choices have led you to work in this shithole?”

“Fuck you,” Manny snarled.

“The truth,” Dallas pushed on, refusing to rise to the bait, “is that I wouldn’t have gotten touched if I were still in Sugar Land working my job in the music store where you found me, and not in fucking Bitterthorn. That’s the truth.”

Abruptly he shot to his feet, causing her to jump back and out of harm’s way. His eyes narrowed at her, as if her involuntary movement somehow offended him, before he dug into his back pocket for his wallet. “You’re here in town until you’re no longer needed. End of discussion. For the door,” he added to Manny and tossed some bills onto the bar. It didn’t surprise her one bit to discover he walked around with hundred-dollar bills the same way she walked around with quarters and dimes. “Is she working tomorrow?”

She can answer for herself,” Dallas snapped while Manny scooped up the cash.

“Yeah, she is,” Manny said, shoving the money into his pocket without ever taking his eyes off Killian. “And the next night, and the night after that. You might chase away all my customers, but the moment you’re gone they come back, better than ever. Your family isn’t as popular around here as you think, Brody.”

“That so?” Killian sent a glance around the room. The few patrons who had remained avoided making eye contact, but the hostility in the room was palpable. “It’s funny how you think any Brody man would ever give a shit about that, Espadero. See you tomorrow night.”

***

Ta-da! Talk about a rocky start! How will Dallas and Killian get themselves onto a smoother path? Is it even possible? Find out in just THREE DAYS, when BRUISED releases Thursday, May 23rd! *happy dance*

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