Welp. It’s done. The final chapter in the House of Payne saga is officially LIVE!
It’s hard to say goodbye to our friends at the House, but they go out with a bang in this final installment. (Bang. Heh. See what I did there? 😀 )
There are plenty of “last times” in this final book, but there are also plenty of “first times” as well. The first time our hero, Talon, meets the heroine, Zenni. The first time that attraction sparks and takes their breath away. And, of course, their first kiss.
First kisses are a BIG FREAKING DEAL for me in my projects, because they’re the last first kiss our lovebirds will ever have. Here’s a peek at Talon and Zenni’s first kiss. Enjoy!
It was like every cell in Zenni’s body decided to throw a party the moment Talon’s lips captured hers. That was the best way to describe the sudden whoosh of wild joy that hit her like a tsunami, while her brain was filled with one word only.
There was no hesitation. No awkwardness. Zenni melted into the kiss, rolling up on her tiptoes to meet him halfway while her arms curled around his neck, just in case he had some whacked-out idea about getting away. Clearly he didn’t, as he wrapped her up in those muscle-padded arms like he feared she’d disappear if he didn’t lock her to him. His hold was so firm she almost physically left the ground, and that would have been fine with her. In every other way that mattered, she had already been launched into the stratosphere by the power of his kiss alone.
It had to be said; until the night before when they’d had their series of almost-kisses, she’d never seriously believed she and Talon made any kind of sense. Their first meeting had been so disastrous she’d assumed nothing could overcome it. She’d screwed up with him by sneaking into places she knew she didn’t belong, provoking him to then screw up with her by throwing her out instead of letting security handle her.
That should have been the end of it.
The end of them.
But Talon hadn’t let that be the end. Clearly the man believed in impossibilities, because he’d accepted her apology for being a gatecrasher, then moved on like he’d been happy to turn the page to get to the good stuff.
Once he’d done that, it had been easy for her to do the same.
But damn, she still hadn’t imagined getting the breath kissed out of her less than forty-eight hours after crossing paths with him again.
Was it any wonder she was breathless? This man knew how to freaking kiss. His mouth sealed over hers in a way that made her irrationally think they’d never separate again. His lips were strong, yet soft enough to meld with hers, a heady combination she couldn’t get enough of.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
She couldn’t get enough of him.
Luckily Talon seemed to be in the same boat. The press of his mouth was demanding, almost urgent, like the earth would stop spinning if he didn’t make her bend to his absolute will. The tightening of his fingers in her short hair tilted her head back even more, opening her mouth to the bold thrust of his tongue.
It was like he’d invented the deep kiss and couldn’t wait to show off his expertise.
Lucky, lucky her.
She wouldn’t have been surprised if he felt the wild, bungee-jump ride her heart went on as his mouth made savage love to hers. She could feel the hammering of his heart as her breasts pressed against his torso, and she loved the raw intimacy of it. But as thrilling as it was, it was nothing compared to the increasing hardness of his cock pressed against her belly.
Now that was something to be thrilled about.
When his mouth at last lifted from hers, she opened her eyes, reveling in how her lips throbbed as if branded by his.
“Not too shabby,” she managed, licking her lips to soothe that distracting throb. When his eyes dropped to the motion and watched as if that was the most riveting thing he’d ever seen, she shocked herself by almost moaning out loud. “If I’d known you could kiss like that, I never would have thought of you as a big, scary bad guy.”
His eyes were as hot as she felt. “Now that you know, what do you think of me?”
“Well, you’re not scary. People who kiss in a way that make me believe in miracles can’t possibly be scary.”
“Damn, that good.” An arrogant smile curled a corner of his mouth, though his eyes still burned over her like fire. “I might be big, but what about the bad guy part? After a kiss like that, you should be ready to hit the eject button on that as well, yeah?”
Ha. He was cute when he was fishing for compliments. “Oh, you can kiss like a miracle and still be those other things.”
“Aren’t you the guy who nearly dislocated some dude’s arm last night?”
“Don’t tell me you would have preferred it if I’d let that date rape-drugging motherfucker hit you?”
“You make a good point,” she decided, then gave him a saucy smile. “It’s entirely possible I need to rethink a few things.”
Look for HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, the twelfth and final book in the House of Payne series on these platforms:
Hey there, all! I can hardly wait to share Talon’s story with you, so I’m going to go ahead and give you a sneak preview! Ready for the first chapter? Technically speaking, it’s the prologue, not the actual fist chapter, but the question still stands. Are you ready? Then here… we… go!
The lively beat of Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” echoed through the lower level of House Of Payne. A couple hundred of Chicago’s finest art aficionados, star athletes and TV personalities dressed in their glittery holiday finest chatted, laughed and hobnobbed amongst the studio’s white modular walls covered in original works of art. From the look of it, the Give and Grab Fine Art Charity Auction was another smashing success for the world-famous tattoo studio.
But that wasn’t the story Zenni Greer was after.
Flashing her press pass at one of the overly muscled security guards, she held her head high and swept in like she was supposed to be there. She should have been invited, damn it. She’d been covering House Of Payne from the time she’d been promoted to the Gossip section at her paper, Chicago Pulse, two years ago. Right from the beginning, she’d been determined to get to the bottom of why this one Chicago-based tattoo studio had become internationally known, when countless other studios never got to be a household name. Hell, she got her own ink done at an amazing little studio down south in Beverley, but nobody outside of that particular neighborhood knew Shamrock Tattoos even existed.
What was it about House Of Payne, and its founder, Sebastian Payne, that made it so unique?
That was the story that needed to be told, and she was the journalist who needed to tell it.
Unfortunately, somehow along the way she’d gotten on the bad side of those who ran the House. She wasn’t sure what she’d done; she’d simply asked what she thought were normal questions whenever House Of Payne held a presser, which seemed to be every other week since the studio tended to suffer a chaos outbreak on a regular basis. But even in those times of chaos, the famous tattoo studio always managed to land on its feet.
Chaos was basically how she viewed House Of Payne—constantly flirting with disaster, only to come out smelling like a rose. That wasn’t natural. There had to be something behind it. Bribes to health inspectors, perhaps? Or maybe there was something behind the whispers she’d heard recently of stolen artwork being used in tattoos without the authorization of the artists—something she was very sensitive about since her own father was a famous artist. There could even be under-the-table payments to celebrities to get their tattoos, and then splash the House Of Payne name all over the place. Paying off celebrities wasn’t illegal, of course. It was just shady.
There had to be something there.
All she had to do was find it.
Once she did, she’d finally get the hell out of Chicago Pulse’s god-awful, terminally shallow Gossip section.
Trying to look like she belonged there and wasn’t at all a bald-faced gatecrasher, Zenni did a quick sweep of the well-heeled crowd. Her heart nearly stopped when she spied Sebastian Payne and his wife, famed 3D artist, Becks, no more than six feet away. Trying to look casual, she stepped behind a tower of flatscreens flashing the pictures of the House’s all-star, award-winning tattooists, and feigned interest.
Max, AKA “Mad Max” won an international award for best spin on retro tattoos.
Angel Taylor-Santiago was the recipient of the Colorist of the Year award from Inked Out magazine.
Mads Daniels was the House’s “Fresh Face” after winning the Best Debut Artist award at InkCon.
Talon Levesque won Best in Show in Chicago’s For the Troops Tattoo-A-Thon.
Good for him.
Taking a chance, Zenni peeked around the flatscreen tower and breathed a sigh of relief. Whew. Sebastian Payne had moved off, his arm around his wife and flanked by a couple teenaged boys who looked like younger versions of himself, and a pair of girls so identical it was hard to believe they hadn’t come from the Overlook Hotel.
Excellent. His family should keep him nice and distracted.
Now all she had to do was fly under the radar of the manager and assistant manager of the place, Scout and Sunny. Honest to God, those two sharp-eyed women had mental telepathy or something. But if she could avoid them, she’d be good to go.
And speaking of going…
Grabbing a champagne glass from a passing server, Zenni pretended to sip at the bubbly as she made her way toward a flight of glass brick and metal stairs leading to the mezzanine level.
As long as she stayed down on the first floor where the charity event was happening, she could plausibly explain why she was there—she’d been sent by her paper to cover a social event, because that was what reporters from the Gossip section did. True, she hadn’t been on the list of members of the media invited to cover the event, but her presence wasn’t that alarming. She could even get a nice, gossipy story out of who was attending the auction, who put in bids for what pieces of art, and how much the event ultimately raised for a charity championing the plight of the homeless.
She could do that.
She could head upstairs and see what she could find snooping around in places the public had been banned from entering.
Playing it safe, or possibly finding something that would get her the hell out of the paper’s stupid society section.
There probably should have been better security at the stairs, Zenni thought as she zipped up to the second level. Looking at it from that perspective, it was practically their fault she wandered up there so easily.
As she reached the open space of the mezzanine level, she again pretended to sip at her champagne. Ugh. Generally speaking, she wasn’t a huge fan of any type of wine, though a good, earthy ale was something she enjoyed. Being a pop culture reporter for the Gossip section meant hitting all the swankiest soirees the Windy City had to offer, which sounded kickass at first. But after about a month of loud parties, cheap champagne and an endless parade of shallow people trying to out-glam everyone else in the room, she’d had her fill of it. Unfortunately, the job hadn’t had its fill of her, but that was okay. She knew how the ladder to success worked in the world of journalism. She had to pay her dues on her climb up, so that meant lots of pretending to drink champagne while keeping a sharp eye out for the story that would push her into the ranks of a true journalist.
Maybe tonight would be the night she found her story.
There were only a few partygoers up on the second level, probably because all the action was downstairs. A set of important-looking double doors loomed directly in front of her, but as she approached she spied a sign taped to the door.
Private. Do Not Enter.
Undeterred, she reached out and tried the handle.
Would now be a good time to see if she had any talent for picking locks?
She tried another door off to the right of those impressive double doors, tucked away in its own alcove and plastered with that same sign to stay out. That door was also locked. She was just about to give up when she saw caution tape draped in a dramatic X across the entrance of what she surmised were the tattooing booths.
Another Keep Out place.
Only this time the barrier was tape instead of a locked door.
She clicked her tongue as she stared at the tape. What was so important about keeping people out of tattooing booths? What could possibly be so sensitive that they had to warn the public away?
Putting up a big X of caution tape like that was just begging for trouble.
With a quick glance around, she set her champagne glass on the mezzanine railing and casually made her way toward the caution tape blocking the entrance of a wide hall created by frosted-glass booths. A light was placed above the door of each booth. All of them were dark, and she imagined that those lights were lit whenever the booths were occupied. Above the mouth of the hallway glowed a neon sign written in bold script.
From pain, beauty is born.
Considering the art she’d had tattooed on her own body, she could attest to that.
Private. DO NOT ENTER.
Zenni stared at the handwritten paper that had been torn out of a spiral notebook and stuck to the caution tape.
All caps meant yelling.
But since she’d come this far, it wouldn’t hurt to take a teensy peek.
When it came to height, Mother Nature had shortchanged her by a lot, so she barely had to duck when she moved past the boundary and into forbidden territory. Idly she hummed along with the music playing overhead, now Brian Setzer’s rowdy version of “Jingle Bells” as she dipped into a random booth, praying it was empty. If someone was there, she would be so totally busted…
An empty, neatly ordered booth greeted her. Square in shape, the area was big enough to comfortably hold a tattoo table, a steel workbench, a rolling tray table and a wheeled padded chair. Closer inspection of the chair revealed that it was actually a seat from what looked to be an army-style Jeep.
The army theme was also apparent in the rest of the booth’s décor, from a green and yellow US Army Military Police Corp flag with two crossed pistols, to several framed photos of soldiers, some of whom were injured, some who were gathered around a battered Humvee, and all dressed in brown khakis in some far-off rocky terrain. Aside from the collection of photos, a massive poster, displaying every patch and insignia of the US military, hung front and center on the wall facing the door. The workbench was immediately to her right, and in addition to holding all the usual tattooing equipment one would expect to see, there was also a shadowbox displaying some sort of military medal, with the words “Heroic and Meritorious Service in a Combat Zone” engraved on a small metal plaque.
Wow, she thought, reaching for the box. Now there was a story. If there was a real, honest-to-goodness war hero under the roof of House Of—
“What the fuck are you doing in here?”
“I’m sorry, I know I’m not supposed to b—” The rest of her automatic mea culpa ended in a hiss when her arm was wrenched behind her back to the point where she could scratch her own shoulder blade. Before she could do anything more than yelp in surprised pain, she found herself plastered face-first against the outside of the booth, the frosted glass cold against her stinging hot cheek.
“Holy crap, stop, stop, stop,” she squealed between grunts of pain. Ignoring her, the person who’d wrenched her arm behind her back—clearly a hulk of a man, going by the deep voice and the strength of the grip holding her in place—took his free hand and frisked her in a quick but thorough search. Holy shit. “For God’s sake, what are you doing?”
“Making sure you’re not boosting shit that doesn’t belong to you. Did you take anything? Answer now.”
“Boost…? Geez, no of course not,” Zenni said, horrified. “I’m no thief—”
“I’ll be the judge of that. What else did you touch? All the booths have been sterilized, which is why they’re off-fucking-limits. What else did you contaminate?”
Oops. Well, that explained why the tattooing booths were cordoned off. “Nothing. Look, I’m with the press, okay?” She tried looking around at the person, only to cry out when the armlock intensified and her shoulder spasmed with a cramp. “I swear, I’m a member of the press, from Chicago Pulse, covering the event downstairs.”
“Which is, as you say, downstairs.”
Okay, fair point. “I-I will be covering it, once I get down there…”
“You say you’re a member of the press?”
Thank God, she was getting through to him at last. The shoulder cramp had reached screaming levels, making it hard to breathe, much less think. “Yes. My press badge is in my right front pocket. Ask your fellow security guards downstairs, they checked my credentials and let me in—”
“What do you mean, they checked your credentials? Didn’t you have an invitation? Members of the press who were invited to cover this charity event tonight were all given invitations.”
Crap. “Yeah, well, I didn’t have one of those.”
“Uh-huh. If you’re a reporter, you should be able to read, right?”
What in the world? “Of course I can read.”
“Prove it. What does that sign say?” His free hand cupped the back of her head none too gently and jerked it around hard enough to make something pop in her neck. All at once she was fiercely grateful she kept her pale hair in a hyper-short pixie cut. She had the horrifying feeling the brute who’d captured her would have gleefully yanked on any hair he could have gotten a firm grip on. “Answer now, or I swear to God I’ll find ways of making you answer.”
He meant it. He actually fucking meant it.
Genuine fear rippled through her for the first time, the kind of fear that was wrapped around the core need to survive. She couldn’t move. She was helpless. At his mercy. This big, scary man didn’t mind that he was hurting her. Maybe he was even getting off on it.
But the main thing was that she couldn’t… fucking… move.
Did anyone know she was up here? Alone, with this monster?
If she screamed, would anyone even hear her over the party downstairs?
Her mouth had gone so dry she had to lick her lips to unglue them. “It says ‘private. Do not enter.’”
“Yet here you are. You must think rules don’t apply to you—” Abruptly he let go of her head, and half a second later she felt a tug on the pocket she’d indicated. “Zenobia Greer. Zenobia, huh? Too bad you’re named after a queen. A bottom-feeding, nosy-as-shit reporter like you is nowhere near deserving of such a kickass name.”
Great. An educated monster who enjoyed manhandling women while passing judgment. Just what the world needed. “Look, I’m sorry, I swear. Please, just let my arm—”
“Sorry? Nah. Not good enough.” Before she knew it, he spun her around and pushed her up against the wall. The relief of her arm being released was almost immediately swamped by a new wave of alarm as the man used the foot of height he had on her to loom over her like a nightmare. “You’re going to tell me exactly who you are, and what you’re doing nosing around in here. Tell me what you’re looking for.”
Staggered, she stared up into a face that would have made angels weep. Black curling hair in need of a trim tumbled over a scowling, square forehead. Winged brows shadowed eyes the color of a stormy sea—not gray or blue, but somewhere in between. Scruff that could have been labeled an actual beard framed a grimly held mouth. Everything about his face was grim. Grim and scary.
And suddenly familiar.
“Talon Levesque,” she whispered, stunned that the person who’d caught her hadn’t been a member of a crack security team after all, but rather one of the tattooists. Damn, the man certainly knew what he was about when it came to frisking a person.
His expression went from menacing to explosively violent. “That’s it. I’m throwing your trespassing ass out of here myself, and I’m going to love every fucking second of it. That’ll teach you to target me.”
“What? No, I saw your picture downstairs, on one of the monitors,” she blurted as he clamped a bear-sized hand around her upper arm and frog-marched her toward the stairs. “I swear, that’s how I know your name, so there’s no need to be alarmed. And I always try to tell the truth, so you know you can trust me on this. I’m not some weird stalker, or whatever it is you’re thinking. I’m not targeting you.”
“Pull the other one, lady,” he snarled, dragging her down the stairs in full view of all the glittering luminaries of Chicago. It would have been humiliating beyond words if she hadn’t been so caught up in trying not to trip on the stairs and break her neck. “I don’t know what you want from me, but I can guarantee you’re going to get nothing but my boot in your ass for your efforts. You can quote me, if that helps.”
“Talon?” A smart-looking woman in winter white and short, dark hair with platinum tips met them at the base of the stairs. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Getting rid of a gatecrasher who deserves to be thrown through the nearest goddamn window. Honest to Christ, Sunny, who the hell gatecrashes a fucking charity event for the homeless? I don’t think you can get any lower than that.”
Shit, shit, shit… “My name is Zenni Greer, and I’m a journalist. Your name is Sunny, right? We met briefly at your first press conference here at House Of Payne—”
“Talon, let go of the journalist, or I’ll deck you.” It was amazing how the woman, Sunny, managed to push those dangerous words through a sweet, clenched-teeth smile. “Better yet, I’ll get Scout. How’s that for scary?”
That seemed to actually give her violent-eyed captor pause. “Zenobia Greer doesn’t have an invite. She snuck in here on her press pass, then went upstairs where she knows she’s not supposed to be. It’d serve her right if we called the cops and pressed charges. At the very least we should give a hard shot at trying to ruin her career.”
Oh, dear God, no. “Look, I’m truly sorry, I know I went out of bounds, but I didn’t mean any harm. I swear I’ll never return to House Of Payne, if that’s what you want to hear, okay?”
Sunny put a smartphone to her ear, murmured something, then tilted her head toward the front of the building. “Talon, just hand her over to security and let them do their job. And do it quietly, please. No crazy scene, got it? Oh, and you’re needed on the showroom floor, so wrap this up quickly, yeah?”
The crazy didn’t leave her captor’s furious sea-colored eyes. “If the security team had done their fucking job, this pint-sized pain in the ass wouldn’t have gotten through in the first place. No way am I handing her off to them. I’ll take care of her myself.”
“Not through the window,” Sunny called after him, sounding alarmed.
“Fine,” he muttered under his breath and headed for the revolving door. As they approached and Zenni thought he might let up on her, she tried pulling away from him to go through the door under her own power.
Thank God, this nightmare was almost over…
“Where do you think you’re going? I didn’t give you permission to move, did I?” His hands tightened on her. She gasped as her feet suddenly left the ground, then the wind left her lungs in a whoosh when his shoulder hit her stomach in a none-too-gentle fireman’s lift.
So much for taking care of her quietly and not making a scene.
A handful of seconds later he tossed her—tossed her!—through the air. She had a jumbled vision of speeding toward the heavy revolving door, and automatically put up her hands to stop herself from smashing face-first into the wood, brass and glass. Sharp pain shot through her pinky as it bent backwards with the impact, and with genuine terror she looked back at the monster of a man even as she scrambled to find her feet.
“Don’t forget,” he growled, reaching out to spin the door with a brutish, muscled arm tattooed with Polynesian-styled tattoos, “don’t you ever fucking darken the door of House Of Payne again, you got that? If you do, you’ll have to deal with me, and I fucking hate journalists.”
Ta-da! There it is, the opening to HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it! *crosses fingers*
Be sure to keep a lookout for further updates as we get closer to TALON’s release on Monday, August 16th. Thanks for reading, friends! xoxo
HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON releases two weeks from today!
It’s about time to share the cover and blurb, dontcha think?
Just remember, this is THE LAST FIRST-GEN HOUSE OF PAYNE COVER EVER!!!
So I hope you enjoy it. 🙂
Annnnnd, now for the blurb!
When ambitious journalist Zenni Greer snuck into a House of Payne charity event, she’d hoped to discover what made the famous tattoo studio tick. What she found was a furious tattooist who didn’t appreciate her snooping around in his booth. When he threw her out the door—literally—she vowed to never cross paths with that terrifying man again.
Talon Levesque, former military police officer and tattooist at House of Payne, isn’t thrilled to be landed with the task of babysitting Zenni when her paper assigns her to profile him and his fellow tattooists. But his first impression of the nosy reporter changes when he sees Zenni in action. Her intellect, her compassion, her sharp wit, her pixie-like perfection—all that and more make for one sexy riddle he’s only too happy to solve.
No way can Zenni write a profile on Talon. He’s too dominating, too arrogant, too pushy… and too damn hot to be legal. She can’t resist his dirty-talking seduction, but she also can’t resist his mysterious past the military has labeled “classified.” When clues to a secret rescue mission that Talon was involved in fall into her lap, she has to decide what’s more important—her career, or Talon?
***This is the twelfth and final book in the HOUSE OF PAYNE series. This contemporary romance includes a rocky prologue, a satisfying epilogue and a whole lot of sexy-times shenanigans in between with an Alpha male that will make your toes curl. No cheating, no love triangles, no cliffhangers. HEA guaranteed. Due to adult language and sexual content, this book is not intended for people under the age of eighteen.***
There you have it! HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, the final book in the House of Payne series, releases August 16th!
Next week, keep an eye out for TALON’s 1st chapter. If you want the most up-to-date news on what I’m doing, please consider giving me a follow on Facebook, or joining my private “Readers Only” FB room, Stacy Gail’s Very Important Readers Room. That’s usually where I do all my first-look reveals!
So, I’ve just wrapped up HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON, which means I can now share a couple of secrets with you, my lovely readers!
1. TALON’s release date! The timing’s been tricky with this one, since my other job as a figure skating coach is wrapping up the summer training sesh with competitions and test sessions, and I’m traveling (FINALLY!) for a family reunion at the end of August. All that activity explains the slightly weird release date of…
2. This next bit of news is a VERY BIG DEAL. Ready?
HOUSE OF PAYNE: TALON will be the final HOUSE OF PAYNE book! *gasp*
At least for a long while.
I didn’t make this decision lightly. In fact, there will be a character left in that storyline that clearly needs to have their own HEA, and I show glimpses of Sebastian Payne’s teenaged kids, who are getting ready to be the next gen. BUT… for the most part, this generation of HoP characters and storylines are coming to a close. *wipes away tear*
I did my best to make sure TALON goes out with a bang, and the farewell in the epilogue… Well, you all know me by now, yeah? I LOVE ME A GOOD EPILOGUE. 😀
With the first gen of HoP behind me, I’m now free to turn my sights on two series I’ve been wanting to get to for a long, long time. The Gravediggers MC, and the Private Security International (PSI) men. I’ve been researching like crazy, and I can’t wait to get these two new series going! (And yes, for those of you who’ve asked, Luke Keyes will finally get his HEA ❤ )
3. The last piece of news is that I will be releasing a third (and final) novella linked to the HOUSE OF PAYNE series, entitled PARTY GIRL. Hannah Raven (a character named by my lovely peeps in my FB readers group) appears in TALON, and she had quite a rough go of it. I felt bad about that, so I thought she needed her own hero (who also happens to show up in TALON). Look for PARTY GIRL in late autumn/early winter!
So, there you have it! Lots of things are in the works. I’m so excited to explore this new territory with you. I hope you all have enjoyed the ride we took together for this first generation at HOUSE OF PAYNE. I promise, there are many more fun times to be had in the coming months!
What the heck do I mean by a novel novella? Welp, it’s simple. I had meant to write a novella–you know, just a fun little tale around 30K words. Instead, I wrote a 50K word full-length novel in less than three months, with lots of depth and secondary characters that made me grin.
But don’t worry! I’m still selling GOOD GIRL at a novella price of $2.99. Maybe that’ll make up for the fact that this book came out a month late!
Now, enough chitchat. Let’s get to that yummy 1st chapter of GOOD GIRL!
Serena Daniels looked up from securing her work locker’s padlock to find her friend and fellow pediatric nurse, Hannah Saito, heading her way. “Who?”
“Serena, come on.” Hannah spared her a chiding glance before opening her own locker a few doors down. “You know who I’m talking about.”
“I really don’t.” Liar. “By the way, your new scrubs are beyond cute, with all those Archie comic book characters,” she added, trying desperately to change the subject. “I used to love reading those comics when I was a kid, though I hated it whenever Archie went all gooey for Veronica. I’m a total Betty stan.”
“Ugh, you and me both. Unfortunately men seem to go for the mean girls, including Archie.” Hannah shot a pleased glance at her colorful new scrubs before she waved an impatient hand. “And speaking of mean, you totally know the guy I’m talking about. Remember that tall, dark and pushy guy who looks like a Greek god and supposedly owns the building? He came in with his super-bitey demon spawn last month around Christmas. Salvador or Salvatore. Something like that.”
“Salvatore.” At the name, Serena’s blood pressure put on a jetpack and shot straight up. The one person she’d be happy to never hear from again was Lorenzo Salvatore. “Did you say he’s back?”
“Yup.” Hannah nodded and pulled a hairband from her glossy black hair. “You know what they say about bad pennies—they always turn up when you least expect it. Though that dude is so hot I might be able to overlook that whole bad penny issue.”
Wasn’t that the truth. “His kid didn’t try to take his skateboard off the roof again, did he?”
“Thankfully I didn’t see his spawn’s name on the white board. I just caught a glimpse of the man hanging around with Heidi King. I wonder why we never see a Mrs. Moneybags? The kid’s got to have a mother.”
“Divorced.” When Hannah shot her a searching glance, Serena aimed for a casual shrug. “The kid mentioned it when he was here. He also told me that if his mom ever showed up, he’d throw himself out the window rather than see her.”
Hannah winced. “Yeesh. That doesn’t sound good.”
Her sentiments exactly. “She must have gotten that message, because I never saw her around here, did you?”
Hannah shook her head. “The kid’s yummy-looking father was the only parent I ever saw. Then again he was kind of hard to miss. Talk about a helicopter parent. You’d think his kid was dying, instead of in with a busted arm.”
“Maybe she doesn’t live anywhere close by.”
“Maybe,” came the absent reply as Hannah rooted through her locker. “Question is, what’s Mr. Moneybags doing back here now?”
“What if he’s here for some sort of I-own-this-place meeting that changes our lives around here forever? Guys like that love to throw their weight around. They never give a damn about how they upend everyone’s lives just because they want to run the show their way.”
“I’ve been thinking about all those rumors swirling around that guy.” Serena zipped up her insulated jacket and pulled out the red knit beret and mittens she’d stuffed into the jacket’s pockets when her shift started twelve long hours ago. She gave a ridiculous amount of attention to putting them on, because she didn’t want to admit she’d actually been thinking about Lorenzo the man, rather than the rumors about him. “This is Cook County’s brand-new Pediatric and Women’s Health Center, right?”
“Last time I checked.”
“Doesn’t that mean Cook County owns the hospital? There are all these rumors about Lorenzo Salvatore owning this place, but I’m not buying it. It doesn’t seem plausible that one dude could own a whole frigging hospital.”
“Somebody’s got to own it. Why not tall, dark and insanely pushy while still being a total sex bomb?”
“I don’t know.” Trying not to freak that Lorenzo Salvatore might actually be in the same building as her, Serena again tried for an air of nonchalance. “Maybe he just decided to float that rumor around when his kid was here.”
Hannah stared at her. “Why would he do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he thought sounding like some big shot would get his kid preferential treatment. Maybe he’s got inferiority issues and overcompensates by pumping himself up to godlike levels. Maybe he’s a pathological liar and a total epic dick.” And maybe she needed Lorenzo Salvatore to be as bad as could be, so she could convince herself she’d dodged a bullet when it came to having him in her life. “Remember that one lady who claimed she was the concubine of Justin Trudeau, and her child was—oh, how did she put it?—the fruit of their union?”
“Yeah, but that lady wound up in the psychiatric ward because the only thing wrong with her poor child was her,” Hannah drawled. “That’s life in the world of pediatric medicine.”
“Exactly. Which means I’m not going to believe anything I hear through the grapevine until I see his name on the deed to this lovely piece of real estate.”
Not that she cared enough to look into who exactly owned the hospital where she worked, Serena thought, digging for her car keys as she headed out of the locker room. Lozo’s signature wasn’t on her paycheck, so she’d be smart to not give him another thought.
An instinctive wince scrunched her nose before she could corral it. Grimly she pushed the wayward thought away and headed down a quiet back hallway lined with closed administration office doors, heading for the employees’ exit. Lozo was what Lorenzo Salvatore’s friends called him, or so he’d claimed on the one and only date she’d ever gone on with him. At the time she’d had the weirdest flutter when he’d insisted she call him that. Like he’d wanted her to think she was special. A friend. Maybe even on her way to being something more.
What a gullible rube she was.
She should have realized a jerk like Lorenzo Salvatore couldn’t possibly have any friends who called him anything, much less Lozo.
An office door belonging to her supervisor, Heidi King, opened up moments after she passed by. Hastily Serena quickened her pace and didn’t look back. No way was she going to get caught up in idle chitchat when all that mattered now was getting off of feet that felt every single one of the fourteen-thousand steps she’d already taken today—
“Ah, speak of the devil, there she is. Serena, do you have a minute?’
Grrrrrrr. “No, I don’t, Heidi. I’m sorry, but I’m already off the clock and I’ve got…” She made the unforgivable mistake of looking back, and her gaze ran slam-bang into Lorenzo Salvatore’s.
“Uh.” Furiously she tried to remember what she’d been saying, only to almost lose the thread all over again when Lorenzo’s sculpted face lit up with a crooked, predatory smile. Eek. “I’ve got two hard-earned days off, so guess what that means? So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye.”
“This won’t take but a minute, I swear.” Heidi, middle-aged, the mother of five and married since the dawn of time, seemed to be in a hormonal tailspin in the presence of such absurd levels of drool-worthy testosterone. As Serena watched, the other woman sent a fluttery gesture toward Lorenzo, and the glance she sent his way was downright coquettish. “Serena Daniels, pediatric RN, this is Lorenzo Salvatore, one of this hospital’s biggest benefactors.”
“I believe we’ve met.” Serena kept her voice neutral through sheer force of will. Oh, yes. She and Lorenzo Salvatore had definitely met. When his son, Matthew, had come in with a broken arm that needed to be surgically repaired, Lorenzo had demanded a nurse be in his son’s room every minute of the day. Never mind that there were other, far sicker children who needed that kind of attention. That didn’t matter to the great Lorenzo Salvatore. Oh, no. What had mattered was that his beloved son—who’d screamed and cursed at the hospital staff, bit Hannah, then went on a hunger strike because he wasn’t getting his way—was in pain.
Ultimately she’d had a showdown with the overbearing helicopter father. After he’d complained one time too many that she wasn’t giving his kid enough attention, she’d literally dragged him to the window of an isolation room occupied by a child who’d fallen through thin ice and had been underwater for several minutes. Then she’d told him in no uncertain terms that he should thank whatever pantheon of gods he believed in that his kid was destined to walk out of there with him someday, happy and whole. Some parents weren’t so lucky.
At the time she’d had no idea if she’d gotten through to him. Mainly because he was a frantic parent, and frantic parents were understandably not too big on calm and logic. But also because he’d accused her of not being able to comprehend what it was to have family, and to love them more than anything.
That was the exact moment she’d lost her mind.
Because that was the moment when she’d rashly invited him to a family dinner at her sister Mads’s house.
No one could have been more surprised than Serena when Lorenzo Salvatore actually said yes.
She honestly hadn’t liked Lorenzo when she’d accidentally invited him to dinner. Sure, he was gorgeous, with thick black hair that had a tendency to curl, scruff that was almost a beard, and onyx eyes so mesmerizing it was all she could do to stop herself from falling into them. But those hot Italian good looks were nothing when they were wedded to a self-absorbed personality. All she’d cared about in that moment was proving a point.
But then Lorenzo had shown up to that family dinner, complete with wine and flowers, and acted like a totally charming human being. As the night had progressed, she’d found herself staring at him time and again, amazed at how the rumble of his rare laughter moved through her like wine, and thrilling over how he’d insisted she call him Lozo.
She’d been stupid enough to think that dinner date might have been the start of something special. Vital, even. That was why she’d invited Lorenzo to a Christmas Eve art auction at her sister’s work, the famous tattoo studio, House Of Payne. She’d even worn her sexiest dress, strapped her hard-working feet into killer heels and dreamed of fenagling Lorenzo under the nearest mistletoe to see what that crooked mouth of his knew about kissing.
The bastard stood her up.
Which was fine, she’d told herself firmly. Totally. Utterly. Fine. Considering how they’d started out, she was obviously better off without having a pain in the ass like him around. The night he’d stood her up was the night she’d decided to forget he existed. In her opinion, it was the best damn Christmas present she’d ever given herself.
Yet now, here he was.
Fighting the desire to stomp her foot, Serena barely flicked a glance his way before pinning her attention on her supervisor. “I was on duty when his son, Matthew, was brought in for surgery for a badly broken arm. If his son is back, Darius Johns is the duty nurse now. As for me, I’m out, Heidi.”
“Mattie’s fine.” Lozo—no, Lorenzo Salvatore, she corrected herself fiercely—spoke for the first time. Grudgingly she turned her attention his way, only to find his gaze focused on her like a lion that had locked on to a wounded gazelle. “I’m not here because of my kid, Nurse Meanie. I’m here because of you.”
Nurse Meanie. Just one of the names his hunger-striking brat of a kid had come up with for her. Then the rest of his words sank in. “Wait, what? Because of me?” What the hell had she done now?
“That’s right.” Clearly delighted by this unexpected turn of events, Heidi clapped her hands together. “In the wake of the excellent care young Matthew received here, Mr. Salvatore has decided to fund a new activity center here on the pediatric floor, and guess what? You were the one who inspired this amazing generosity.”
“Oh. Really. Huh.” Well aware that nothing she’d done for Matthew had been good enough for either of the Salvatores, Heidi’s comment hit her like a joke, and she was the punch line. “Funny, I find that hard to believe.”
“What’s hard to believe? That you did a good job?” Much to her alarm, Lorenzo wandered closer, hands in his pockets. With a casual pose like that he should have looked harmless, but harmless was the one thing he’d never be. “You don’t strike me as the kind of person who doubts her abilities.”
“Oh, it’s not myself I’m doubting in this particular equation. I’m a freaking goddess, pal.” When Heidi gave her a vaguely horrified look, Serena looked to the ceiling and struggled for a more professional tone. “Whatever motivated you, I’m thrilled to hear there’s going to be a dedicated space for our recovering young patients to have some fun and normalcy brought into their lives.” With a smile that felt as fake as a three-dollar bill, she backed down the hall toward the exit. “Thanks for letting me know. Have a good weekend. Toodles.”
Thankfully Heidi was too aghast to say a word, so Serena took advantage by booking it as fast as she could to the stairwell door. She was just about convinced she’d made her escape when a large hand came from behind to clamp down on the door’s metal push-handle.
“I wasn’t finished. Which means you’re not finished, either… Nurse Meanie.”
Her stomach sank at Lorenzo’s gravelly baritone next to her ear, and the sudden heat radiating off his body told her just how much her personal space had been invaded. Instinctively she half-hopped sideways, not even caring how silly that probably looked, before she turned the full force of her glare on the man who clearly was intent on ruining her weekend.
On the surface, Lorenzo Salvatore was just about every woman’s lust-fueled dream. Even though she hated him, her hands still itched to smooth his curling black hair that always looked like he’d just gotten out of bed, and his liquid black eyes were so dark she couldn’t even see his pupils. The first time she’d locked gazes with him, she’d imagined that the devil himself had eyes like that—full of scorn and sin and the hottest black fire. His aggressively square jaw seemed to be perpetually covered in a five o’clock shadow, the scruff that much darker in the twin dimpled grooves on either side of his crooked mouth.
It was the tilt of that mouth that irked her. Even when she hadn’t known his name, she’d had that agitated reaction at the mere sight of it. It had a twist to one side, a perpetual, sardonic smirk that made him seem like he was scoffing at everything in general, and her in particular whenever he chose to focus on her.
And to think she’d been brainless enough to invite this smirking, black-eyed devil out on a date on Christmas Eve. What a moronic move that had been.
Good thing he’d ghosted her.
“Wow, look at you, thinking you can actually tell me when I’m done.” She sent him a scorching look. “Know your place.”
“Damn.” Far from being slapped back like she’d hoped, Lorenzo grinned as if delighted. “I knew you were pissed at me for not showing for our date, but I think I underestimated the level of pissiness you’ve got going on. You mad, Serena?”
The taunting tone—when he was the one who’d stood her up, goddamn it—told her that he didn’t like it when people called him out on his bad behavior. That was just the kind of person she didn’t need in her life. “I cannot stress this enough, so listen closely when I say it. Ready? Here it is. Fuck off.” With that, she shouldered his arm out of the way and pushed through the door leading to the stairwell.
There. Mission accomplished.
She could hear his steps on the stairs right behind her.
Maybe he was leaving too, she thought nervously, fighting the nearly crushing urge to look over her shoulder. Maybe he had somehow parked in the gated and guarded Employees Only parking lot, and this was the fastest way out to his car.
“I’m not saying I don’t deserve you being pissed off at me.” He dropped into step beside her the moment she pushed through the heavy metal exit door and into the twilight-shrouded, freshly plowed parking lot. “But it’s only fair you give me a chance to make up for it.”
She snorted and hit her car’s key fob. “Dude, you stood me up, then didn’t get in touch with me for literally weeks. Barring an excuse that involves a zombie apocalypse or a death in the family, everyone knows that the stand-uppee doesn’t have to give the stand-upper the sweat off her brow. Go away.”
“I had a Christmas Eve emergency. Shit like that happens when you have kids.”
That sounded somewhat plausible, but… “Have you looked at the calendar lately? It’s mid-January. Here’s a pro tip for you in case you ever plan on hooking up with someone after you stand them up. Letting weeks go by after you ghost a woman isn’t the way to win her over.”
“The emergency I had to take care of… it’s taken a while to clean that shit up. But now that I’ve got everything locked down tight and I know my kid’s okay with how things are, we’re good to go. By the way, that’s probably the most important thing you should know about me—Mattie always comes first. I’m not even going to apologize for it. That’s just how I parent.”
What the hell did he mean, they were good to go? “Good for you.”
“The only reason I’m telling you this is because you need to know that’s the only thing that has more priority than you when we’re together.”
She stopped by her car and grimaced at all the snow that had accumulated on it during her twelve-hour shift. “One, Mr. Salvatore, we are not together—”
“Lozo. I told you, my friends call me Lozo.”
Which meant she’d bite her tongue out before ever using that name. “Two, I don’t know you. You don’t know me. We’re strangers, and we’re going to keep it that way.” Hauling her car door open, she sat behind the wheel just long enough to start it up and get the defrosters going full blast, before snagging up her trusty ice scraper. “And three, we are not going to be together. Why? Because you didn’t even call to let me know you had a so-called emergency.”
“Yes, I did.”
“You called the place we were supposed to meet, three hours after our date was supposed to start. So if you think I’m kidding when I say fuck off and go away, I’m not. From the bottom of my little black heart, I seriously mean it.”
“I didn’t call you personally because my phone took a swim in the toilet. And I did try calling House Of Payne several times that evening to let you know what was going on, but I wasn’t able to get through.”
She didn’t bother to roll her eyes as she stood on her tiptoes and tried to sweep all the snow off the windshield in one go. “You have an answer for everything, don’t you? You should’ve gone into politics.”
He took the scraper from her before she could dodge him. “You’re a nurse,” he muttered, using those long, well-muscled arms of his to efficiently wipe the snow off her car. “Aren’t you supposed to have a sweetly giving and understanding nature?”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m Nurse Meanie.” Apparently.
“Mattie won’t call you that anymore,” he said, surprising her. “I’ve told him that you’re Nurse Serena from now on, or else.”
“And as for my nature,” she went on as if he hadn’t spoken, because she doubted very much that she’d ever see his food tray-throwing son ever again, “I’m very sweet and understanding when it comes to my patients. If you want to become a patient, I’m sure I can make that happen.”
The look he shot her as he moved to the back window could have melted all the snow in Chicago. “Feisty, aren’t you?”
“What I am is tired. This was a hell of a long shift after a hell of a long week, and my feet hurt all the way to my knees. So, if you’ve got something to say, just say it, because all I can think about now is going home, curling up on the couch next to a cozy fire, and conking out for the next forty-eight hours.”
“That’s a waste of a perfectly good weekend.”
“Any nurse coming off their shift would beg to differ.”
“You have to eat some time.” With one last swipe at the side windows, he returned to her and handed her the ice scraper. “Might as well eat with me.”
The fact that she hesitated only underscored just how exhausted she was. “I’m literally too tired to be hungry.” Yeah, she thought as she absently tossed the scraper back into her car. She had to be loopy if she felt even a teensy bit tempted to let her guard down and give him another chance. “I’m standing here now, and I can’t even remember what hunger feels like.”
Again, her exhaustion got the better of her, because it had her imagining a hint of concern flashing across those devil-black eyes. “You work too hard.”
“It’s the true plague of any medical professional—workaholism. We all have it.” When he continued to gaze down at her as if she were the most interesting thing he’d seen all year—though, admittedly it was a brand-new year, so that didn’t mean much—she cleared her throat and moved toward her car. “Well, um… thanks again for funding the new activity room. Getting children involved in interactive events like arts and crafts or music or gaming, is as important as any medicine we can give them when they’re healing.”
“I remember you had your sister do Mattie’s portrait when he was throwing his food trays against the wall and refusing to eat. He still talks about you,” he added when she slid into the driver’s seat and would have closed the door on him. “I’ve heard the story of how you finally got him to eat, by the way.”
“Oh, yeah? He told on me, did he?”
The crooked mouth of his smirked all the harder. “At first, that’s pretty much what it was—tattling on Nurse Meanie who wouldn’t take his shit.”
“That’s me, all right.”
“He described in great detail how you went into his room to eat your dinner right in front of him—the biggest, juiciest cheeseburger he’d ever seen in his life, according to him.” The other side of his mouth curled, and he graced her with one of those rare, out-of-this-world smiles. “Now he laughs about it. He calls that move your ultimate cheeseburger gambit.”
“I shared with him. Eventually.” She couldn’t help but smile as she thought of his nine-year-old kid, a sullen little replica of his father if there ever was one. “But I made him work for it.”
“Yeah, you did.”
“What can I say, he was being a stubborn jerk. The only thing left to do was give him exactly what he said he wanted—no food—until he couldn’t stand it. You would’ve done the same thing in my position.”
“Hell, I’ve been in your position. Babying him only feeds the troll.”
She scoffed. “Baby him? No way was I about to baby him when he was clearly furious with everyone who was trying to help him. I make it a rule to never reward bad behavior.”
His eyes narrowed. “Is that why you’re making me think you don’t want anything to do with me now? You’re punishing me for my bad behavior?”
The way he put it made her blink her bleary eyes. “Wait, what? Why I’m making you think… what now?”
“Because if that’s the case,” he went on, ignoring her, “that actually means you’re holding out in order to get me to do what you want.”
“Huh? Wait, no—”
“In the case of my son, you told him you didn’t care if he was a bonehead who starved himself to death. Then you proceeded to eat right in front of him until he caved and demanded half your cheeseburger. Now you’re doing it again, only this time you’re doing it with me.”
She gaped at him. Maybe his demon kid had driven him insane. “I’m doing what again?”
“Really, I’m not.”
He shook his head, his dark eyes alight. “That’s exactly what you’re doing, but it’s cool, Serena. I see you.”
Holy shit. “And what do you see me doing, exactly?”
“You’re still interested in me.” That flabbergasting announcement came with a smile that was so arrogant it made her want to get back up on her aching feet, grab her trusty snow scraper, and bonk him repeatedly over the head with it. “That’s why you’re showing me the door so hard. With you pushing on me like that, you’ve got to know there’s no way I’m going to walk through it.”
“But I am showing you the door,” she said so loudly it was almost a shout. “In fact, if a magic door suddenly popped up in this parking lot, I’d shove you through it so hard you’d land in the factory where Sully and Mike Wazowski work.”
“It’s good that you like kid’s movies,” he remarked on a chuckle, and that weird warmth filled her yet again, like she’d drunk too much wine. “Monsters, Inc. is one of Mattie’s favorites. We should all watch it some time. You like family movie nights, yeah?”
What the hell. “Um, yeah. With family.”
“Mattie and I are a family. That’ll be good enough for you. Drive safely, you hear me?” he added, backing away, and his tone shifted to one of great seriousness. “I know your ass is dragging, so don’t you dare fall asleep behind that wheel.”
More unnerved than she wanted to admit, Serena reached for her seatbelt. “I won’t.”
“And give me a call when you get home so I know you made it there in one piece.”
“I don’t have your phone number anymore,” she told him with no small amount of relish. “Rude people who stand me up get deleted.”
He pulled out his phone. “Give me your number again. I lost it when my phone went for a swim.”
“I can’t remember it,” she lied, then shut the car door before he could say another word.
Sound intriguing? Click on the links below, and start reading my novel novella, GOOD GIRL, today!
You wanted it, so you got it–the story of how Gus and Joelle got together!
HIS PRINCESS is now out in the world, and I couldn’t be happier. This is the first time I’ve been inspired to write a story by YOU, the readers, mainly because I’ve never had so many people contact me about wanting to see the love story behind secondary characters.
Now that it’s done (and I’m thrilled with the result), I wanted to take the time to offer up a huge thank-you to those who let me know this story needed to be told. I haven’t had this much fun writing a story in a long time, and it never would have happened if it hadn’t been for you. Y’all rock. ❤
So here it is, the story you helped create! And hey, should you ever stumble across a character in a book (mine or anyone else’s) that you’d like to see more of, let the author know. You might become the spark that lights the fire of inspiration. How cool is that? 🙂
To celebrate, I’m sharing the first chapter with you all. I hope you like it! *crosses fingers*
“Now remember the plan,” Joelle muttered to Alice as they ascended the gilt-accented staircase leading to the Omni’s main ballroom. “You go in first, ostensibly to find our table. But in reality you’re there as my eyes and ears, scoping the joint for my target. Any questions so far?”
“Jo, this isn’t The Italian Job.” Alice Halliday, her foster sister and lifelong bestie, looked surly as she tottered on the high heels Joelle had talked her into along with a Givenchy beaded evening dress as black as her ebony hair. Her dark mysteriousness was the perfect foil for Joelle’s Elie Saab floor-length backless gold sheath that played up her tanned skin and platinum blonde hair done up in a Grace Kelly-esque chignon. “You know what this is? It’s you wanting to prance your fancy ass in front of Emerson what’s-his-name to show him what he dumped.”
Grrr. “Emerson Van Holland, and for the record, Al, it was a mutual dumping.”
“That’s not how I remember it.”
“It was definitely a mutual dumping,” Joelle insisted, keeping her polished social smile in place while her voice dropped into a snarl. “I decided to dump Emerson when he dumped me after finding out that as the Fielding heiress, I actually inherited nothing but the name.”
“Uh-huh.” Looking less than impressed with her reasoning, Alice fidgeted with the strap of her dress as they neared the top of the stairs. As they did, they could see the flashbulb of a camera going off. “I’m just glad he showed himself to be a shallow social-climber early on. When he found out you were just a working stiff for Buzzword Online rather than a socialite sitting on stacks of cash, he couldn’t find the exit fast enough. Just consider yourself lucky that you wasted only a month on that dick and move on.”
“After tonight, I’ll be happy to move on. I just want him to get a good, long look at the goddess he kicked to the curb. Then I’ll watch, smiling, as regret crushes his soul so completely it brings him to his knees. Once I see that I’ve crippled him emotionally for the rest of his existence, we can leave.”
“Great. A nice, healthy goal is always good to have.”
“Do you have your phone?”
She thought she heard Alice curse. “Yes, Jo. I have my freaking phone.”
A stab of guilt made her steps falter. “Maybe I shouldn’t have dragged you in on this, Al. I guess it seems pretty stupid, from your point of view.”
“It’s stupid from any point of view,” came the drawling reply before she sighed. “But I get it. And hey, if you’d tried to pull this caper off without me, I never would’ve forgiven you, so go ahead. Tell me about the master plan.”
“You’re the best partner in crime ever.” Giving her foster sister’s hand a squeeze, she refocused on the mission. “Okay. You go into the ballroom first, ostensibly to find our table. But in reality you’re scoping the room to find Emerson Van Holland—”
“He’s always going to be what’s-his-name to me.”
“Then,” Joelle went on determinedly, pausing at the top of the stairs to watch a man with a camera take pictures of well-heeled couples before they entered the ballroom, “you’re going to call me to let me know where he is and who he’s with.”
“This isn’t the crowd I normally run with,” Alice pointed out, casting a dubious eye at the line waiting to get inside. “I’m the daughter of your family’s chauffeur and a community college student. How am I supposed to tell you what fancy armpiece Emerson what’s-his-name is with unless it’s that evil chick from that private hell of a high school your parents sent me to?”
“There were many, but she was the worst. Which means she’s probably the only one I would recognize.”
“I believe in you, so just try your best,” Joelle whispered as they neared the line of people. “It probably won’t take you that long to find Emerson. Just look for a knot of VIPs, and I’m sure he’ll be buzzing around it.”
“Gotcha.” Alice eyed the ballroom’s entrance like it was the gates of hell. “What excuse have you come up with to keep you out here while I go into a ballroom full of people I don’t know, who are attending a charity fundraiser for a museum I’ve never been to?”
“I’ll be staying out here because I plan to be hung up in a conversation with someone while you go inside and do that whole recon thing.”
“Maybe it would be easier if I just took a pic of whoever what’s-his-name is with. I think I can be sneaky about it.”
“Oh, that’s an awesome idea.” Joelle gave her a quick thumbs-up. “In fact, take a pic of everyone at his table, if you can. Everyone he does business with should know what a snake Emerson is, and since I know just about everyone in this crowd, poisoning the well for that jerk shouldn’t be too difficult.”
“Yikes. Remind me to never get you pissed off at me.” With a reluctant chuckle, Alice fished out her phone and fundraiser ticket from the clutch purse Joelle had supplied her with. “Man, I can’t believe I’m about to make a total ass out of myself. You so freaking owe me, Jo. If I didn’t love you so much…”
“Love you, too, Al. You’re the best.” Giving her foster sister a squeeze—and smiling when Alice returned it wholeheartedly—Joelle took a moment to watch her go inside before turning to find someone she could make small talk with until Alice called her.
Without warning, her gaze tangled with a man at the head of the stairs.
A shock went through her at the intensity of the stranger’s unblinking stare, and automatically she glanced behind her to see if he was actually staring at someone else. But as she was standing off to the side of the ballroom entrance, there was no one there.
The stranger was staring at her.
His flawless white dinner jacket and white shirt—silk, she could see the quality of it from where she stood—had to be tailor-made. They simply didn’t come in that size off-the-rack. His shoulders would have impressed Thor himself, along with a chest she could have played racquetball on. His legs were muscle-sculpted as well, and so long they easily prevented his powerful build from falling into the stocky range. Instead, he was the epitome of elegance, from the top of his wavy dark brown hair to the tips of his polished Armani dress shoes.
But why was he staring at her? She knew a lot of people here, but she was sure she hadn’t run across this man before.
She would have remembered.
Even if she had amnesia.
“There you are.” To her absolute shock, the man came right up to her, took her left hand in his, studied it a moment, then raised it to his mouth for an honest-to-God knuckle-kiss. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
“Uh.” Her polished manners deserted her. All she could do was stare up into this man’s fathomless dark eyes that held just a hint of russet and wonder which one of them had lost their mind. “I’m sorry, but I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”
“No, I haven’t. Got a name, my princess?”
Ew. Princess. That snapped her out of it like nothing else. “Joelle Fielding, and scrappy Chicagoan that I am, I’m not big on monarchies.”
“Fine by me. Augustus Bloch, though you can call me Gus.” He still held her hand, and his fingers were so warm she couldn’t seem to make herself pull away. “You’re not married, are you, Joelle Fielding? There’s no ring on this finger yet, or even an indentation of one. No man’s tagged you as his yet, have they?”
Wow. “I… What an extraordinary thing to say.”
“I’m an extraordinary kind of guy. Answer me.”
“No,” she said before thinking about it, then inwardly shook her head at how blindly she followed this stranger’s command. “No, I’m not married, nor have I ever been. But I don’t see how that’s any of your business, Mr. Bloch.”
“Gus. And you’re Joelle. Not Jo,” he added, tilting his head as if wanting to see her from another perspective. “Jo is a commoner. Joelle is the name of a true princess.”
The princess thing again. “Actually, my foster sister calls me Jo, and I call her Al. That’s about as common as you can get.”
His winged brows, peaked in an alluringly diabolical fashion, quirked up. “You were a foster kid?”
“No, Alice was. My family took her in when she was orphaned.” Then she bit her lip when she realized she was babbling. That had to stop. “Not that any of that matters. I still think you might have me confused with someone else, so I’d better—”
“I’m not the kind of man who gets confused, Joelle.” His fingers tightened on hers, as if anticipating her pulling away. “That woman I saw you hug. Was that your foster sister, or maybe a lover?”
Good grief. “That was Alice, and again, whether or not I have a lover is none of your business.”
“It is now.”A slow smile curled his mouth, and to her surprise she found she couldn’t look away from the two perfect dimples that appeared in his lean, clean-shaven cheeks. Had there ever been a more perfectly symmetrical face, with sculpted cheekbones, squared-off jaw and, heaven above, dimples? The more she saw of him, the more she realized that perfection could exist. “The moment I saw you, everything about you became my business.”
“Oh, really?” Wildly her heart bounced around in her chest like one of those bouncy balls she’d loved as a child. “How do you figure that?”
“It’s pretty simple.” He shifted a shoulder, like freaking Atlas shrugging. “I saw you standing there, and something inside me clicked into place. I’m not fighting that, and neither should you. It won’t do you any good.”
“My goodness.” It took all her strength not to pearl-clutch, but damn, it was hard. This man came on like a freight train, and for a wayward moment she could only wonder what he was like in bed… “I think there’s a song like that.”
“I guess this could be called an enchanted evening, now that I think about it. It’s not every day you meet the one that stops you in your tracks and makes you think of things like forever.”
Okay, pearl-clutching was a necessity when a man said things like that. “Anyone ever tell you that you have a tendency to overwhelm?”
“Not my fault. I’ve lost one helluva lot of time with you, so I need to catch up.”
“Catch up? We just met.”
“Yeah, but I’ve been looking for you my whole damn life. Got a shit-ton of catching up to do,” he went on while she grappled with the enormity of that statement. “You and I are spending the evening together. And then maybe the night.”
For heaven’s sake, this man. “Who in the world do you think you are?”
“I told you, I’m Gus Bloch. Also known as the new man in your life.” At that moment, the man with the camera called his name, startling Joelle. He was known well enough by the paparazzi to be called out to? Before she could put voice to the question, a flashbulb went off, and all she could see were spots. “Shit. I’m getting you inside before I get myself splashed all over the front page again for busting up another one of those assholes.”
“Again?” She was still trying to blink the spots out of her eyes as he hustled her into the ballroom, and she found herself taking his arm to use him as her guide. “Apparently I missed an edition or two of the paper. How did you wind up on the front page the first time around?”
“A couple weeks ago I caught one of those little weasels trespassing on the grounds of the place I just bought near Berger Park. I know the place is as big as a fucking city park and it’s right on the lake, but it is still private property. The dude was trespassing, so he got what was coming to him. And it wasn’t front page news. Just the front pages of the business and society sections.”
She shook her head, not sure if she believed him or not. “Why would such a thing show up on the front page of the business section?”
“The place I bought is Gilded Swan, one of Al Capone’s old haunts. It’s kind of a pile right now, but it should be fully restored within the next couple of months.”
“Kind of a pile?” she repeated faintly, rocking just a little, and it wasn’t because she could barely see. Everyone who grew up in Chicago knew the Gilded Swan. A massive property on the shores of Lake Michigan right in the middle of Chicago’s Edgewater neighborhood, it was one of the largest privately owned structures in the city. It had once been a stop in the Underground Railroad, and purportedly was riddled with secret passageways and hidey-holes. It had somehow survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and for a time sheltered hundreds of Chicagoans who’d lost everything in that fire. And like he’d mentioned, it had been one of Al Capone’s favorite hideouts, thanks to all the many escape routes that had been built into it. When it had gone on the market, the city’s historical society had tried to buy it, but the owner hadn’t budged on the solid eight-figure price, and many feared a developer who didn’t give a damn about history would snap it up just to knock it down.
But now it was in the hands of Gus Bloch, a mysterious, swaggering bulldozer of a man who apparently had decided they were going to spend the evening together.
And maybe the night.
Holy freaking crap.
“You’re not going to get that, right?”
She blinked, studying his devilishly handsome face while trying to make sense of his words. “Sorry? Get what?”
“Your text chime just went off. Since we’re together, you should probably ignore it—”
“Oh, shoot. I forgot about Alice.” Hurriedly she dug her phone out of her gold satin pouch purse and scanned the text.
“Incoming?” Joelle mumbled, baffled. “What does that mean?”
“Joelle, babe. Look at you, you goddess.”
Joelle swiveled her head around to stare blankly at the man approaching them. Tall and elegant in a tux, lean in muscle with poetically wide, sky-blue eyes and gleaming bronze-gold hair slicked back with a tremendous amount of hair product, it took her a moment to place him. She knew this man, she was almost certain of it. It was on the tip of her tongue…
“Oh.” The light went on, and she put a disbelieving hand to her cheek. Geez, she’d actually forgotten the reason she’d come to the benefit. “Emerson. Uh… wow. Hi.”
“You look radiant, babe, like a beacon in a sea of darkness.” All smiles, Emerson Van what’s-his-name moved in for what was clearly going to be a kiss on the cheek, the phony. But before his social-climbing lips got anywhere near her, a straight arm shot out, and a plate-sized hand planted in Emerson’s chest hard enough for her to hear the impact.
“Mine, asshole,” Gus snarled, every part of him bristling with aggression. Her jaw dropped in unison with Emerson’s at the declaration, before Gus curled his free arm around her and hauled her up hard against his side. “You see this, right? You’ve got eyes in your fucking head and you can see she’s standing here, with me, and no other swinging dick in the room, yeah?”
Emerson looked like he didn’t understand the language Gus was speaking. “I… Yes, of course, I see—”
“Out-fucking-standing. I’m glad to hear your vision’s not on the fritz. But apparently your brain is, so I’m going to help you out with that. You see this woman with me, the one thing you never do is go in for a kiss.”
“I was just—”
“I don’t give two shits what you were just, pal. From this point on, you mind your fucking manners and say your hellos to my woman from a safe distance, yeah? Oh, and one other thing—call her babe or goddess again while in my presence, and I might have to give you flying lessons off the balcony. Nothing personal, but she’s not your babe, or goddess. She’s not your anything. Have I made myself clear, or do I need to repeat this somewhere more private? Like maybe a service alley, and I just let my fists do the talking?”
“Dear God.” Emerson actually cowered, pulling back with his hands clutched against his chest, the wimp. “You’re a total psycho.”
“No, he’s Gus Bloch.” Joelle found herself defending him without even consciously knowing that was what she was going to do. But when she heard the words coming out of her mouth, she discovered they felt right. “He’s a man who knows what he wants and goes after it like it’s his mission in life. Take note—that’s something that should be admired.”
“Yeah?” She felt Gus shift, and she looked up to find he was looking down at her, his face no more than a few inches from hers. “You think?”
“I do,” she said for his ears alone. She still wasn’t sure what to make of him, heaven knew. But she fit so well against his side, and that had to count for something. “I really do.”
“Then why are we wasting time with this asshole?” Smiling down at her and not giving Emerson whatever-his-name-was another glance, Gus turned her toward the dance floor. “Let’s dance.”
HIS PRINCESS is already up for pre-order at Barnes and Noble, Apple and Rakutan Kobo, and will be available on Amazon this Thursday! Be sure to look for it!
HIS PRINCESS, aHouse of Payneprequel novella, is getting ready to launch!
Is it wrong to say that I’m in love with one of my projects? Because I’m TOTALLY in love with my latest project, HIS PRINCESS. ❤
Readers met Joelle Fielding and Gus Bloch in HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI, and the feedback on these two was almost unanimous–WHERE’S THEIR STORY??? Because I received so many emails asking for a look at how Joelle and Gus got together, I’m proud to announce that HIS PRINCESS is releasing Thursday, August 13th, 2020! I can’t wait!
Next weekend, I’ll release the first chapter, and I’ve got my fingers crossed that you’ll fall for these two as much as I have. But for now, here’s an awesome sneak peek at the cover and the blurb. Enjoy! ❤
“Got a name, my princess?”
When Joelle Fielding attends a function for Chicago’s society elites, she’s stunned to find herself swept off her feet by a man who believes that not only is she a princess, but that she’s HIS princess. Falling in love at first sight isn’t a part of her career-oriented life goals, but with the sexy Gus Bloch insisting she’s meant for him, those life goals might be changing.
By fourteen, Gus had been on his own on the Southside’s mean streets. When life had been at its bleakest, he’d dreamed of his future and the kind of woman he would someday share his life with. One look at Joelle, and he knows he’s finally found her. Nothing will stop him from convincing her that he’s the man for her—not even Joelle herself.
Joelle has never wanted anyone like she wants Gus, but all too soon insta-love and the demands of reality find themselves on a collision course. Is Gus really the man for her when he’s forced to see she’s no one’s princess?
***This novella is a standalone prequel to the novel, HOUSE OF PAYNE: LOKI. Because of that, this novella has only a small epilogue (sorry!). There are no love triangles, no cheating, and no cliffhangers. HEA guaranteed. Due to adult language and sexual content, this novella is not intended for people under the age of eighteen.***
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!
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Did he actually just… save her? From his own attack?
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.)