Authors: Jay Crownover
Published by HarperCollins
1 London Bridge Street
London SE1 9GF
First published in Great Britain by Harper 2015
Copyright © Jennifer M Voorhees 2015
Cover layout design © HarperCollins
Cover photographs © Andreas Jorns Photography/Haan Germany/Getty Images (woman, hair)
Jennifer M Voorhees asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
A catalogue copy of this book is available from the British Library.
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.
Source ISBN: 9780007579099
Ebook Edition © April 2015 ISBN: 9780007579105
Dedicated to everyone living and experiencing this moment right now with me. This is for the readers, the book lovers, the bibliophiles, the word junkies … my peeps that understand nothing is better than a new book and the escape into a new story. I love that we get to share this world together and I am and always will be proud to be one of you.
Happiness, not in another place but this place … not for another hour, but this hour.
You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.
—Henry David Thoreau
The first step toward getting somewhere is to decide that you are not going to stay where you are.
—J. P. Morgan
We made it! The end. Oh, my word—or many, many words, to be more accurate—I don’t know how, but six books in and we’re finally here. It’s unbelievable and sort of fitting that Asa closes this particular circle. He wasn’t supposed to be part of the group—wasn’t supposed to be family—wasn’t supposed to get a book or an HEA, and yet fate had other plans for him. Sort of like it did for me. He had to fight to get where he belonged, and a couple of times along the way I’ve felt like I had to do that, too. I tell ya what: this southern boy undid me on a lot of levels, and not just because he’s closing the chapter on this series that forever changed my life.
It’s unbelievable to me when I think about the fact that Asa’s book will be number eight in a little over two years, and that’s just insane and superexciting. I never thought I’d have even one book published in my entire life! So the fact that we are all here at the end together is pretty damn amazing.
Initially, I had written a very different intro for this book. It was long and drawn out and outlined all the things I struggled with to get to this place where I am now … the end … and the beginning. It hasn’t always been a smooth journey for me, but I realized somewhere along the way that this wasn’t what I should be focusing on as we close this chapter together.
No, what I needed to focus on was this moment. This exact second, when I am able to say good-bye along with my readers, and when I hopefully entice them with me into starting the new series. I needed to be present in the here and now and not looking over my shoulder at all the would’ves and could’ves and should’ves … that’s something I struggle with on a daily basis. I sometimes forget I’m not the boss of the entire world and letting go of the want and need to control particular outcomes and situations is very hard for me.
But I’m doing it NOW.
Right now, I’m sitting here being overwhelmed with gratitude that I got to give each of these men and women a story. I’m overcome with emotion for the support and love my stories and ideas have found along the way. I am humbled by the amount of people that are willing to take a chance on me time and time again. And mostly I am filled to the brim with so much love for these books and the people that love them as much as I do that I can’t even stand it. Readers bring such joy and excitement into my life, and any struggle, any complaint, any gripe I have pales in comparison to that.
Thank you for being here. Thank you for letting me be here …
As always Love & Ink
Not too long ago when I watched a girl purposely get as drunk as this pretty one did, I would’ve moved in for the kill. I would have taken her home, taken her to bed, and not felt guilty at all about knowing that she was making choices without all her cylinders firing. I used to never let an easy opportunity pass me by, and I never felt bad that my actions weren’t exactly going to win me any awards for morality. I used to like it when things were handed to me with no effort on my part, and I liked it that when I walked away, I could always brush off any kind of responsibility for wrongdoing and put it on someone else. Accountability was a foreign thing, and back in the day I avoided it like I owed it money.
But times had changed and somewhere between dying on a hospital bed and coming back to life and seeing the last chance I had at any kind of normality flicker in and out of my little sister’s eyes, the barest hint of a conscience had woken up inside of me. Now, when I watched this very pretty drunk girl, obviously out of control, obviously looking for trouble, I wanted her to know how heavy an anchor regret could be. I still wanted to take her home and take her to bed, only I understood the connotation was different. Now that sliver of conscience was poking at me to do something I had never done and pretend that I was chivalrous and save her from herself.
No one would ever call me altruistic or considerate, but if I didn’t step in, the beautiful redhead was going to get herself into a whole world of hurt. I knew from firsthand experience that some hurt and some mistakes could weigh you down forever. Carrying the load was exhausting and she deserved better than that, even if at the moment she seemed to have forgotten it.
I wiped my hands on the bar towel that was hanging loosely from my belt in the back and lifted an eyebrow at my cocktail waitress, Dixie, who was watching the same show on the dance floor that I was, with wide eyes. It was a Saturday night, so the bar was pretty full and there was a live band playing on the tiny stage, but pretty much every pair of eyes in the place was trained on the way the redhead was moving across the dance floor. I knew I should have cut her off, she was a lightweight as it was, but her big, chocolate-colored eyes were so sad, so tormented, I had a hard time telling her no. Now that I could actually feel shit like empathy and compassion, I knew that I had overserved her, which led up to the virtual striptease that was now happening in the middle of the dance floor.
“You think all those guys trying to grind on her would flip out if they knew she’s more than likely armed?”
Dixie’s voice was laced with dry humor as she took the Jack and Coke I mixed for her order from me.
“When a girl is clearly intoxicated, looking for a good time, and just happens to look like her, a bullet isn’t very much of a deterrent. I’m gonna go pull her out of there. After you drop that off, will you watch the bar for a second?”
She lifted her own eyebrows back at me with a grin. “Are you sure you want to do that? That’s like a pack of jackals circling a fallen gazelle. It might get ugly if you go and ruin all the fun.”
The band that was the live entertainment for the night switched to a cover of Tom Petty’s “You Got Lucky,” and the girl in the center of the storm suddenly turned and locked her eyes on mine. Somewhere in the middle of all her bumping and grinding, she had lost her shirt, so all she had on was a skintight tank top that wasn’t doing much to cover her up. Her rich auburn hair had fallen out of its ponytail and was sticking to the sweat on her chest and neck, while her eye makeup was smeared under her dark eyes. Her chest was rising and falling from exertion as all her flawless, exposed skin gleamed with a sheen of perspiration. She looked like something out every wet dream any guy had ever had or a real-life Victoria’s Secret model using this no-name bar to strut her stuff instead of a catwalk. She was going to cause a riot, and I think somewhere under all the kamikazes fueling her blood at the moment she knew it. I could see it as she stared defiantly at me across the space that separated us.
“I’m okay with ugly; I’m not okay with her being in the middle of the carnage.” I shouldn’t care. Shouldn’t be concerned. The redhead was more than capable of taking care of herself, and like Dixie had mentioned, she was probably packing, but I couldn’t stop the surge of protectiveness that floated to the surface when a clumsy frat guy put his hands on her tiny waist and drew her back to his chest.
She didn’t struggle at first, her senses and reflexes obviously dampened by the steady stream of alcohol she had been swimming in all night.
Dixie left to deliver the drink and came back around the bar with a sigh. “I can’t wait until Rome hires his friend to hang around and do security stuff on the weekends. I love this place, I love my job, but watching you guys have to tangle with drunken hotheads all the time is getting old.”
I shrugged and moved past her so that I could go put a stop to the impending disaster. The redhead had finally gotten her sluggish wits in gear and was now actively struggling in the frat boy’s hold.
“It’s just part of the job.”
Though I had to admit that when the boss, Rome Archer, mentioned he had an old platoon buddy that was getting ready to come back home and was gonna need something to do until he got his feet under him, I was relieved that my time banging heads together when the crowd got rowdy on the weekends was going to come to an end. I had a criminal record. A long, colorful criminal record, and anytime I put my hands on another human being in any kind of violent way, I automatically saw pages and pages getting tacked onto it. Like so much from my life before I had died on that hospital table, it was something from my past that would always define me and hold me down.
Dixie called to me over the bar as I started to weave my way through the crowd: “You’re too pretty to put that face in front of a flying fist, Asa. Be careful.”
Frat Boy was holding his face while blood rushed out between his fingers as he covered his nose. The redhead was being held by two other guys, one with each wrist locked down as she glared at the group of men surrounding her. She was tall and in ridiculously good shape, but none of these inebriated guys would have any clue as to why. All they saw was a feisty girl that was wasted and had been enticing them all night long, whether it had been intentional or not. And of course, now that she had made one of them bleed, had unmanned him in front of an entire barful of spectators, it was clearly about to get nasty. It was one thing to get your ass handed to you by a girl. It was an entirely different thing to get your ass handed to you by a girl that looked like she should be walking a runway wearing fuck-me stilettos. It also didn’t help save face for the guy that she had on bright yellow pants that hugged her curves just right and breasts that it should be illegal to ever cover up.
In half of a heartbeat she was in the middle of a tug-of-war between the two guys holding her arms and I could see the anger building in the watery eyes of the guy whose nose she had probably broken.
I gave him a warning look. Dixie was right: I was pretty, too pretty to be as ugly as I was on the inside, but to counteract the deceptive beauty of my face, I was also big and had been in trouble since the day I took my first breath. So I generally had a way of letting an opponent know they were going to be on the losing end of a confrontation with me. The bleeder took a step back as I manhandled the guy closest to me off of the redhead’s arm. He grunted and swore at me, mostly because as soon as she was free and had enough leverage, she rammed her knee right into the guy’s unprotected balls, doubling him over.
I shook my head at her as she turned and sloppily swung at the remaining guy clutching her wrist.
“Royal. Knock it off.”
She ignored me as the band picked up a quick tempo cover of Shooter Jennings’s “A Hard Lesson to Learn,” and went into full-on attack mode.
Now, I fully believed there was nothing wrong with a woman defending herself against unwanted advances, and it was obvious she didn’t want this guy’s hands on her anymore. But this particular girl, this surprising young woman that just happened to look like a supermodel, was actually a member of the Denver police force, and I knew she could cause serious damage even in her less than sober state. I couldn’t allow that. Not just because the Bar would be liable, but also because I didn’t want her to do something that could ultimately end up costing her her job.
I reached around Royal and got my hand on the fingers locked on her wrist as she wiggled and swung wildly at her captor. Prying his fingers free was a task made even more difficult by the fact I kept having to duck to avoid an elbow in the face or the back of her fist on the backswing. She was quick and strong, something that the guy holding her finally realized as she landed a solid punch to one of his temples. He suddenly let go and stumbled back as I trapped her flailing arms to her sides and pulled her back to my chest. I bent just a little so I could whisper in her ear, “Calm down, Red.”
We both stared at the guy that had grabbed her, and I tried not to notice the way her really spectacular rack was rising and falling right above the arm I had locked across her rib cage. Even when I tried to help out, all those old instincts burned bright and hot right under the surface. I wanted to touch her in an entirely unhelpful way.
“She assaulted me.” He sounded like a disgruntled toddler that had lost his favorite toy to a bigger kid on the playground.
I nodded and made sure the hills of Kentucky were thick in my voice when I told him, “She sure did. But not until you put your hands on her.” Good-ol’-boy charm worked wonders to calm down a volatile situation. I think it made people think I didn’t have enough smarts to be any kind of real threat despite my size.
The band was still playing but I don’t think anyone was paying attention. Everyone was watching the chaos Royal had created unfold.
“She punched Bobby in the face and all he was trying to do was dance with her. She broke his nose.”
Again I nodded and tried not to think about the way that Royal’s absolutely perfect backside lined up just right with my fly. She turned her head just enough that I could see a hint of awareness and panic working through her dark gaze. Her tongue darted out to slick across her bottom lip and I had to remind myself I wasn’t a guy that took advantage of drunk girls anymore. At least I didn’t want to be that guy, but I never really figured I had much of a choice in the matter.
“Bobby needs to learn to ask if he wants a girl to dance with him. Look, everybody can just go to their separate corners, we can all forget this happened—”
I was cut off as he pointed at me and then narrowed his eyes at Royal. “I’m gonna call the cops.”
I felt Royal start to shake in my grasp. That was exactly the outcome I was trying to avoid. I lifted an eyebrow, shifted my hold on her so that she was behind me, and crossed my arms over my chest. I figured I looked a lot more intimidating not covered by a too-sexy-for-her-own-good redhead.
“You can do that, but it’s gonna shut the party down. The band is gonna have to stop, all these other folks in here are going to have to stop drinking, and it’s gonna make them mad since they had to pay a cover to get in and hear the music. Plus I’m gonna have to call the bar owner and let him know what’s going down, and that’s like waking Godzilla up from a nap.” I rubbed my thumb along the side of my mouth and gave him my best “country boy” smile. It had disarmed more than one person who was out for blood, usually mine, but I didn’t mind using it to prevent any of Royal’s from spilling. “Plus, between you and me, she has friends on the force.”
The other guy was trying to vet if I was serious or not, so I inclined my chin. “Her best friend is a cop. If you call the DPD, chances are they’re going to send him in since he knows this is where she likes to hang out, and then she’s going to tell him you and your buddies put your hands all over her without her permission and the cameras will back that up.” I pointed to one of the surveillance cameras Rome had installed all over the place. “You think that’s going to end well for you?”
He looked like he was considering how to answer when the lead singer of the band suddenly called out over the mic so that the entire bar had no choice but to listen: “You guys suck. Take your bleeding friend out of here and let everyone go back to having a good time.”
That rallied the rest of the bar-goers and suddenly a chant of “You suck!” went up and the grabby-hands bunch really had no choice but to leave. There was no way left for them to save face and they didn’t want to risk the chance that Royal did in fact know a cop.
They slunk toward the front door as I hauled Royal toward the bar and plopped her fine ass in a seat right in the middle, where I could keep an eye on her. I caged her in between my arms and leaned in close so that our noses were almost touching.
Through clenched teeth I told her, “Sit. Now I can either call Saint to come get you, or you can sit here, drink water, and eat something greasy and terrible until you sober up enough to get yourself home. Those are your only two options, Red.”
She blinked criminally long lashes at me and I could swear she looked like she was going to cry. I saw her gulp and she gave her head a little nod of agreement.
When she spoke it was only a hint of sound. “Don’t call Saint. I’ll wait it out.”
Saint was her closest girl friend, and also my friend Nash’s lady. She was a sweet and shy young woman that somehow managed to balance out all of Royal Hastings’s bold and brash attitude. They were an odd pair, but I knew Saint would drop whatever she was doing in a heartbeat to make sure Royal was taken care of. I didn’t blame Royal for not wanting her friend to have to come collect her in her current state. She was a mess. She was still beautiful, kind of wild and untamed looking, but under it all she was a disaster, courting trouble as well as danger and other bad things, which is what she had been actively doing for the last two weeks. This wasn’t the first disaster I had been forced to avert because of her antics, and the time had come to tell her it had to stop.