Early Release for LOKI!

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


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

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

Chapter One

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

But now?

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

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

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

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

For crying out loud. “Of course not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is happening, one way or another.”

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

Ugh. “Must you?”

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in her case, she.

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

She had this.

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

It was always nice to be noticed.

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

Holy.

Fucking.

Shit.

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

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

She could do this.

And yet…

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

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

No.

Survival instinct be damned.

No way was she running.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That made his eyes narrow. “What?”

“You heard me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Felix, huh? He’s your man?”

“My friend.”

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

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

That stopped him cold. “Bullshit.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you do bust people up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop calling me Stems.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “In a nutshell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

Hello, Achilles heel.

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

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

Holy shit, he was fast.

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

How rude.

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

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

Holy crap, this guy was solid.

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

But she wasn’t trying to get away.

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

The choice was his.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do I look stupid to you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Almost.

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

His hand.

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

What…?

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

No.

No, that couldn’t be.

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

And yet…

His hand was still between her head and the pavement.

He most definitely saved her from a terrible injury.

What the actual fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

What.

The.

hell.

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

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

Or kissed her.

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

She who loses control, loses.

Yeah. That was her, all right.

A total loser.

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

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

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

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

“What lesson would that be?”

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

“Hell, yeah, you did.”

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

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

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

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

Crazy.

Vengeful.

Maniac.

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I—”

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

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

“Yeah?”

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

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

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

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

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

Damn those steel-toed biker boots.

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

Her wallet.

Oh, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alice stepped forward, hand out. “Yes.”

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

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

But he was already gone.

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

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

***

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