He was back.
Ryanne Wade poured her world-famous fruit cocktail moonshine—affectionately known as CockaMoon—into a small mason jar and, as discreetly as possible, watched as Jude Laurent prowled through her bar. And okay, the moonshine wasn’t exactly world famous but regionally famous. Okay, almost regionally famous; made from her personal recipe, it was distilled at a local brewery and sold exclusively at the Scratching Post.
Jude had once called the drink Downfall in a Glass. Or DIG. Like, you’re digging your own grave, Wade. Just to get a rise out of her, she was sure.
The former army ranger was a new resident in her hometown, and one of three co-owners of LPH Protection, a security firm. Sometimes he looked like a brawler from the maddest, baddest streets, yet other times he looked like a businessman fresh from a boardroom negotiation—and he’d won. Tonight, he was a bona fide brawler, ready to throw down and heat women up. He wore a black T-shirt, ripped jeans and combat boots. Leather cuffs circled his wrists, and three silver rings glinted on his fingers. His version of brass knuckles?
No matter his persona du jour, he was always as gorgeous and tempting as sin—and an all around pain in Ryanne’s backside.
He really churned her butter.
Usually he only blessed the Scratching Post with his exalted presence when one of his two friends required a designated driver. He never ordered anything but water, and never spent a dime or even left a tip for the waitress unlucky enough to serve him. Namely Ryanne. Not even the insulting kind of tip: a note on a napkin. Fetch my drinks faster next time, and you’ll get cash.
The worst thing about him? He liked to stand at the jukebox and intimidate patrons with a death-ray glare. Oh, and let’s not forget how he sometimes attempted to police the door, commanding people to sit and stay as if they were dogs, simply because they’d had a sip of something—anything— alcoholic.
The nerve of the man. And the body on him…
Ryanne fanned her flushed cheeks. Time to crank up the air conditioner. Because no, her boiling blood had nothing to do with Jude’s sexy, muscled, delicious, sexy, mouthwatering, sexy good looks.
Not too long ago—okay, okay, soon after meeting Jude— Ryanne had decided to nix her ban on romantic relationships and pick someone to date. The timing was purely coincidental, of course, but her hormones had been out of whack ever since.
Besides, even if she did want Jude, she wouldn’t go after him. Despite his surly attitude, females young and old continued to approach him in droves, stealthily or not so stealthily dangling their bait, but he never even nibbled. He might as well have Off Limits tattooed on his forehead.
Was tonight the night he relaxed and had a little fun?
Shivers rained over her as he cast a dark, brooding glance in her direction. He had collar-length blond hair with the slightest wave, eyes bluer than a morning sky, and the body of a surfer: lean, muscled and bronzed. But he also had a perma-frown. To her knowledge, he’d never smiled, joked or laughed, and he’d always radiated scary-hot menace and aggression.
If he ever smiled…goodness gracious, her hormones might explode from lust overload!
Of course, he had a good reason for his bad attitude. A few years ago, he lost his entire family in a terrible car accident; his wife and twin daughters were gone in the blink of an eye. Talk about the ultimate heartache. Ryanne reckoned guilt and grief ate at him on a daily—hourly—basis. And she absolutely 100 percent empathized.
But come on! His troubled past didn’t give him the right to accuse her of duplicitous flirting practices in order to boost return visits, and oversalting snacks to ensure patrons remained thirsty. First, she wasn’t a plain, ordinary flirt; she was flirtish, and there was a difference. She wasn’t after conquests but smiles. Second, how would Jude know anything about the food? He hadn’t tasted a single dish she served.
For some reason, he’d pegged Ryanne as a villainess at their first meeting, and his opinion of her hadn’t changed.
Dang him. I’m as sweet as sugar, and probably tastier to boot!
When he turned on his heel and headed her way, a frisson of electricity raced through her. Their gazes locked once again, and his step hitched—so did her breath. The sight of him, drawing nearer while fully focused on her…
Keep your cool, mi querida.
Impossible! Her heart thudded against her ribs, and sweat glazed her hands.
Attraction gave way to irritation, but irritation gave way to compassion when she noticed his limp. Poor guy. It was more pronounced than usual.
On a mission overseas, he’d lost the bottom half of his left leg. Now he wore a prosthesis.
Fingers snapped in front of her face, and she blinked. Cooter Bowright, one of her regulars, stared at her with concern. “You all right, Miss Ryanne? You’ve been spacing while I’ve been foaming at the mouth. Dehydration is deadly, don’t you know.”
Ugh. Caught ogling a man who despised her. Feigning nonchalance, she topped Coot’s CockaMoon with a sprig of mint and slid the jar in his direction. Since she’d begun selling the fruity specialty, her nightly revenue had increased over 20 percent. Maybe because the cocktail consisted of strawberries, blueberries and grapes, a tribute to the three Oklahoma towns that surrounded the bar: her childhood home Strawberry Valley, Blueberry Hill, where the Scratching Post was located, and Grapevine. Or maybe because the cocktail utterly rocked.
“I’m all right enough to know this is your last moonshine of the night,” she said. “If you get to feeling dehydrated again, I’ll pour you a sweet tea.”
Coot took a long swig, draining half the glass, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Come on, Miss Ryeanne.”
He sometimes drew out the syllables in her name when trying to make a point. “Don’t cut me off just yet. The night’s barely even started.”
“You know the rules. Three CockaMoons, no exceptions.”
No one got blackout drunk on her watch. Actually, if anyone slurred their words or staggered while walking, regardless of the limits, she pulled a Jude and stole keys. One, it was illegal to sell alcohol to anyone who appeared intoxicated and two, no, just no.
Safety first, sales second.
The difference between her and Jude? She called a cab afterward and never judged.
“I’d say you suck rotten eggs, but I love you too gosh dern much,” Coot muttered, only to brighten. “Hey, you gonna be singing tonight?”
Sometimes she enjoyed performing a couple sets with the band, but she couldn’t sing, mix drinks and make snacks.
“Not tonight. I—”
Jude reached the bar, and the rest of her response died in her mouth. Sex made flesh. He leaned against the polished wood and—shocker—glared at Coot. “Public intoxication is a crime.”
Coot withered. “You’re right, Jude. I’ll be more careful next time. Honest.”
Hoping to lighten the mood, Ryanne winked at Coot and said to Jude, “Your shirt is a crime.” The black cotton was far too tight and likely to cause riots. She wiggled her brows.
“How about you do us all a favor and take it off?”
He frowned at her and, right on cue, she withered just like Coot.
The old man patted her hand in a show of camaraderie.
“I ever tell you two about the night I let the wife use zip ties in the bedroom?”
Yeah, he’d told her about a dozen times. Mrs. Bowright had tied him up all right, only to fall off the bed and knock her head on a side table. Cooter had to crawl bare-butt naked across the floor to get to the phone stuffed in the pocket of his discarded jeans. He’d ended up using Google to find a way to free himself from the ties before the paramedics arrived—something about spreading your elbows, raising your arms and slamming your joined hands into your torso—but not before he’d mistyped and found himself on a zit-popping site.
Ryanne listened, anyway. She loved the old man.
For once, Jude refused to be ignored. He stepped into her line of vision, their gazes tangling together. Blood fizzed in her veins as her stomach performed a series of flips.
How did he affect her so quickly and intensely?
Easy: her romantic past was basically a blank slate. She had no experience, so she had no means of fighting her attraction to this—any man.
Bottom line, she’d gone two and a half years without dating.
Before that, she’d only gone out a handful of times, too distrustful of the male species to offer more than a handshake at the door.
Why bother doing more? In high school, her mother slept with not one but two of her boyfriends, and Ryanne had feared it would happen again (and again).
Just wanted to know if they’d cheat on you, cariño.
Yeah, right. You don’t betray your “sweetie.”
Ryanne’s trust issues had only gone downhill when she’d started working here. Before taking over ownership, she’d balanced the books, bused tables and waitressed. Every night, someone had propositioned her, pinched or swatted her butt, or groped her breasts. Supposedly devoted husbands had picked up singles, and women who’d left with a man one weekend had cried a week later when he’d gone home with someone else.
As a child, some of her mom’s “special friends” had gotten handsy. Once, Ryanne had overheard one of those special friends laughing with coworkers, bragging about easy conquests and sneering about “clingy bitches.”
It was a miracle Ryanne had gotten over her issues, and a bigger miracle someone as cranky as Jude had set her fantasies aflame. He really, really wasn’t her type.
Surely! She would find a candidate sooner or later, and he would be everything she’d ever wanted, everything she’d ever needed. Honorable, loyal to the bone. Kind. He would prize and cherish his significant other, no matter how long or short their relationship.
He would be like Earl Hernandez, who’d had a heart of gold. When Earl died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago, her entire world had come crashing down.
Only recently had she cracked open the journals he’d written throughout his life. His devotion to his first wife, who’d died before him, had shone as brightly as a star in the darkest of night. If those two had lived, they would still be together.
“I need to speak with Ryanne privately,” Jude said to Coot.
He did? About what?
“Course. No problem, Jude.” Coot blew her a kiss before wandering off.
“So…how are you?” Jude said, now looking anywhere but at her.
Going to exchange pleasantries, were they? Okay, fine.
“I’m well. How about you?”
He shrugged and said nothing else.
Oookay. Exchange over. “What can I get you? Liquid Viagra? Blowjob on the rocks? Screaming Orgasm?”
“Water.” His voice was a little hoarse, and she fought a grin as she filled a glass with his beverage of choice. “And add a lemon,” he said.
Ooh la la. Lemon. She wedged a slice on the rim. “That’ll be two dollars and fifty cents.”
His gaze zoomed back to her, his lips pursed, pulling his scar taut. “Two fifty for water that’s never before cost me a dime?”
Was he such a miser at other businesses or just hers? “My mistake. Tonight I’m charging you for my time and energy. And if you think you’re getting a bargain, you’re right.” While everyone else tiptoed around him, afraid of making him unhappy—well, unhappier—she often bristled like a porcupine.
Unfortunately, she’d inherited her mother’s hair-trigger temper.
He stroked two fingers over his beard stubble before placing a five-dollar bill on the counter. “Do not keep the change. And since we’re on the subject of time and energy, you’d do well not to waste mine by admitting you need me.”
You need me.
Was this an attempt to ask her out? “Excuse me?” she said, and grudgingly handed him two dollars and fifty cents.
“Your security—” air quotes “—wouldn’t stop an accident much less a deliberate crime. You need me to fix the problems before someone gets hurt.”
Nope, he wasn’t trying to ask her out, and she wasn’t disappointed.
“No one’s going to get hurt.” Her “duplicitous flirting” helped maintain the peace, preventing fights. When one happened to break out, she handled it.
“You’re too trusting,” he said.
What! “Too trusting? Me?”
“You must think the best of people. Otherwise you’d fix your ancient locks, and better watch your customers. You have four employees, and there’s no way the five of you can keep track of everyone at once. What if someone steals money from your register? How will you know, until it’s too late? Plus, there are too many dark corners in and around your bathrooms. What if a woman is assaulted? And do you have any idea what’s going on in the parking lot?”
The thought of anyone being assaulted in her establishment sickened her. “Just so you know, I’m not responsible for the decisions others make. And my locks do their job, which is all that matters. But what do you suggest I do about the dark corners? And what’s going on in the parking lot?”
“Add motion sensitive lights, as well as hidden cameras.” He said no more, ignoring her second question.
“Lights, yes.” Even though the constant on and off might be annoying. “Cameras, no way. They’re a violation of privacy.”
“It’s perfectly legal to put cameras in the hallway outside a bathroom. Also, you need at least two men at the front door. Someone to monitor who enters, and someone to monitor
who exits. The latter can issue Breathalyzer tests to anyone planning to drive.”
A customer signaled her from the other end of the bar, but Ryanne held up a finger, asking for a moment. “Hello. I’m a walking Breathalyzer. And as much time as you’ve spent here, you should know it. The things you’re suggesting will only tick off loyal patrons, costing me business and money.”
Every spare cent she made went into her travel fund.
As a little girl, she’d escaped her rocky home life inside the pages of travel books, imagining she was somewhere— anywhere—else. Now she longed to visit those places for real.
Last week, she’d purchased her first ticket. In two months, twenty-eight days and seven hours, she would be on a firstclass flight to Rome, where she would spend four weeks biking through the city and its surrounding countryside, touring the Vatican, oohing and ahhing over famous artwork, eating fresh cheese and homemade pasta, and tasting wine at different vineyards.
Muscles jumped beneath Jude’s navy blues. “For Ryanne Wade, monetary profit comes before other people’s lives. Got it.” He turned on his booted heel and stalked away.
Dang him! He always had to have the last word. But…was he right about something bad happening in the parking lot?
She hustled to the waiting customer and, for the next hour, managed to push Jude from her thoughts as she mixed drinks. It was Saturday, but only 6:30 p.m. Still, the bar was crowded, her waitresses rushing from table to table.
After her full-time bartender, Sutter, clocked in, Ryanne made the rounds, making sure customers were happy and no crimes were being committed. The regulars smiled and waved at her.
Most came from Strawberry Valley, where she’d lived the bulk of her life.
Her mother, born and raised in Mexico, had moved to the United States to marry a Texan. However, the two soon divorced, and a pregnant Selma Wade—once Selma Martinez, now Selma Wade-Lewis-Scott-Hernandez-Montgomery— moved to Oklahoma City, where she later met and married a prominent Blueberry Hill businessman. Like husband number one, he hadn’t kept her attention long, and she’d divorced him in favor of marrying a pillar of the Strawberry Valley community. When those two divorced, Selma married Earl, another Strawberry Valley resident, only a far less reputable one. All too soon she’d divorced him, as well. She dated around before marrying her fifth husband and moving to Colorado, where she still lived.
That’s when newly minted eighteen-year-old Ryanne made the quality decision to move in with Earl, her third stepfather. He’d owned the bar, but he’d had trouble running it after his cancer diagnosis. And though she’d come here to help him, the wonderful man had helped her, supporting and encouraging her the way a father should, even when people accused him of falling for a “cheap Lolita.”
A pang in her chest, Ryanne blew a kiss to his picture, which hung above the bar, right alongside postcards of every country she’d ever dreamed of visiting. Greece. Egypt. Finland. Iceland. Actually, all the lands! Ireland, Greenland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Thailand, and England. Australia. Africa. Costa Rica. France. Germany. Israel. China. Mexico. Russia. The Virgin Islands. Basically, she planned to travel from one end of the earth to the other, and everywhere in between.
Throughout the rest of the building, she’d preserved Earl’s country-western motif. The walls had patches of exposed brick, and above the dance floor were the words Wild West, every letter surrounded by colorful neon lights. For bar stools, saddles were welded to metal bases. In the corner, swinging saloon doors partitioned off the bathroom hallway.
Do you have any idea what’s going on in the parking lot?
Jude’s words rolled through her mind, and curiosity got the better of her. With her favorite .44 holstered inside her boot, she marched to the rear exit. In the alley, cool night air couldn’t mask the pungent scent of garbage due to be dumped. The overripe smell hadn’t driven away the people who sat along the wall.
At the end of every shift, she liked to give leftover food to the homeless, and word had spread.
“Hey, guys,” she said with a wave. “Anyone seen anything suspicious going on out here lately?”
A man known only as Loner stood to wobbly legs. Dirt streaked his skin and caked his hair while stains littered his ragged clothing. Her heart ached for the man. She didn’t know his story, only knew his eyes were dulled by hopelessness. Life had given up on him, and he’d given up on life.
“There’s been a young man skulking through the shadows,” he said. “Tall, blond. Looks constipated all the time. We thought he worked for you ’cause he paid us to report
any drug sightings or—” Loner tugged at his collar “—flesh peddlin’.”
Constipated? Only Jude. The man hated every second of his existence.
Why did Jude care what happened on her property, anyway? Why did he think people were selling drugs and sex? Oh…crap. What if people were selling drugs and sex? Acid churned in her stomach, quickly burning a path up her throat.
“And did you have to report anything to him?” she asked.
Loner shifted from one foot to the other. “Past few nights, different men have climbed inside a van and, uh, it started rocking soon after. Those men took off about fifteen minutes later.” Again he pulled at his collar. “Not sure if no money was exchanged, though.”
Poo on a stick!
Ryanne had heard so much cursing on a daily basis, she’d decided to keep her words and thoughts, like, superclassy.
She sooo did not want to call the cops about this. While she loved the hardworking, honorable men and women who worked for the Strawberry Valley PD, she didn’t fall under their jurisdiction. Instead, Blueberry Hill PD would be sent out, and one of their officers—Jim Rayburn—wanted her shut down by fair means or foul. Sometimes he showed up at the bar to card and question her patrons. Other times he pulled them over for suspicion of drunk driving. Ryanne suspected Jim was the one who’d written “Ryanne Wade is a slut” and “For a good whore call Ryanne Wade” on the men’s room wall.
He despised her, all because she’d helped her friend and ex-stepsister Lyndie Scott leave her husband, Chief Carrington, Jim’s former boss.
The abuses the chief inflicted on the delicate Lyndie, turning a buoyant young girl into a woman with crippling shyness and constant panic attacks… For the first and only time in her life, Ryanne had contemplated cold-blooded murder.
A jealous husband did it for her, giving the beater and cheater a taste of his own medicine. In Jim’s mind, Lyndie and Ryanne were responsible. What if he blamed the sex and drugs on Ryanne? What if he jailed her?
Can’t risk calling for help. “Thank you, Loner. Please report any other shady activity to me instead of the constipated man. Okay?”
He nodded. Determined to hunt down the van, she surged into the crammed parking lot. As she wove in and out, peeking into windows, the loud wail of a jackhammer registered. Her gaze zoomed across the street, where halogen lights were posted around a construction site.
Not too long ago, a man named Martin Dushku had come to see her. Though he’d had violent tattoos on his neck and hands, he’d worn a sophisticated suit that probably cost more
than her SUV.
He was opening a strip club nearby, he’d said, and hoped she wouldn’t mind having competition.
She’d smiled and said, “What competition? I run a bar, not a strip club.” Besides, economic theory suggested two competing businesses being located right across from one another was actually better for each business, because the competition fueled more activity and therefore more business.
He’d laughed. “And your place is low end while mine will be high end. But,” he’d added, “I’d prefer to buy you out and run both businesses, which would free you up to travel.”
Her desire to travel wasn’t a secret, but he’d still managed to creep her out. She’d refused his offer. She wanted to travel, yes, but she also wanted a home to return to, something she hadn’t had as a child. More specifically Earl’s home. Also, she enjoyed providing meals for the homeless. Mr. Dushku struck her as the type of man who would treat
the less fortunate like dirt.
She’d expected a fight, but he’d accepted her refusal gracefully and taken off.
Mind on the task at hand. He’s not my worry tonight.
Right. Almost done. Only a few more cars to check. In fact, she was about to breathe a sigh of relief that there was no sign of the van or foul play when she came to a shadowed
corner in back, with only two vehicles. One—a van.
The other was a sedan. Her stomach sank. Both vehicles had tinted windows and, just as Loner reported, the van rocked back and forth.
What should I do?
Light suddenly flooded the sedan, allowing her to lock eyes with the man behind the wheel. He was smoking a cigarette, casual and unabashed. Beside him sat a man with a
snake tattooed on his jaw.
I should…run? They had to be pimps or bodyguards, because their charge was clearly doling out goods and services in the van.
Run? No! Fury sparked inside Ryanne, tempered only by dismay.
Calling the cops was no longer a should-she-shouldn’t-she situation. She should. She would. First, she needed proof of her innocence, just in case Rayburn tried to turn the tables on her. So, despite possible dangers, Ryanne withdrew her phone and took pictures of the men and the license plate on both vehicles. No one would be pinning a crime on her.
When she stood at the rear, the passengers decided now would be the perfect time to emerge. Well, crap. She began to stream a live video on her phone. A weapon in and of itself: it proved her innocence, while ensuring the guys couldn’t do anything violent without a boatload of witnesses.
“Say hello to the world,” she said, and grabbed her gun as a just in case.
Cigarette was over six feet tall while Snake topped out at about five-five. Both males were muscled, heavily tattooed and glaring at her.
Ryanne stood her ground. How many times had she been forced to break up fights involving big, scary men?
Cigarette slapped a hand against the van, once, twice, and it stopped rocking.
“You and your crimes aren’t welcome here.” She was proud. Her voice, like the rest of her, held steady. “Leave, and don’t come back.”
Snake looked her over slowly, leered and licked his lips. “You might want to watch your mouth, little girl. You don’t, and bad things are likely to happen.”
“Please,” she said, “threaten me again. I’m not sure the camera captured your best angle.”
The door in back of the van suddenly swung open, a man wearing tighty-whities falling out. With the rest of his clothes clutched against his chest, he sprinted past Ryanne and down the street. The alleged prostitute—blonde, pale and thin, with wide eyes full of fear—remained inside and shut the door.
“You okay in there?” Ryanne called.
Cigarette took a menacing step toward Ryanne.
“Stop! Anything happens to me, and the world will know who’s responsible.” As a tremor swept through her, the phone fell from her grip and thudded on the concrete. Crap! At
least she still had her gun.
“We know who you are, and we know the cops hate your guts. They’ll blame you if anything happens to us,” he replied.
How did he know about her fears?
Thumping footfalls sounded in the distance, growing closer by the second. She tensed, unsure what was about to happen, when—
Jude appeared in front of the vehicles, his hands balled like sledgehammers. He squared his shoulders and braced his legs apart, his posture rigid. A precombat stance. He wasn’t panting, but he was making some kind of low growling noise, as if he were a rabid animal who’d finally found a meal.
Commando likes the taste of blood. And oh, wow, she liked this side of him. In the moonlight, he was a god. A warrior without equal.
Still, her tension spiked. If he were hurt…
To her astonishment, Cigarette and Snake immediately backed up. Cigarette slid into the sedan, and Snake climbed behind the wheel of the van. All without a word. One after the other, the vehicles shot out of the parking lot.
Ryanne lunged forward, intending to follow. On foot?
Idiot! But the girl…
Jude latched on to her wrist, keeping her in place. “Don’t,” he snapped. “You’ll only get yourself killed.”
Was he mad at her?
No, no. Couldn’t be. He was mad at the world. Always.
She swiped up her phone, intending to dial 911. Instead, she paused. “Who are they? Were they selling that girl?”
“They work for a man named Martin Dushku, and yes.
They were selling that girl. Have been for the past two weeks.”
The answers hit her like twin jabs to the gut. Why would Mr. Dushku sell a girl on her property rather than his own?
To blame Ryanne and get her shut down? Why not call the cops on her, then?
Maybe he only wanted to scare her so she’d sell?
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she demanded. “And why didn’t you call the cops? We need to help that girl.”
“I know all about your history with the Blueberry Hill PD. And I was handling it. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.”
Had he tried and failed? “Clearly you weren’t handling it well enough.”
Malice radiated from him as he bared his teeth. The fact that they were straight and white made him no less intimidating.
“You know there are Eastern European gangs in Texas, right? I dealt with them when I lived in Midland. They’ve migrated into Oklahoma, and like I said, the two assholes you threatened work for Martin Dushku, the guy building a club across the street. He isn’t known for his sharing and caring but his fervor to own everything. He’ll try to force you to sell or shut you down, whichever comes first.”
Gang members? Here? No freaking way.
Maybe Mr. Dushku wasn’t involved at all. He might have been a little creepy when he offered to buy her out, but he hadn’t been pushy. “How do you know this?” she asked, one brow arched. “Let’s face it. You could have arranged this little show in an attempt to scare me into hiring you.”
He stepped toward her, far more dangerous than Cigarette or Snake, and yet she wasn’t afraid. “I don’t want your business, Ryanne. I’ll never be your biggest fan, and I despise your bar. Frankly, I’d rather let it burn to the ground. If you weren’t friends with my friends, I would. And I know about Dushku because I investigate everyone who moves to my town.”
She believed him. One thing she couldn’t doubt—his loyalty to his friends, Brock Hudson and local hero Daniel Porter. The three had served in the military together, and had each other’s backs without fail.
And she wasn’t hurt by Jude’s I’ll never be your biggest fan crack. The man had terrible taste.
“I’m sorry,” she said, fear suddenly clawing at her insides.
A gang had come to Oklahoma, and the leader wanted her bar. Her home.
She’d taken care of Earl here. Happy memories abounded. If something happened…
Who was she kidding? Something would happen. Martin Dushku and his associates were bad people, willing to do bad things. What if they hurt her patrons, innocent people who’d done nothing wrong?
Biting the inside of her cheek, she sheathed her gun and extended a shaky hand to Jude. “Congratulations, Mr. Laurent. You’re hired.”
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