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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