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HIS

EXS LITTLE SISTER

INSTA-LOVE ON THE RUN, #1

BELLA LOVE-WINS

BELLA LOVE-WINS BOOKS


CONTENTS

His Exs Little Sister


Blurb and Authors Notes
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About Bella Love-Wins
1. Reid
2. Reid
3. Robin
4. Reid
5. Robin
6. Reid
7. Robin
8. Reid
9. Robin
10. Reid
11. Robin
12. Reid
13. Robin
14. Robin
15. Reid
16. Reid
17. Robin
18. Reid
19. Epilogue - Reid
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Hi Exs Little Sister
Insta-Love on the Run #1

Bella Love-Wins
COPYRIGHT
This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely
coincidental.

His Exs Little Sister


Copyright 2017 Bella Love-Wins.
Written by Bella Love-Wins.
All Rights Reserved.
BLURB AND AUTHORS NOTES

Synopsis
She's supposed to be off-limits, but all bets are off.
Reid
I'll never regret running away from a f**king nightmare of a
broken home to join the Army. On my return after three tours, I
have a chance meeting with a sexy little country-western
songbird. The attraction is explosive, but she turns out to be my
ex-girlfriend's little sister. I don't remember her having all
those curves, or her sassy attitude, or that mouth that was made
for sin.
Now that I've set my sight on Robin, her forbidden status
means nothing to me. I'm ready to claim her, no matter the cost.

Robin
I bump into the bad boy who broke my sister's heart nine
years ago, and everything changes. I never expect forbidden
fireworks, secrets and danger at every turn, and a hero in my
corner when I need him most.
AUTHORS NOTES:
- His Ex's Little Sister is a standalone billionaire romance
novella with no Cliffhanger and a Guaranteed HEA. It was first
published as Protector, my contribution to the Begging for Bad
Boys limited time bundle.
- The Insta-Love on the Run series includes quick and
sinfully steamy contemporary romance standalones you can
devour on the run! Each book is a short burst of explosive
romance that'll consume you for up to two hours. Find your dose
of love from the very first page. All stories are written and
copyrighted by Bella Love-Wins.
GET FREE INSTA-LOVE ON THE RUN STORIES

- The Insta-Love on the Run series includes quick and sinfully


steamy contemporary romance standalones you can devour on
the run! Each book is a short burst of explosive romance that'll
consume you for up to two hours. Find your dose of love from the
very first page. All stories are written and copyrighted by Bella
Love-Wins.
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OTHER BOOKS BY BELLA LOVE-WINS

Seduction and Sin Series

Book 1 (Jackson and Dahlia): The Billionaire and the


Virgin
Book 2 (Jace and Cherry): Billionaire Daddy's Virgin
Book 3 (Vanessa and Liam) : The Billionaire and the
Bad Girl

Coming Soon in the Seduction and Sin Series:

Dylan and Emily


Caleb and Rosa
Foster and Bree

MC Romance
Outlaw

Sports Romance
Win Big
Go Deep
Hook Up

His Christmas Package


Angelo
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ABOUT BELLA LOVE-WINS

Bella is a Wall Street Journal (Begging for Bad Boys) and USA
Today Bestselling Author (Begging for Bad Boys, Alphas for the
Holidays. Shifters in the Snow: Bundle of Joy, Shifters in the
Shadows), who loves writing steamy, high-action romance
stories about bad boys, athletes, firefighters, billionaires, and
alpha males who know what they want and aren't afraid of
laying claim to the women who catch their interest.
She enjoys a happy ever after ending, as well as reading,
hiking, the countryside, and traveling to destinations unspoiled
by commercial tourism, like Las Vegas. :)
Like so many characters in her novels, Bella gets all hot and
bothered for action, romance and unexpected love connections
that take her breath away. For the next while, you'll find her in
Toronto, plotting and writing about her latest stories on her
MacBook.
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1

REID

I can barely register the thrum of the guitar player on


stage here at the Whiskey Jacks Saloon. Hes playing
country western music, and wearing a plaid button down shirt
and fringe along the sides of his tan chaps that cover his jeans,
no less. Who cant appreciate a cowboy in plaid and fringe? There
are so few of us can actually pull that off. Usually Im all about
acoustic guitars, but not tonight. At the moment, my mind is on
the redhead at the mic. I cant take my eyes off the subtle swing
of her hips as she sways to keep time. My breath stops short at
the rise and fall of her chest when she holds a longer note as she
delivers what I believe is the sweetest, sexiest rendition of Dolly
Partons Here You Come Again that Ive ever heard.
Something in her eyes tells me that shes had her own
experience of the guy described in this song. Maybe thats just
raw talent, the ability to personalize the song as though she has
lived through it. But I doubt it. This little ladys been through the
ringer. I just know it from that extra layer of sadness she croons
out for the part of the song that talks about him messing with
her mind and overtaking her senses. Id put money on it that she
has a sorry-ass sonofabitch in her life, and she keeps breaking
up over and over again with that same smug bastard who has her
heart wrapped up with pain, disappointment, and lies because
she cant resist him.
Maybe that dickbag is her poison.
Well, hello Dolly.
I can be her cure.
My eyes take their own sweet time grazing down her body.
The tan Stetson at the top of her head accentuates the contrast
between her creamy skin and her fiery red hair. I memorize the
contours of her big blue eyes, perfect little nose, and plump lips.
Every feature on her pretty, heart-shaped face and slender neck
fits with the others. Even the tiny mole an inch above the left
side of her top lip is charming.
I let my eyes stray past her collarbone to her sleeveless black
top that lovingly hugs her breasts, causing the fabric to strain
just a little over her nipples. Its V-neck isnt as deep as Id like it
to be, but it shows just enough cleavage to cause me to want to
see more. My gaze pauses at her tiny waist. A black leather belt
with copper or brass rivets is looped through her white flared
mini skirt. The skirt itself may be puffy, but it only serves to
ignite my imagination as it hides her shapely hips and round ass.
Even so, Im still grateful that the skirt ends mid-thigh, allowing
me to experience her creamy, smooth long legs that go on for
miles and miles until they meet her scuffed, dusty pink-colored
Lucchese cowboy boots with the sassy, flowing leather fringes on
each side.
I try to picture how different she might look without the
contrasting lights and shadows cast by the stage spotlights
tilting down from the ceiling. Theres no doubt in my mind shell
be just as gorgeous outside under the blinding Nevada sun, or in
the dead of night, lying in my bed with her hair fanned out on
my pillow and her legs slightly parted as she begs me to
claim her.
Call it lust.
Call it attraction.
I dont care what you call it, but she has my full attention.
I silently wish that Id paid attention to Rusty, the bar owner,
when he introduced her earlier tonight. Damn straight Ill be
listening for her name at the end of her set.
My focus on the hot little number is rudely diverted by a large
calloused hand waving in front of my face. That hand is attached
to the twenty-six-year-old, six-foot-four Jaden Pratt, my best
buddy and the youngest of the four co-owners of Allied Force
Security LLC with me.
What the fuck do you want? I ask, pushing his hand away as
I give him an impatient, cutting glare.
Jaden grins, showing off his perfectly straight teeth. He runs
the same hand through his light blond hair. Dude, if you eye-
fuck her for much longer, shes liable to notice. Dont scare her
away before you even get to say hi. Or is crazy-eyed stalker-
creep actually the look that youre going for? he jokes.
How about you head over to the corner of fuck off and mind
your own damn business? I grunt, giving him a scowl.
Keep it down, Leo Connelly whispers his order from beside
Jaden. What the hell is wrong with you two?
At thirty-two, and as president of our security firm, Leos
gruff, no-nonsense baritone voice commands obedience. It
doesnt help that with his stocky yet muscular six-foot-five
build, he carries himself as if hes still Captain of the Alpha
Company, Third Battalion, First Special Forces Group where we
all served for two tours. Not one of us has ever questioned his
leadership, not back when we were out in the field, or now that
were civilians, or even here sitting in this saloon.
No one except for his kid brother, Beau. Beau is a slightly
leaner, six-foot-seven facsimile of Leo. Same sandy brown hair
and eyes, same square jaw, same predilection for plaid shirts,
denim jeans and leather cowboy boots, but thats where the
similarities end. Beau happens to be sitting to my right with a
cigaretteno, a jointtucked behind his left ear, partially
hiding under his mop-like hairstyle he wears now that were ex-
military.
Hush the hell up, Beau tells his big brother with playful
defiance in his eyes, and eyebrows raised high on his forehead.
Picking up his beer mug, he takes a big gulp of the brew, shifts
his gaze to me and adds in a whisper, Which one of us do you
think shes into? Seems like shes been checking out our table
since she got on stage.
I shrug, returning my focus to the stunning woman. The way I
see it, I caught sight of her first, so everyone else needs to keep
their dicks in their pants.
Ive got first dibs.
Then I remember that Beau has a hankering for Betty-Anne,
one of the waitresses who regularly works the night shift here at
the saloon. Shes a pretty little blonde, but as theyve been
hooking up casually for months, the rest of us kept our distance.
Thats part of our code. Its smarter that way.
Beau leans back in his chair, lifting the front legs off the floor
as he looks around the saloon, probably for Betty-Anne.
Now that everyone at my table has quieted down, I can go
back to enjoying the sexy sounds of the woman on stage. I dont
waste any time when she gets to the end of the song. While the
crowd gives her an enthusiastic round of applause, I announce to
the guys at my table that Ive got the next round of beers and
excuse myself to head to the bar. The sultry country western
singer deserves some ice-cold refreshment too.
Crossing the large, dim room with extra determination in my
step, I stop at the end of the bar closest to the stage.
Another pitcher of beer, Rusty, I tell the middle-aged
owner across the deep mahogany countertop.
Rusty nods. Coming right up, he says, turning to the back
counter. He reaches into the lower cupboards and retrieves a
clean pitcher.
Are you short-staffed again? I ask, mostly to make
conversation.
Yeah. His eyebrows knit together and he puts on the usual
scowl that comes before a rant. Real shame. I spent almost a
month getting that last night shift bartender up to speed, and
then he goes and quits to tend bar at some shitty casino close to
the Strip.
Thats too bad.
No shit. Vegas is tough to compete with, but still, youd
think the kid could have saved me the hassle of training him by
telling me he had his sights set on the bright lights. Serves me
right for trying to save a penny by setting up shop so far off the
goddamned Strip.
I lift one shoulder and nod politely, on account of the fact that
Ive heard this particular rant before. I know better than to
encourage him by agreeing. Besides, I need information.
Motioning toward the stage with my chin, I smile. Youre
having much better luck with the musical talent, though. That
performance was pretty damn good.
He grins. Yeah. Lucky break too. Those two are hot to trot for
their chance at making it in Nashville. She just got back from
college, so Ill probably have them doing gigs here for a year or
more. College loans are the worst.
Got back? Is she from around here? I have to ask, because
Im one of the few people in Las Vegas who isnt from
somewhere else. I actually grew up in South Las Vegas. My father
used to be a cargo airplane pilot, and had moved us out here
from Idaho so he could have a resort-style playground in his
backyard during his downtime.
Yeah. Dont you recognize her? She is Don Sparrows
youngest daughter, Robin.
My head snaps toward the stage again and I swallow hard.
Robin Sparrow. I know her, or at least, I know of her.
No fucking way Ill have a chance in hell with this girl.
I shouldnt even look her way.
First of all, she looks like shes barely legal. Going from
memory, though, must be close to eight years younger than me.
She was probably still in grade school when I started Army basic
training. Second, and much more importantly, I dated her older
sister, Danielle, back in high school. And things did not end well.
It had something to do with the fact that right after graduation,
Danielle led herself to believe that I was days away from
proposing to her, and instead of doing that, I quietly enlisted in
the Army and left town without so much as a goodbye.
It was a dick move. I was a shithead back then, not for joining
the Army or leaving her behind, but for being a pussy and not
telling her about it. Personally, it was a tough time, and she was
not aware that I was dealing with serious problems of my own.
Quality of life problems, like having a mean motherfucker of an
old man, and a mother who didnt make it in this world past my
third birthday. If she were alive, maybe she could have tempered
his wicked spirit.
The bottom line is I didnt have the balls to tell Danielle that I
was more interested in risking my life to serve my country than
staying anywhere near my father, or worse, to kick off the green
mile to a slow death by hooking up with my high school
sweetheart and getting hitched.
Like I said, I was an ass.
Maybe I still am.
Thats what Im told, anyway.
Danielles kid sister, Robin, may not know all the details of
this fucked up backstory, but Im sure she knows enough to steer
clear of me. And I should leave well enough alone.
Good to know, I mumble as Rusty places the full ice-cold
pitcher of whats on tap in front of me. Reaching into my pocket,
I pull out my wallet for a few bills. There should be enough here
to get your stage acts any drink they wantalthough, she may
not be old enough.
He nods. Ill put it in their tip jars and they can figure out
what to do with the cash. And by the way, shes legal, he
confirms with a grin. You should know that I make it my
business to never hire jailbait, not even for stage gigs.
I walk back to my friends at our table, and take my seat,
ignoring the slim, blonde, overly flirtatious waitress named
Sally, who has been campaigning hard for a second date with me
for months. She balances her tray in her right hand and rests her
left hand on my shoulder.
Hi Reid, she says, leaning down toward me and leaving
nothing to my imagination as she shows off her full cleavage.
A glance in my friends direction tells me theyre happy to
take in the free show of Sallys ample tits.
Hey Sally. Hows it going?
Good, but it could be a lot better if we go out again, she
purrs, tracing a line from my shoulder down to my forearm.
Id bet.
So, is that a yes, honey?
Its not a yes. Its a hell no. I dont do second dates. The
thing is, I like Rusty, and this saloon, so I need to let her down
gently. Fighting back the urge to groan, I give her a weak smile.
Things are pretty busy with work. How about I let you know?
Sally pouts at me and starts to bat her eyelashes, like it would
make a difference. Thankfully, a customer waves at her from a
few tables away. Looking forward to it, she tells me as she
leaves.
Perfect timing.
Robin Sparrow is about to start another set on stage.
As she raises her microphone to her lips, shes staring right
at me and looks mad as hell.
I guess Ive been made.
2

REID

I cant help myself.


Robin begins to sing, and all I can think about is how
much envy I have for her handheld mic. The way her tiny hands
grip tightly around the sleek length of the handle, and how her
fuckable lips come so close to and sometimes brush lightly
against the mesh metal ball head grill.
If only I could be so lucky.
Its wishful thinking, though. If Robin knows anything about
what happened with her sister, and Im pretty damned positive
that she does, there is no way in hell that shell give me the time
of day. I have no business looking at her, let alone wanting her.
Too late.
I look.
I want.
The only two questions now are, does she know or care about
ancient history, and am I setting myself up for a world of hurt or
worse? I stop myself from this messed up line of thinking and
relax into my chair seat to enjoy the song shes already halfway
through.
The song.
The singer.
The two, together, have me and everyone else in the room
captivated. My mind seems to toggle back and forth between her
roughly five-foot-five form. I begin to picture my hands resting
on the spot just a bit higher than the flare of her hips, then
running up her back, and reaching forward to cup the swell of
her breasts before continuing up to the nape of her neck. My
fingertips are almost burning, wanting to anchor into her silky
hair as I gaze into her blue eyes, and close the space between us
as I cover that mouth with mine. I can probably fantasize for
hours about the things that mouth would do to me, but Id prefer
the real thing.
I make my decision there and then.
Fuck staying safe.
Shes worth the risk.
When Robin finishes this current set of songs, Im going to
find out what she knows and whether shes game for drinks or
more with yours truly.
Except she beats me to it while the audience is applauding.
Im taking the last few gulps of my drink when she puts her
mic on the bar stool thats center stage, straightens her
shoulders, and sashays right up to me. She rests her arm on the
back of my chair, gives a slight nod to the guys at my table, and
leans down to look me right in the eye.
Well, if it isnt Reid Atkinson, she hummed.
Hi, I greet her without acknowledging her name. That was
a great performance. You have an incredible voice.
Thanks. You know, I thought my mind was playing tricks on
me, but there you are, soldier. How on Gods green earth
are you?
Her face is inches from mine, and theres nothing but sultry
sweetness in her eyes. Is that real, or is he putting on a show?
I smile. Im great. Looks like youre all grown up.
I sure am. How long have you been back in town? Or is this a
temporary layover before your next tour with the military?
This is pretty permanent. I got back to Vegas over a
year ago.
Oh, thats interesting. I havent seen you in the old
neighborhood.
I nod. Thats because I live about fifteen miles west of our
part of town.
Very good. And work? No more army stuff?
No. I motion over at my buddies. Were in private security
these days. Our office is west of here too.
Nodding, she pats my shoulder with authority and
confidence, and then, she straightens up to full height. Thats
just great. Im sure glad I bumped into you here, Reid. Do you
want to know why?
Sure. Tell me.
Thats when the sugary sweetness disappears from her face,
only to be replaced by contempt thats strong enough to poison
an ox.
It just saves Danielle the trouble of finding out you brought
your sorry ass back to town. You remember Danielle, dont you?
Blonde, wavy hair, light brown eyes, about my height, and you
left her high and dry without so much as a Dear Jane letter?
She pauses as though shes waiting for me to respond, but
Im not one to challenge the well-masked fury of a woman
scorned.
Or her sister, in this case.
Robin cocks her head to one side, and she adds, Do me one
favor, Reid. Stay the hell away from my sister. Matter of fact,
stay away from my family. Got it?
She doesnt wait for me to answer. Robin pivots on the heels
of her cowboy boots, whipping her waist-length red tresses
around, and heads off in the direction of the restrooms.
Well, shit, Jared says, with a gurgly chuckle thats annoying
as hell. He slaps me on the back. I guess your little songbird
already had a taste of your track record, once removed. And my
guess is she dont want seconds.
Robins little order makes me curious. There has to be more
to explain her anger. I left for basic training over nine years ago,
yet the way she spoke sounds like it was just yesterday that it all
happened. She is way too angry about this. Something doesnt
add up, and now I have to get the missing puzzle pieces that will
give me the whole picture.
Deciding to make at least one attempt at getting some
answers from the convenient but wrathfully sexy source, I follow
her past the bar and around the corner of a narrow hallway to
wait outside the ladies room.
Robin steps out after a few minutes. The second she lays eyes
on me, she presses her lips together into a disapproving scowl,
scrunches up her nose, and folds her arms under her breasts.
Oh. You again. Do you have a hearing problem, or did you
not get me when I told you to keep your distance from my
family?
I lean my back against one wall of the corridor, and mirror her
stance by folding my arms. I heard you, all right. Im just trying
to understand a few things.
She huffs out such a long breath that the stray strands of hair
hanging over her eyes and beside her temples fly up for a
moment, and then come back to rest around her heart-shaped
face. Her eyes slowly blaze a trail from the center of my chest
which is eye-level for herright up to my hair, then back down
again, stopping briefly at my groin before resuming her
inspection all the way down to the tips of my handcrafted
Anderson Bean cowboy boots.
Theres nothing for you to understand, except to stay the
hell away, she finally says in a cold, clipped tone.
Well, Im curious about a few things.
Forgive me for looking like I was put on this planet to satisfy
your every whim, she deadpans. Except, the last four words of
her statement comes out slowly, in a breathy murmur that has
me certain Im having an effect on her.
If thats the case, theres only one solution.
Concentrate the impact to emotionally throw her off balance.
Maybe then, Ill get some answers.
Taking a step toward her, I return her earlier favor and rest
my hand on her shoulder. Its no surprise to me. Her breath
catches, her pupils dilate, her chest rises and falls like she cant
get enough air into her lungs, and her heart rate is off the charts.
Her reaction confirms that some of this energy between us is
simply of a physical nature. Shes attracted to me. I have a
reaction too. Its the electrifying sensation at my fingertips
where I made contact with her bare skinand the other
response that starts to take effect in my groin area.
Fine, I tell her. Let me explain. First of all, I didnt
recognize you until Rusty told me who you were. You were just a
little kid when I left town, yet you seem to know me well enough
to recognize my face in this crowd. Care to share how you knew it
was me?
You dated my sister all through high school, Reid. And you
lived one block from our house.
That was nine years ago, I counter. I hardly look like I did
back then.
Who needs to memorize your face when all anyone has to do
is take note of that massive air of arrogance you carry around?
She rolls her eyes but does not move out of my hold. Maybe she
likes me touching her more than she thinks. In fact, her body
language completely contradicts her speech. What else? And
make it quick. Ive got one more set to finish, then my guitar
player partner and I have to be somewhere.
Another gig?
Thats none of your concern. Oh, and darn, Im out of time
now, so lets save the third-degree forwell, never. No one in
my family owes you anything. Have a nice life, Reid.
Again, her words dont jibe with her body. Robin says
goodbye, but she doesnt move an inch.
I leverage her apparent paralysis by continuing. Not so fast. I
cant help but notice that youre more bitter than a recently
pissed off rattlesnake, which makes no sense at all to me. The
stuff that happened between your sister and me took place
almost a decade ago. Whats with the fresh hatred?
Something I said makes her left eye twitch and her bottom lip
trembles as though shell cry any second now.
Youre such a jerk! she hisses.
This time, she shoves my hand off of her shoulder and pushes
past me. Im not one to resort to harassment, so I let her storm
off towards the stage. Robin demonstrates that she is a
professional. Her face transforms back to that sweet and
cheerful expression she wore at the start of her performance.
Good for her. I take my time to get back to the guys. Theyre
more focused on the women standing around flirting with them
than on Robin or me. She whispers something in the ear of the
guitar player. He nods, not looking up as he retightens a string
on his Gibson acoustic guitar.
Thats when she picks up the microphone and announces
shes about to deliver a song dedicated to her sister.
This cant be good.
3

ROBIN

I t takes every ounce of my self-control not to get the hell


out of Whiskey Jacks Saloon. I should never have been
so stupid, going up to Reid like that in the first place. What I
should have done was finish that song, drink a glass of water to
calm myself down, and get ready for this last set.
But Ive never been too good with impulse control.
Case in point.
I inform Barclay, my guitarist and best friend, that were
going to perform a song that Danielle and I wrote a few years
ago, and instruct him to follow along with a basic chord. Barclay
and I have been singing and writing country western songs for
years, so hes used to me switching up our sets. He knows the
song too, but maybe he doesnt realize that the song will be
directed to Reid.
Barclay nods, and his shoulder-length brown hair swings
forward. He doesnt even ask me why as he plays with his neatly
trimmed goatee. I look over at him after announcing to the
audience that Im dedicating the song to my sister. He doesnt
suggest I may be taking a risk by singing something this
emotionally charged. Okay, its an angry, sad country ballad.
This would be the ideal time for someone to talk me off a ledge. I
wish he didnt trust me so much.
Taking a seat on the backless bar stool set up behind the
microphone stand, I take a breath, avoid making eye contact
with Reid at all costs, and I sing.

Are you ever gonna tell me why,


You upped and left without a damned goodbye,
What did I ever do to make you leave here,
You took my heart away with you, dear.

I was crying in my bed,


Because of words you never said,
Bye Bye Hero,
Why Why Hero.

So many nights I could not sleep,


Too bad my soul was yours to keep,
Cant seem to get over you yet,
Tell me, do you have some regret?

I was crying in my bed,


Because of words you never said,
Bye Bye Hero,
Why Why Hero.

Just dont come back expecting sunshine,


Matter of fact, just dont come around,
Ill stick to family, friends and wine,
To make up for the loss I found.

Youre someone elses hero now,


They must all be so damn proud,
A part of me just aint too sad,
One day youll see what we had.
Bye Bye Hero,
Bye Bye Hero.

By the time I finish the first verse, I realize singing this


particular song is a big mistake. I get to the bridge and a few hot
tears blur my vision, refusing to be blinked back. What Reid did
to my sister had a profound effect on us all. He walked out of her
life, and we were left to handle the repercussions. A tear runs
down my cheek as I let out the last line. Im a wreck, and I can
only be grateful that Barclay and I have been performing gigs on
tiny stages like these for so long that not even the waterworks
affect my voice.
Crowds like this just love sad old country songs that hit them
in the gut, which is why most everyone gets out of their seats for
this closing round of applause. Clasping my hands together over
the mic, I nod and thank them for listening. Patrons from a
several tables come up to the front to congratulate us personally
and put cash into the stage tip jar. Im also thanking the stars
that Barclay added a long enough guitar solo to my song, so we
can wrap it up as the last song of our gig this evening.
We settle up with Rusty for our pay and split the tips.
You were awesome tonight, Barclay tells me as he packs up
his gear.
Thanks. You were too. I liked those chords you ran with for
the last song.
Hey, while you were in the restroom just now, Rusty came by
with some good news.
Please tell me he invited us back.
He nods, smiling with pride. He sure did! Three nights a
week, starting tomorrow.
Thats great! Going by the tips we got tonight, Id say we
could be making a few hundred bucks a gig here. Lord knows I
can use the money.
You and me both. He looks at his watch. Wed better get
going. We have twenty-five or so minutes to get over to Stars
and Spokes Bar.
Lets go, I say. We cant leave here soon enough. It means I
dont have to see or speak to Reid for the rest of the night.
But it seems that he hasnt gotten the memo.
Robin, Reid says from a few feet behind me as I follow
Barclay to the front entrance.
Ignoring him, I keep walking. I dont want to look at him right
now, simply because I have no idea if I can control my runaway
mouth. I may spill a secret thats not mine to share.
Reid catches up with me outside the front door. He grabs my
elbow lightly. Will you just tell me what the hell is going on?
he shouts in a voice that commands my attention.
Barclay whips around from his spot in the middle of the
parking lot. He sees Reids hand on me and returns to my side,
taking a protective stance a few inches ahead of me to serve as a
buffer between Reid and me. Already, this is not going well. He
gives Reid a genuinely dangerous stare-down, a familiar
expression Ive seen on his face a few times before. Barclay and I
are just friends, but he wouldnt bat an eyelash put himself in
harms way to fight for me.
Robin, is this guy bothering you? Barclay asks, lifting his
Gibson off of his left shoulder to prepare for a potential fistfight.
Its okay, I answer, turning to look up at my sisters ex.
Myfriend was just leavingwerent you, Reid? Because I
know for sure you dont want any trouble.
Reid releases my arm and steps back. Youre right. I dont,
but I also prefer not to show up at your parents house to find out
how to get in contact with Danielle so she can tell me whats
going on.
Shit.
Hes got a point there.
I can talk to Reid. Everyone else in my family is liable to break
out a rifle and let the buck shots do the talking.
Okay, fine. Give me your number. I can meet you after work
tomorrow, but you need to promise me that after we talk, youll
go off into the sunset, or under a rock, wherever, as long as you
dont go looking for Danielle or anyone else for answers. As far
as Im concerned, youre nine years too late. Deal?
He studies me for a second before shaking his head and
reaching into his pocket. Deal, he answers, and passes a
business card to me. Send me a text so we can set something
up. See you around, Robin.
That meathead is Danielles ex? Barclay asks once Reid
returns inside and is safely out of earshot.
Yes.
He turns and walks back to his beat-up Toyota truck. And
you felt compelled to sing that song?
I couldnt help myself. Why didnt you stop me?
He reaches into his pocket and finds one of the hairbands he
uses to put all that hair into a manbun. He always does that
when hes upset or freaked out. How the hell as I supposed to
know who Reid is?
Youre right. Im sorry. He was sitting there with his friends,
looking so happy, acting like nothing happened, while Danielle
had such a hard road because of him.
Barclay opens my door for me. Hes always been such a
gentleman. I get that, but seriously, talk about beating a dead
horse and poking the bear, all at the same time. If you wanted
him to stay away, it might have been a better idea to pick
another song. You know? One that doesnt kick him in the teeth
or get him wondering what the hell went down that was so life-
altering that it caused youDanielles sister to write a song
about the two of them. Youve pretty much sent out a signal flare
that says, Hey Reid, how the hell are you? What do you think
about moseying on over here and tracking down my sister for
answers while I bring up ancient history and open up some old
wounds?.
Yeah. I guess that wasnt too smart, I breathe out,
shoulders slumped and feeling like an idiot as I step up into the
passenger seat.
Barclay places his guitar in the extra cab space behind me.
Ya think?
I throw on my seatbelt and rest my head on the seat back,
closing my eyes as Barclay goes to the driver side and gets in. I
did this. Ive got to fix it before it becomes a real problem.
Protecting Danielle is all I care about now. Tomorrow, Ill set up
that quick meeting with Reid, apologize for going overboard, and
leave out as many of the details as I can. All while avoiding a new
discovery that I just found out about outside the ladies
restroom.
I find Reid almost irresistible.
Lord help me.
Its time for some damage control.
4

REID

I m early for this meeting with Robin, and for good


reason.
I want answers.
Not that I deserve any, all things considered, but hell, her
song is still echoing around in my head. I broke Danielles heart.
Okay, Im an ass for having been such a childish prick by leaving
without saying goodbye. But there has to be more to this story.
Something about Robin being so intent on ensuring I keep my
distance from her sister has me on edge. Im sure that her family
is hiding something from me.
All day today at work, I was tempted to clear an hour of my
schedule to find out first-hand from Danielle herself. I dont
know where she lives, but its easy enough to stop by her
parents place and ask for their daughters address. Still,
something tells me I should get some intel from Robin before I
show up on that doorstep.
Mr. Sparrow is a damn good shot.
Robin sends me a text on my phone to let me know that she
has some time after her day job, and can meet me at Whiskey
Jacks before she performs. I reply that Ill be there. Perfect. No
need to risk life and limb with a confrontation with Mr. Sparrow.
The wait wont be too long.
I debate whether to tell her that my buddies and I happen to
spend a lot of our free evenings at that very saloon, but decide
against mentioning anything. Were both adults, and my guess is
she already dished out the worst of her fury last night with that
song. As upset as she was before, during and after that song,
Robin doesnt strike me as the catty type. I spend the rest of the
day in scheduled meetings and taking care of a few priority client
emails. After the bulk of my to-do list is finished, I leave the
office in one of the Cadillac Escalades in the company fleet.
I dont quite step down from my SUV in the parking lot when
the sound of a womans high heels approaches, clicking on the
concrete. Theres no surprise on my face as I make out Lou-Ann,
one of the regulars here at the saloon. Lou-Ann is just another
one of the one-night stands Ive had, and a pretty solid reminder
that I should never pick up chicks where I like to kick back
especially because one night isnt usually enough for most of
them. Not that I can blame them. Im fit, sexy, handsome, and
irresistible as hell.
Hi Reid, she purrs, stepping up to me. I check her out as we
stand between my SUV and a pickup truck in the next parking
spot, just to give myself some insight as to why I slept with her
that first and only time. Long dark hair. Cute face. Pretty smile.
Average-sized breasts. Curvy all over. Scantily dressed.
Yup.
Shes pretty much my usual M.O. for hookups.
Howdy Lou-Ann, I say.
You know, I never got a chance to get your phone number
that night, she informs me.
True. Theres a reason I didnt give her my number that
night. The one-night stand does not require a second night, so
collecting the phone numbers of women I dont intend to sleep
with again is counterproductive.
Lou-Ann runs a hand down my arm. It would be nice to hang
out again, if youre ever up for some company.
It takes real effort for me to give her a half-smile. My mind is
elsewhere. Im not here for entertainment, or beer, or good
music, or the company of my friends. Im here to get some
answers.
My schedule is booked up for the next little while, Lou-Ann.
Im sorry.
If I give you my number, will you call?
I press my lips together tightly, mentally crafting a polite way
to turn her down. In all likelihood, I wont be in touch. Because I
need to wrap up this little chat, I throw her a bone. Taking out
my phone, I pass it over to her anyway. No promises, okay? Put
your number in here and well see.
Lou-Ann is overjoyed and gleeful as she adds her number to
my contact list. Make sure you call me, she says, closing the
distance between us. She runs her hands up my chest and laces
her fingers around my neck. Promise?
The ability to interpret body language and read between the
lines do not appear to be in Lou-Anns wheelhouse. Frankly,
given her level of attachment, Im not willing to mince words
anymore. I pull her hands away from my neck and take a step
back. Sorry, doll. I said no promises, remember?
She pouts at the gruffness of my words. I thought you had a
good time with me, she whines.
I did. Thats the truth. But having one night of fun is not
reason enough for me to want another. Second dates are not in
my wheelhouse. If youll excuse me, I have a meeting inside.
Lou-Ann makes another concerted attempt to change my
mind by pressing her body up next to mine. She opens her
mouth to say something more, and I decide enough is enough.
Taking a solid grip on her shoulders, I move her one step away
and slide past her. I give her a wave over my shoulder and keep
walking to the front entrance of the saloon, where Robin is
standing with her arms folded again, giving me the stink eye.
Probably because she saw the whole thing.
5

ROBIN

O nce a dog, always a dog.


I glare over at Reid as he and a curvy woman make
small talk and practically start a mini makeout session in the
parking lot. He even gives her his phone to put in her number.
Dirty, sexy manwhore.
I only came outside to get some fresh air as I wait for Barclay
to arrive, but maybe its a better idea for Reid and me to have
this brief walk down memory lane out here with fewer witnesses.
It will also allow me to avoid him like the plague for the rest of
my time at todays gig.
Evening, Robin, Reid greets me with his broad, panty-
dropping smile.
I see right through the bright white teeth, good looks,
perfectly fit body, and charismatic charm. This time, I wont get
sucked in by his broad shoulders, bulging biceps, or his imposing
size that so many women must find ridiculously hard to resist.
Im not perfect myself, but this is one man I need to keep far
away from, no matter what.
Reid.
The woman he was speaking with steps up to us and give me a
grimace.
Have a good meeting, Reid, she says to him. Call me
later?
Reid keeps his gaze fixed on me and ignores her. Whatever.
Where to you want to have this talk? he asks me.
Right here is fine.
Are you sure you dont want to sit in one of our cars? Itll be
more private.
I dont need any privacy with Reid, so I shake my head. A
couple of minutes is more than enough. Right here is fine.
He looks out toward the parked cars. Which of those is
yours?
The light blue truck, I tell him. Not that its your
concern.
Okay. I knew it looked familiar, he says. Isnt that the
Chevy Silverado your older brother, Josh, use to drive all those
years ago?
Also none of your business, but for the sake of wrapping up
the small talk, yes it is.
I bite the inside of one cheek, pressing my back against the
wall beside the entrance as I mentally walk through my prepared
update. I thought about what Id say all night last night, and the
truth is, I wish that I didnt clue Reid in on Danielle. It would
have been even better if I didnt acknowledge or speak to him at
all, let alone sing that song.
I have enough of my own ex-boyfriend problems. Which is
why Ive been working my butt off. Its not fun slaving away as
secretary of my boss, Mr. Rochford, during the day while taking
as many evening gigs as I can handle. Mr. Rochford is an uptight
general attorney with a small one-man-show law practice. Hes
demanding, knows exactly what he likes and how, and has no
problem pointing out the errors of my ways every chance
he gets.
But I need that job, and these performing gigs. By this time
next year, Barclay and I will have enough saved up to move to
Nashville and finally find the connections to make a go of hitting
it big in the country and western world. Its been our plan since
grade school. The only thing keeping us from embarking on the
dream now is Barclays education. Hell graduate with a Masters
Degree in Fine Arts next April, and well be on our way to making
music and performing full time.
Ill also be free of my ex-boyfriend, Dave, who cant seem to
accept the words its over even now, close to a year after I
ended it. Changing the locks on the apartment we shared only
made him more convinced that were meant to be together, as he
says. A firm talking to from my parents didnt help. Neither did
the temporary restraining orders I got the courts to issue. He
stayed away for the duration of the orders, and as soon as they
expired, he started showing up again.
I smile weakly at a thought. Dave and Reid should have a chat.
Theyre on opposite extremes of the romantic relationship
spectrum. One cant run away from women fast enough. The
other cant bring himself to stay the hell away. Maybe theyll rub
off on each other and find a happy medium.
Or maybe not.
With their luck, theyll end up pickup up each others worst
habits.
Whats so funny? Reid asks, his voice pulling me out of my
thoughts. Or did you ask me here forother reasons?
I dont hide rolling my eyes. Dream on.
Reid moves in until hes less than two feet away from me.
Fine. Lets talk about Danielle.
Okay. First, let me say that Im sorry about that song last
night. I was out of line. It was not my place tojudge you or call
you out like that.
No need to apologize. I kind of liked the song, he says.
The crowd sure loved it.
Its not the reaction I wanted from him, but at least I got my
apology out without making the situation worse. Thanks.
Isnt that what good country music is all about? Pain,
sadness and regret?
He sure caused enough of it, but I wont touch that comment
with a ten-foot pole now that Im so close to having him out of
my hair for good.
Uh, sure. Anyway, what you need to know is that she was in
a bad place for a long time after you left. She doesnt need to be
reminded of you or the tough time she had. I want you to stay
away from her. I think thats it.
He cant seem to mask his confusion. His eyes narrow, his
brows knit together, and his head tilts to one side. Really?
Thats it? You asked me to meet you here, so you can tell me that
Danielle was in a bad place?
Look, I thought about it, all right? Its best if you leave well
enough alone.
The fact that you sang that song suggests to me theres
something more. Just tell me what it is. You have my word that I
wont try to track her down or reach out to your family.
She was depressed, I blurt out, although truth be told, its
only the tip of the iceberg. My gut tells me that if I give him this
sliver of what happened to Danielle, it will be enough. It has to
be. Clinical depression. That was her diagnosis, which
translated to frequent therapy sessions, prescription anti-
depressants, and many other consequences. She ended up
having to quit college, got fired from countless jobs around town,
and she couldnt live on her own. She still cant. Meanwhile,
there you are, off wherever you disappeared to in the Middle
East, serving in the military, being celebrated and decorated with
medals for protecting our country, when you couldnt even grow
a pair to tell my sister you were leaving. And now, look at you,
doing well for yourself while she cant hold her own. Why else
would I be upset?
Reid nods. Hes been staring pensively at a spot above my
shoulder, avoiding eye contact for the latter part of this heart-
wrenching update. Im sorry she had a hard time, Reid says.
Youre right. I was a jerk back then.
Add immature, inconsiderate, selfish, and arrogant to the
list, among other things, I tell him.
Okay, those too.
Damn right you were.
Is there anything else you want me to know? Or something
you want me to do for Danielle?
No! I blurt out way too quickly. I mean, its too late for
that. Water under the bridge, and all that. Just dont be surprised
if one or two of us use a picture of your arrogant face for target
practice. Oh and by the way, be sure to steer clear of Josh. My
brother has been saving up an extra-special can of whoopass just
for you.
I get it. Youre all hoping I dont cross paths with Danielle.
Thats right. The best, kindest thing you can do for her now
is to leave her alone. She doesnt need to go through another
downward spiral.
I understand. And what about you, Robin?
What about me?
Am I going to have to face your musical wrath every time you
perform here? Im asking because my friends and I spend a lot of
time at this bar.
Got it. No. You wont ever hear me perform that song
again. I shake my head. Ill make a point of leaving it off the
program from now on.
He leans forward, bringing his face close to mine. Do you
want me to leave you alone too? I have to ask, because yesterday
I got the feeling there was more to your reaction to me than plain
old hatred.
What are you talking about?
Theres no shame in admitting youre into me, Robin.
Thats just plain wrong, I stammer out, irked that I myself
dont even believe the words Im saying. Youre out of
your mind.
Am I?
Reid takes my hand and places my palm against his black
designer button-down shirt. Hes crowding me, invading my
personal space. I should be putting some distance between us,
but Im mysteriously fixed in place. The force of his hand keeps
mine plastered to his firm chest as it gives off waves of heat that
radiate to my core and soak my panties.
Im almost glad hes holding my hand in one spot, because
Im tempted to inch my fingers down to his abs, which I have no
doubt must be just as tight and rippling with rock hard muscles.
Dazed and off-balance, I push against his chest, hoping at least
one of us is not stuck in a forbidden moment. Reid doesnt move
an inch. Well, he moves, but in the wrong direction. Hes closing
in on me.
His light hazel eyes darken as he gazes down at me. My eyes
roam his face, taking in each feature while a tiny voice buried
deep in the recesses of my mind fails at getting my full attention
as it tells me this is all levels of wrong. Im too distracted by
Reids square jaw line, his short dark hair framing his face, full
lips that are just inches from mine, and those eyes that
hypnotize me.
Just tell me to leave you alone, Robin, and I will.
That gravelly voice vibrates through the air and permeates
every square inch of my skinand other places. The saddest
thing about whats happening to me is the knowledge that Reid
is completely aware of what hes doing to me.
Pleaseyes. Leave me and my family alone, I finally
breathe out. My cheeks and neck are hot and must be flushed red
by now. I just hope theres enough forcefulness in my tone to
make him believe that I mean it.
Reid narrows his eyes. All right, he says, but doesnt move
off, and he still has his hand clasped over mine with my palm
flattened over his heart.
I thank the stars as a smug smile curls up the sides of his lips,
snapping me out of it. I cant move back, but I find enough
clarity to take a step to my left.
Bye, I tell him, biting down on my bottom lip as I turn
toward the front entrance and hurry to get away.
Robin, he rumbles out as I pull the front door open.
I can barely bring myself to look his way, and it seems that
fate doesnt want us to let this conversation last a second longer.
His phone rings. Reaching into the pocket of his slacks, he takes
the call. I dont stick around for long, but notice the concern that
flashes over his face from whatever he learns on the other end of
the line. His long, hurried stride as he returns to his SUV is
telling enough.
Its probably something important.
Giving him a final glance over my shoulder, I head inside to
take care of my own priorities.
6

REID

R obins lucky that my phone rings and pulls me back to


taking care of business. Theres no doubt in my mind
anymore. Its clear as day that shes curious about me,
and Im not talking about hobbies. The lust in her eyes is
impossible to mask. But work comes first at the moment, so I set
aside my own budding interest in her to deal with a new issue.
Im about five minutes out, I tell Leo over the
speakerphone when he calls me a second time. Ive been
speeding northwest for half hour to get to a horse farm owned by
Gerald Mason of Mason Industries, one of our biggest clients.
What happened?
Stable fire, Leo informs me. Nothing major. There were
no human or equine injuries, but its the third suspicious fire at a
Mason Industries property.
Its early in the game, but there has to be a connection,
right?
Probably, he agrees. The grounds manager didnt notice
anyone suspicious on the property. And from the sounds of this
fire, it could have started from an electrical short in one of the
air conditioning units. We cant take any chances, though.
No doubt. Its a mystery all right.
Hey, someones calling on the other line. Ill meet you over
there. Gotta go. The tension in Leos voice is evident from all
the unnecessary gruffness.
A few minutes later, our vehicles make it into the parking lot
from opposite ends at about the same time, and Leo hops out of
his SUV, stepping up to me with a ground-eating stride because
hes probably in a hurry to wrap up this meeting and get to the
next one. Our client roster has been growing faster than ever,
since Mason Industries came on board.
Mason wants us to investigate these incidents independent
of the fire inspectors, he tells me, nodding over at the large
stable structure a few hundred feet away.
I nod as we hurry over to it. We always do. So, no
witnesses?
No. The fire started about an hour after most of the daytime
staff left the premises.
Lets take a look while were on site, I suggest. I can find
out about access control threats later.
Weve put forward the possibility of an inside man before.
These fires cant be as simple as just coincidences. The animals
closest to the source of the fire are Masons thoroughbred racing
horses. Leo rubs his forehead with the back of his hand. Some
of them are over half a million a pop.
That sure would put a dent in his pockets. How are we for
interim monitoring staff?
Beau is taking care of bringing everyone in until we figure
out whos behind these fires.
My eyebrows raise as we make it to the burnt-out section of
the stable. This isnt a small fire by any means, but only one
section of the massive structure was affected. The roof seems
intact as well. Because the firefighters are still here working with
long hoses to put out hot spots, there is sure to be significant
water damage.
Taking a long breath, Leo pulls out his phone and calls the
stable grounds manager, but even he cant get us clearance to
enter the cordoned off areas. Not while firefighters are still in
response mode. Leo and I join the small group of ranch staff
waiting beyond the perimeter. Its near impossible to ignore the
scent of soot, smoke and charred wood hanging in the air, which
is only upstaged by the large plume of smoke billowing from the
building.
It takes close to two hours for us to get close enough to the
structure. By then, the last of the flames are put out, and fire
responders begin to recoil hoses and return their equipment to
the truck. We make our way to the damaged section, navigating
muddy puddles and scorched planks of floor boards to get as
close to the air conditioning unit reported to be the alleged
culprit for starting the blaze. Nothing looks unusual in here, so
we return outside to look at the exterior wall closest to this spot.
Do you see those scorch marks? Leo asks, pointing at an
oval-shaped spot about four feet below the unit.
Yup, I answer, ducking down to take a closer look. There
shouldnt be anything down at that height if the air conditioner
had a short circuit. Unless the short started inside the wall, but I
doubt it.
It looks like incendiaries to me, Leo agrees. Gasoline?
That or propane. The rough oval shape makes me think
something was thrown on that spot, and whatever quantity was
still in a liquid state ended up dripping down the wall. So,
arson.
Leo nods knowingly. Well wait for fire investigators to
confirm, but thats my guess too.
Did we install any cameras that point in this direction? I
ask, looking back at the other structures, then over at the main
house about a few hundred feet away.
Good call. Ill have one of the technicians pull up the feeds
to verify. Geoff may still be at the office. Thats all we can do
here for now. Do you want to head out? I dont mind waiting here
for Beau and the relief team.
I check the time on my phone. Sure, but dont you have
more shit on your plate?
Naw. Its fine.
Okay. Ill work with Geoff on the video feeds back at the
office. We can regroup for a briefing tomorrow.
Its going to have to be early. Mason will want answers fast.
Works for me, I tell Leo, giving him a head nod before I
return to my SUV.
Climbing inside, I send a text to let Geoff, the technician,
know Im on my way over. He reminds me that I have remote
access via my laptop, so we agree that Ill head home while he
queues up the footage. Itll be a long night, but at least I can get
this work done from the comfort of my place. The last thing I
need is another all-nighter in the office. Ending the call, I start
the engine, flip on one of my preset XM radio stations, and start
my thirty-minute drive along the ranchs semi-deserted back
road that leads to the highway home.
Something about a country western ballad that comes on
reminds me of that sad, angry song Robin sang. Maybe its the
chords, or the slight edge to the vocalists voice. As I listen to the
lyrics of this song thats playing, the mystery of Robins anger
toward me surfaces again. She was hiding something. Even with
her revelation about Danielles depression, I cant shake the
feeling that there has to be something Im missing. At this
point, theres only one of two ways that Ill get past the wall of
secrecy that Robin has erected. I can either let it be, or confront
the source. Danielle will have some answers. In the meantime, it
is what it is.
If I can just stop bumping into Robin around town.
Or her blue Chevy Silverado, which I see parked on the side of
the road a few hundred feet up ahead.
Making some progress on this string of fires should be the
only thing on my mind right now, but as it turns out, I can more
or less balance two preoccupations.
7

ROBIN

T his part of town is getting way too small for comfort. Of


all the motorists driving by, Reid has to be the one to see
me and stop. As he jumps out of the driver seat, the desire to hop
in my truck and leave comes over me, but I stopped here for a
reason. This very spot is supposed to be one of the best places to
get a picture-perfect shot of the sun setting over Mount
Charleston to the west of us. Barclay and I want to capture that
image for the cover of our demo of a song called Stars and
Sunsets. Im not leaving until I get what I need, even if it means
putting up with Reid yet another time.
Putting my phone into my pocket, I turn toward Reid, whos
striding over to me with his usual air of cocky arrogance. He
stops a couple feet from me, sporting a smirk Id like to slap off
his face.
Have you finished your gig at Whiskey Jacks already?
he asks.
Yes. We had an early time slot today.
Weve got to stop meeting like this, darlin, he croons,
looming over me at a time that I should be focused on getting
my shot.
Id say its pretty easy to make that happen.
Yeah? How?
You could start by getting back in your car and driving away
as though you never saw me.
I was just thinking that Id like to do something else
entirely, he says.
Stepping closer, he raises his eyebrows, and the red hues of
the remaining sunlight start to cast shadows across his perfectly
straight nose and sharp jaw. Dammit, why does he have to be so
distractingly gorgeous? And why does he smell like he just slaved
away at a barbecue? And hell, why am I picturing him without a
shirt? Good lord, I need to get a grip. Taking a step backward
causes my upper back to hit the tailgate of my truck. He smiles,
as though he has me here he wants mecornered, boxed in, and
semi-paralyzed by his charming smile.
You should go, I squeak.
I stopped to see if you needed help.
I dont.
Youre not stranded here?
Im not, so please dont expect me to give you a medal for
having a hero complex. Youre not my white knight. I dont need
anything from you, Reid.
Are you sure about that? He stretches his hands out on
each side of me and grips the tailgate. Now Im really boxed in.
Swallowing the massive lump in my throat, I crane my neck to
look up at his face. Positive, I say in as firm a tone as I can
manage. Please just go. All I want to do is take a picture and be
on my way.
Fine, but I think Ill wait for you to leave first.
Why?
In case you change your mind. Or if you need my help.
Like hell I will, I mutter under my breath as he turns to go
back to his SUV, but it must be loud enough for him to hear. And
he does, because he looks back at me with an ever-broadening
smile, as though Ive just given him a challenge.
Reid stops short, pivots around and returns to face me. This
time, he comes in close. Too close. Hes inches from me, with a
devilish gleam in his eyes as he leans toward me, giving me
another dizzying whiff of his aftershave that smells like citrus
and woods, and smoky barbecue. Christ, if he stays here for
another second Ill end up doing something I regret for a
long time.
Then he steps even closer, causing my knees to weaken. My
breathing becomes even more shallow. Im frozen in one spot,
my core spreading heat and need through me as his large,
calloused hand slides up my arm, glides over my shoulder, and
comes to rest at the nape of my neck. My eyes drift closed. Reids
lips brush against mine for a split second before I find my
strength and push his smoldering hot chest away.
Dont ever try that again, I bark. Why the hell did you
do that?
Its a dumb question, like asking why birds fly. Hes a dog. But
the truth is I shouldnt blame him. Im the one who stood there
long enough to let him kiss me.
Because you wanted me to, he answers.
You dated my sister. Dont you see how wrong that
kiss was?
It felt right to me, and Im sure if we didnt stop, it would
have felt even more right.
Youre so disgusting, Reid. Can you please leave now? Ive
got things to do.
How about you let me take you to dinner? he asks. As if.
Though, if you accept, Im liable to want to do a hell of a lot
more than kiss you.
Youve got to be kidding.
I dont joke about things like kissing a beautiful woman, he
says, taking a step closer again. But if you want to skip dinner, I
can make do with the here and now.
Leave. Me. Alone. I press my hands against his chest,
giving him a sharp shove, which does precious little in terms of
giving me space. All it does is remind me of the hard, tight
muscles lying under his dress shirt, waiting to be touched.
He rounds out my dreadful fantasy by flexing his muscles so I
can feel all that sexy, sinewy matter as it bunches.
Dammit.
Hes teasing me.
And its working.
A motorcycle roars by on the other side of the road, shocking
me back to my senses. Pulling my hands back, I fish my phone
from my pocket and move out of his grasp to the side of my
truck. The sun is in the perfect spot. I begin snapping pictures of
the horizon, now streaked with purple, gold and orange. I need
my phones HD camera to land me one good shot.
Im fully aware that Reid has not moved from where he just
stood, but its a free country. I cant make him leave, and so help
me God, Ill be damned if I let him stop me from doing what I
came here to do. Within minutes, the sunset is over and
darkness starts to creep in. Ive taken at least thirty pictures.
One of them must be good enough, and if its not, Ill come back
in a few days and try againmaybe without the uninvited
audience of one.
Youre still here, I say, eyes narrowed as I turn to Reid.
Yup. I told you I prefer to wait.
For what?
This road isnt always safe at night.
Probably because youre on it. I told you I can take care of
myselfand if by some fluke I did need help, youre the last
person Id ask.
I push past him to get to my driver side.
Youre cute when youre upset. He follows me to my driver
side door.
And youre amazingly good at getting under my skin.
Id like to do more than that some time.
I slam my door shut and turn the key in the engine. Too bad
the window is lowered, because he rests an elbow on the door
and flashes me a grin. Have yourself a good night, Robin.
I hope you dont, Reid, I tell him, and it comes out hollow
and cold. Its exactly how I want it to sound, but a tiny part of me
feels bad for being so rude.
He shakes his head. Get home safe, he says, and returns to
his SUV.
His engine starts, but he doesnt leave until I drive off. I make
a left turn at the next intersection, and Reid makes a right. Good.
Hes gone. I still cant tell if he stopped to help or just to get a
reaction out of me. Either way, I need to keep my distance from
this man.
8

REID

B y the time I walk into my apartment and log on to my


office computer via the companys secure network,
everything is ready to go. Except I didnt count on
having to review a minimum of three hours for each of the six
video feeds with footage covering different angles of the section
of the building where the fire started. Doing the math, its not
quite ten at night, so I can expect to be finished tomorrow
afternoon. But not when strong coffee and the fast-forward
feature are my friends.
It takes me almost all night to review a video footage, but by
four in the morning, I have a lead. Theres one clip that shows a
man lurking near the air conditioning unit that started the fire.
The image is not as clear as Id like it, taken from outside the
building. The person must also have had some knowledge of the
camera locations, because he managed to avoid showing his face
on any of the footage, and covered his head with a baseball cap.
I send an email with the details to Geoff, asking him to do his
best to enhance the shot. If we can get a closer look at his face,
we may be able to get Masons people to identify who it is and
whether the person was authorized to be there.
Satisfied, I kick off my shoes, strip out of my shirt and pants,
and head to bed. I double check my alarm too. Three hours of
sleep isnt near enough after such a long day, but Ill make do.

Im halfway to the office when I get a text from Leo telling me


that Mason wants to meet at the ranch. That requires me to
double back through rush hour traffic. The only way Ill make it
there on time is if I get the hell off the highway and take one of
the ranchers access back roads nearby. Im taking a chance, as I
can end up stuck driving behind a piece of slow-moving ranch
equipment, but the road less traveled is a better bet this time
around.
Lady luck is in a good mood today too, and I get to the ranch
ten minutes early. Leo is already here, waiting beside his truck
thats parked in the semi-circular driveway in front of the main
house.
Is Geoff coming? I ask him as I jump out of the SUV.
No. I told him to keep working on enhancing the images you
found. Lets get this over with. Mason is our biggest client, but
hes not our only client. Ive got two more meetings this
morning.
My days packed solid too, I tell him, following him to the
front door.
A middle-aged dark-haired housekeeper answers the door
and leads us through the large, stately home to Masons study.
She knocks on the door, only opening it when she hears Masons
invitation for her to go in.
Mr. Connelly and Mr. Atkinson from Allied Force Security
are here to see you, Mr. Mason, she announces from the half-
open mahogany sliding door.
Come on in. Gerald Mason waves us in with his tablet
computer in one hand, continuing to read as he sips on a small
cup of espresso. Would you gentlemen like some coffee? Or
breakfast?
Good morning, Mr. Mason, Leo greets him. Thanks for the
offer, but were fine, thanks. Were short on time as it is.
Tell me you have an update for me.
I know youre a busy man, so well get to the point. There
have been three suspicious fires on your various properties in as
many weeks.
Mason, as we like to refer to him, briefly glances up from
whatever hes reading. Not four?
No. The fire investigators ruled out the grease fire at the
Mirabel Resort as accidental, so that makes three. Leo opens
the letter-size envelope he brought with him and pulls the
blown-up photograph of the unknown man in the baseball cap
from the video feed. Video surveillance captured this man near
the location of last nights fire. We suspect he has some
knowledge of your operations, because he came on and off the
premises without being noticed, and managed to navigate the
grounds while keeping his face from being captured by the CCTV
cameras.
Interesting.
Leo passes the photo to Mason. As you can see here, he
covered much of his face with a baseball cap. This image is not
clear, but its the best one from all the camera feeds. Does he
look familiar at all?
Mason studies the image for a while, and then he shakes his
head. Its way too blurry. But hes got to be staff or former
staff.
How do you know that for sure?
We gave those monogrammed baseball caps to all our
employees at last years family day event. Not that this
information can help much. I have close to two thousand staff.
Good point. Butroughly how many of them lost their jobs
during the last two company downsizing initiatives since
that time?
Claire from HR can give you an exact number, but Id say its
about four hundred. Except not all those staff had access to
this ranch. Only a couple dozen of the downsized senior and
mid-level managers would have had business dealings here.
Mason smiles and gets to his feet, heading over to the large
mahogany desk at the far side of the study. I see where youre
going with this. Let me facilitate this search so its a little easier
for you. He makes a call from his cell phone and turns on the
speakerphone.
Good morning, someone answers. Mason Industries HR
Division. This is Claire Regent. How may I help you?
Hello Claire? Gerald here.
Good morning, Mr. Mason, Claire chirps. Her tone is more
formal and high-pitched now that shes aware its her boss on
this end of the line. What can I do for you?
I need you to go through the staff records and pull up a list of
all the senior and mid-level managers we let go over the
last year.
Of course. Just former managers, sir?
Yes. No time to explain. Highlight the ones who had access
to my horse ranch. Email me the list, and copy Leo Connelly at
Allied Force Security in the message.
Will get the information to you right away, Mr. Mason.
One more thing, I add. We should also look at any
managers who were affected by the downsizing efforts but are
still employed by your organization.
What do you mean? Mason asks.
Former senior managers who were demoted, or given
unfavorable lateral transfers or forced relocations, for example.
Mason nods his understanding. Smart. Claire, did you
get that?
Yes sir. Ill have this to you within the hour.
Thanks. Mason hangs up, letting out a sigh of frustration.
Its hard to believe someone still working for me could do this.
Ungrateful son a gun.
Were just ruling out some possibilities, but realistically, if
an employee is disgruntled enough, and bold enough, anythings
possible.
Whoever it is, we need to get them to stop. The sooner the
better. This string of fires is no good for business. Never mind
my skyrocketing insurance. Just get to the bottom of this before
theres another incident.
Leo nods politely, but I can see the annoyance flashing across
his face. Were on it.
Is there anything else I can do?
Theres no quick fix solution that will eliminate every threat,
as you know, given the sheer number of tourists, locals and
other visitors that frequent your hotels and resorts, but it cant
hurt to have your Facilities VP beef up baseline security staffing
at all locations and increase perimeter monitoring. Even if its a
temporary measure, it may be enough of a deterrent to
discourage another attempt.
Mason nods, eying us with curiosity. I much prefer working
with absolutes, Connelly, but I understand what you mean. He
crosses the room and extends his arm for a handshake, first to
Leo and then, to me. Thanks for making the trip out here,
Connelly, Atkinson. Ill see you out.
Anytime.
Mason leads us back to the mansion to the front doors, and
before he returns inside, he adds, Hang on, men. What are your
best estimates of this douchebags next target?
Ive started running an algorithm on the potential sequence
of targets, I answer before Leo does. As Head of Security
Strategy, Masons question is right up my alley. And the man
didnt just hire us to stand there and look like badasses. He
brought us on board to protect his assets and mitigate his losses.
He gives me an appreciative nod. Good! What have you come
up with so far?
Theres a Rothman-Finch auction scheduled at the Royal
Fenton Hotel in a week, I say.
Youre right. There is. Do you believe hes planning a heist?
No. Arsonists dont typically transition to grand theft. They
usually escalate to murder. So, worse than a heist.
Mason searches my face, and puts two and two together.
Jesus. If his goal is to fuck with my reputationmy livelihood
they yes. I can see how ending lives at the same that as
destroying a lot of precious antiques and valuables could do me
in. You need to get in front of this potential shit show and catch
this crazy little fucker.
Well do our best, Leo replies.
Make it happen, he concludes, and lets us out.
Leo doesnt mask his impatience when were back at our
vehicles. Weve got our work cut out for us.
I nod. We do. At least he didnt try to offer you the VP of
Facilities gig again.
True. Were way better off operating as a business. There are
far too many ways for this guy were after to make things go
sideways, which means this contract with Mason Industries is
already at risk. That, plus you know Ive never liked the idea of
putting all our eggs in one basket. He unlocks the SUV doors
with his remote and climbs into the driver seat. See you back at
the office.
Its not yet nine in the morning and already, I can use a drink.
9

ROBIN

I m flying solo tonight. Barclay is in Amargosa Valley


taking care of his grandmother, and wont be back for at
least a week. My waitress friend, Lacy, is keeping me company as
the crowd has lightened up since happy hour ended an hour ago.
My feet are killing me, Lacy whines, leaning a hip against
the table closest to the stage as I get set up for my gig.
It may just be me, but those seven-inch heels seem mighty
high for waitressing work, I say idly.
These heels get me more tips than cowboy boots or comfy
shoes, darling. A girls gotta eat.
I look over at her. Lacy does not need heels or any other
enhancement to make an impression on her male patrons. Not
with perfectly perky cleavage, a stunning face that probably
makes men hard just looking at her, and those long, long legs.
But weve talked about this before, and theres no
convincing her.
Get used to that throbbing in the balls of your feet, then.
She flashes me a withering glare. Just because your boy toy
isnt here tonight doesnt mean you gotta be so wound up.
Who? Barclay? Hes not my boy toy. Or my boyfriend. Were
friends. We just sing and make music together.
And its downright beautiful music, all right.
Thanks for saying that. I smile. It means a lot getting good
feedback. Id give almost anything to write, perform for
audiences who enjoy what we create, and record our songs
full time.
So youre single?
Yes. Very single and Id like to keep it that way, I tell her,
and Im being completely honest. After all the drama with my
ex-boyfriend, Dave, Im not ready to get back on the horse. Ive
got enough life lessons from him and from Danielles experience
with Reid.
Reid.
Cocky, overly confident, ridiculously sexy Reid.
Just thinking about him makes my cheeks burn.
No, thinking about Reid makes me want to accelerate my plan
to go to Nashville. Its a sure bet to put four entire states
between us so that I never have to see his smug, arrogant face
again. I know it sounds like an extreme measure, but Im almost
ready to do just about anything to talk myself off a ledgethe
one that involves getting any closer to someone like Reid.
It should be easy. It really should. I just have no explanation
for what happens to me when Im around him. My mind stops
functioning, my body goes on autopilot, my breathing does its
own damn thing, my skin tingles for God knows why, and my
core. My core has no business acting the way it does.
I wont have to deal with all this lust-filled turmoil if were
thousands of miles apart. Nashville seems like the best possible
option. All I have to do is save a bit more money and stay the
heck away from Reid. Starting with tonights gig. I remind
myself why Im here. To smile and be friendly with the patrons,
put on a good show, and sing my heart out like my life depends
on it. Oh, and to collect my tips at the end of my set.
Of course, this is Reid and his buddies regular watering hole,
so I should be ready to see him walk in the front door anytime.
Like this very second.
The bell above the front door chimes. In walks Reid and two of
his buddies. And there goes my stomach, all in knots. Dammit. It
doesnt help that he ambles in wearing a black muscle shirt and
dark jeans that show off every muscle in his arms, chest, abs and
thighs from across the room. Or that when our eyes connect, I
have to press my thighs together to stop the reaction that
spreads through my center, as though he reached out and
physically touched me.
Lacy must notice that Ive completely stopped tuning my
guitar and am staring like a deer in the headlights. She looks
back and forth between me and the approaching wall of men.
Honey, you may be single, but I dont think you will be
for long.
What? Why not?
She motions with her chin at Reid and his friends, who take a
seat at a table closer to the bar. Just a hunch.
Trust me. I dont plan on cozying up with anyone, least of all
from around here. Ive got zero luck with men.
Whatever you do, keep your paws off Jaden.
Who?
Jaden Pratt. The blond one who usually comes in with them.
Its just Leo, Beau, and Reid coming in right now, but Jaden
usually joins them. Speaking of, have you and Reiddated or
something?
Aww, hell no! I almost shriek.
But you have some kind of history, right?
I think about the simplest way to reply to her question. Its
complicated.
Well, let me just say Ive never seen him look at any woman
in here the way he looked at you just now. Im telling you, honey,
the electricity between the two of you cant lie.
I have no idea what youre talking about.
Its the fact that temperature in the room just went up a few
degrees from whatever it is the two of you have.
Crap.
I keep the rest of my thoughts to myself and do my best not to
give anything away. Nervousness makes me check the time on
my phone. Ten minutes until I start my set.
Id better use the ladies room before I get up on stage, I
tell her.
Dont you think hes cute?
Well, sure he is. Why are you starting to sound like youre
trying to hook us up, Lacy?
She picks up her serving tray and gives their table another
look. Youre changing the subject.
Which is?
Maybe its time for you to un-complicate whats between
you, honey, she drawls.
Theres nothing between Reid and me, I insist.
Keep telling yourself that. But remember that sayingthe
best lies are the ones we tell ourselves.
I dont need Lacy getting philosophical on me about Reid.
What I need is to get my set over and done with, and go home.
Just look at him. Hes sexy as sin. Every woman in here
wants a piece of him. Well, everyone but me. Im happy to wait
for a dose of Jaden.
Every woman in here can have him, I reiterate.
But hes not looking their way.
Its a free country, Lacy. Reid can bore a hole through me
with his eyes, I mean. Im just here to play my music and save
my tips.
Lacy shakes her head and clucks her teeth with disapproval.
Thats a damn shame, because hes headed over here.
What else is new? Its as though hes on a new mission, and
Im the target.
He strides over to us. Evening, ladies, he says, sporting
that cocky grin I wish I didnt have to see for the third time in
three days straight.
Howdy, Reid, Lacy greets him. Is Jaden coming by later?
Possibly.
Nice. Ill let you two catch upor whatever, she tells him,
and turns to give me a wink. Looks like Ive got a few customers
to serve.
Excuse me, I tell him. Thats all he gets. Me walking away.
Im not about to engage with him after he tried to kiss me last
night.
Straightening my shoulders, I get to my feet, set down my
guitar on its stand, and make a beeline for the restrooms.
How are you doing, Robin? Reid asks, still hot on my heels.
Busy, I answer in a clipped tone.
Did your sunset pictures come out well?
I make it to the door of the ladies room and slow down just
enough to turn and give him a nod. They did. Thanks for
asking.
Good. Im glad you made it home all right.
I did. Well, I have to be on stage in a few minutes, so
Right. Have you given it any thought?
I stare up at him, confused. What are you talking about?
He leans a hand on the door post, practically blocking out the
light with his height. You. Me. Dinner. Drinks. Maybe more.
That was a no yesterday, and its still a no now.
Are you sure?
Anger rises up from my chest, and soon my neck and face
begin to feel hot. Where do you get off? It wasnt enough for
you to do what you did to my sister. Now you want to add me to
your casualty list?
Calm down. I asked you out on a date, nothing more.
And I said no. Twice. Look, Ive got a performance to put on
in a few minutes. Youre not helping my state of mind right now.
How about you go have a meal or a drink with your friends, and
let me do what I came here to do?
I wouldnt be here asking you if I didnt think that maybe
you wanted some answers of your own.
What do you mean?
Reids composure changes from open and playful to serious
and formal. He straightens up and moves his hand from the door
post, letting his arms hang at his sides. You never got my side
of the story, but you know what? Fine. Lets leave the past where
it belongs. Good luck on stage.
I watch as he turns and all but stomps back to his table.
Interesting.
But whatever.
Getting inside the ladies room, I freshen up and iron out my
nervous energy. Maybe I have him where I want him now. Ready
to leave me alone and let things be, Above all, as long as he
leaves Danielle alone, Im happy. At the moment, even if he
wanted to, he cant get to her. She and my parents are at the tail
end of a two-week road trip to Seattle and parts of Washington
state in the family camper van. Maybe by the time they get back,
Reid will have gotten used to seeing me around Whiskey Jacks,
and his fixation on me and my family will stop.
Although, I still have to take a bit of the blame for his
curiosity. I opened up a can of worms with that song. Tonight, I
need to keep the music light and cheerfulthe opposite of what
Reid invokes in me.
The problem is that even as I think of all the potentially
upbeat songs on my playlist, every one of them can be
misconstrued as relating to Reid and me. From Tim McGraws I
like it, I love it, to George Straits Blue Clear Sky, and even Alan
Jacksons Good Time.
I head back to the stage with the thought that I need some
new material. Songs about rainbows and horses, or trucks and
beer. Nothing about chasing tail, falling in love, heartbreak, or
undeniable attraction.
Rusty introduces me to the audience, and I avert my eyes from
Reids table, kicking off my four-song performance set with the
neutral Ray Stevens classic, Everything is Beautiful. The relaxed
crowd of patrons seems pretty satisfied with the oldie. I increase
the tempo with Tim McGraws Truck Yeah, then wind down with
Kip Moores Somethin Bout a Truck and Brad Paisleys Mud on
the Tires.
Nope.
Even songs about trucks, beer, and rainbows make me think
of him.
Its no use, but I find some satisfaction in the fact that the
couple of times my eyes wandered over to Reid, he was busy with
the usual throng of female patrons slinking into the seat beside
him to whisper in his ear, hang on his every word, or cop a feel of
his biceps.
And not once did he meet my eyes.
Apparently, I struck a nerve earlier.
Getting off the stage for my fifteen-minute break between
sets, I avoid him by taking the long way around to the far end of
the bar. But his unfriendly reaction is short-lived.
Reid sidles up to me and sits on the bar stool beside me. Can
I buy you a drink?
I point at my bottle of water. I just got one. Thanks anyway.
I meant a real drink.
Cant. Not between sets. Alcohol isnt good for the vocal
cords.
Got it. You have a way with that guitar. Those last two songs
got feet tapping and heads rocking.
Thanks, I say politely, peeking over at him for a split
second as I take a gulp of water.
He orders another beer for himself, and doesnt say another
word until I get up.
See you around, he tells me.
Im going to stretch my legs before the next set. Im not
even sure why I said that. Its not like I owe him anything.
The three or four women who made a move on him earlier all
seem to swoop in on him from all directions as I scurry outside
through a side door meant for staff only. Lacy had shown me this
convenient spot that the rest of the staff use as somewhat of a
hideaway from patrons during smoke breaks.
As I sit on a stack of wooden crates while Im getting some
fresh air, the door creaks open behind me.
Reid again.
Are you stalking me now? I breathe out in frustration,
getting to my feet.
Standing in the doorway, he pulls his phone from his jeans
pocket and holds it out to me. Put your number in here.
I meet his gaze. Hes serious.
Why would I ever do that?
Because you want to.
Please stop kidding yourself. Besides, there are enough
women inside climbing over each other to sink their claws
into you.
Does that make you jealous?
I let out a dismissive chuckle. Hell no.
Not even a little?
I have to finish my last set, I tell him, ignoring the question
as I take a few steps toward him. He doesnt move out of the
doorway. Narrowing my eyes, I fold my arms and look up at him.
Are you going to let me pass?
In a minute.
Reid bends forward until theres only a few inches between
our faces. Hes so close Im caught up in the heat coming off his
body and doing wicked things to my senses. Reaching a hand up
to my face, he tucks some of my hair behind my ear.
You want me, he tells me in a throaty whisper.
Im about to tell him to go to hell when he bends forward
even closer, cups my chin with one hand, and presses his mouth
to mine. I want to pull away, but its as though theres a magnet
pulling our bodies together. Closing my eyes, I let the inevitable
happen. Or maybe Ive been fooling myself about how attracted I
am to him. All I know is that my mind goes blank now that his
lips are on mine, and my body relaxes into his, and I give in to
the salacious moment.
Reid slides his other arm up to my folded arm, loosening
them before he rests his hand on the small of my back. I drift
closer, vaguely aware of his groin pressing against my belly as
his tongue parts my lips and invades my mouth, tangling with
my tongue and exploring with fervor. His hand on my back
moves lower and cups my ass through my jeans. Good Lord, his
touch is like magic.
His tongue.
His touch.
My aching core.
The bulge growing rigid at my stomach.
Suddenly, the flashes of images are too much. I pull from the
kiss with a sharp jerk, taking a massive stumble backward.
Why do you keep kissing me? I ask, hand over my mouth.
Why do you keep letting me? he replies with a confident
smile.
Thats not fair. Im not the one seeking you out.
Reid steps out of the doorway and stands on the pavement.
True. The thing is, you may be standing still, but that doesnt
mean that you dont want me.
Leave me alone, Reid, I demand as I hurry past him to get
back inside. If only my body would stop aching for another taste.
10

REID

R obin makes a point of not looking my way for the


entirety of her second set on stage. I cant blame her
after that kiss. Shes a stubborn little thing for denying
the attraction between us. I dont think Ive ever been so drawn
to another woman before, but with my reputation for being a
woman claiming wild man, I can see why shed want to err on
the side of caution.
Thats all well and good.
I can be a patient man when I want to.
After she wraps up her songs, I decide to leave her alone.
Then I cant.
More like wont, because just as Robin is packing away her
guitar from her spot on the stage, all the blood drains from her
face when she makes eye contact with someone near the front
entrance. Its pure fear. She has never reacted to me that way. I
follow her panic-stricken eyes to the source, and catch sight
of him.
From this distance, theres nothing out of place with the
clean-shaven, well-dressed man standing there. Hes in his mid
to late twenties, wearing a wavy medium-length hairstyle, a
tailored black suit with the jacket open and showing his lean
physique under a white shirt. No matter what he looks like, his
presence alone has Robin scared as fuck. That means he and I
have a problem.
I head over to her. Is everything all right?
Yes. ImIm fine, she stammers, voice tense, eyes trained
on the man.
You dont look fine right now. Were you planning on
leaving now?
Iyes. Ive got to go.
Because shes still staring at the guy, I finish closing her
guitar case, and rest the handle on the palm of her hand, but
Robins shaking like a leaf as she clenches it. I have to assume
shes terrified of this guy.
Ill walk you to your car, I tell her.
You dont have to do that, she replies, still not looking
at me.
I didnt have to kiss you either. Picking up her purse, I grab
the guitar from her and take her hand. Lets go.
My instincts are right on the money as we get a few feet from
the man. Up close, theres a malicious expression on his face.
His watery gray eyes are devoid of emotion, and the closer we get
to crossing paths with him, the more his eyebrows bunch. The
man licks his thin lips as he stares at Robins and my joined
hands. Robin slows her pace, cowering, with part of her body
behind me.
Well well. Look who it is, he says, almost snarling. How
are you doing, Robin?
You dont have to talk to this man if you dont want to, I
state with self-assuredness.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Leo and Beau drain their
beer mugs. Leo slaps some cash on the counter and approaches
us. Thats one thing I can always count on. My boys have my
back in a pinch.
Relax, asshole, the idiot crows out. Im going to have a
word with my girlfriend here, and neither you or your band of
jacked-up muscle heads are going to stop me.
Im not your girlfriend, Dave, Robin shouts, which also
tamps down any surprise I felt about the guys announcement.
And I dont want to talk to you, or see you, just like I said the
last time you came around.
You heard her, buddy, I add. Step aside.
Whos going to make me? Dave scoffs. You? Who the fuck
are you, anyway?
I release Robins hand, and both Leo and Beau step in front of
her protectively. Leaning down to show this dickhead that I
mean business, I meet his eyes. Who I am, is the guy thatll
make you regret not moving out of my way when you had the
chance.
Dave tilts his body to the right, trying to make eye contact
with Robin. Youre gonna play this, Robin? he snaps out the
question. Okay. Well see how it works out for you.
With a nod and a grimace in my direction, Dave stands down.
Hes mad as hell, but he eventually turns and leaves.
What the fuck was that about? Beau asks me.
Hell if I know.
Well keep an eye on him while you get your friend home,
Leo says with finality, heading outside. Damn straight Im taking
her home, whether she likes it or not. Even if I have to follow her
in my vehicle.
I turn to face Robin. Shes still shaking like a leaf. Every
instinct inside me is itching to pull her into my arms and hold
her tight. Christ. Thats your boyfriend? No wonder you wont
give me the time of day.
Ex-boyfriend, she corrects me.
How long ago did you two break up?
Almost a year.
And did good ole Dave get the memo?
She runs frantic hands through her hair, eyes still fixed on
the door. Forget about it, okay. I just want to go home.
Are you sure youll be fine there?
Yes, she answers, but theres nothing positive in her voice.
Will you be alone?
Yes.
Thats not a good idea, Robin. Look at you. Youre scared of
this guy. Can I at least take you to your parents place, or a
friends?
My folks are away. My best friend is too. Ill be all right.
I wont let you face this guy by yourself. Im betting hes out
there, sitting in his car, waiting to get you alone so he can
confront you.
She absent-mindedly runs the fingers of her left hand down
her right wrist. It wouldnt be the first time. Eventually, he gets
the hint and leaves. And when he doesnt, its just a matter of
reinstating another temporary restraining order.
Jesus, Robin. I have a real problem with that. He shouldnt
be showing up in the first place. Wait a second. Has hehas that
bastard hurt you?
I need to get home, she announces, avoiding my question.
Its none of your business.
Im making it my business.
Look, you dont have any reason to do that. Youre not my
friend, youre not family, youre not even a coworker. Just let it
go. I can take care of myself.
You know I cant do that, Robin.
Then youre no different from him, she shouts.
This woman is testing my patience right now. Im nothing
like him. Can I at least walk you to your car and make sure you
get home in one piece? Ill drive my own car, and Ill only wait a
few minutes. Ill even stay outside your place. You dont have to
let me in.
She mulls it over for some time, and looks up at me. Okay.
Good. Lets get you out of here.
I take her hand again and lead her outside. Leo and Beau are
in the parking lot waiting for us.
Is he gone?
Yeah, Leo answers. It took some convincing.
Thanks. Did you get his plate number?
Got it. He was driving a red Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Ill keep an eye out.
Beau and I need to get back to the office. Give us a holler if
he shows up again. Leo pulls out a business card and passes it
to Robin. Take care with that one, he tells her. Ive got a kid
sister your age, and aint no way Id let a man like that near her.
Our emergency number is on there. Call anytime at all if you
have a problem with him.
Robin hesitates for a moment, seeming to contemplate
whether or not to accept the card. Thanks, she answers, and
takes it, sliding it into her purse.
I walk her to her truck. Theres a lot I want to tell her, but she
has already insisted that she doesnt want me to stick around at
her place, so I respect her wishes. Still, I follow her for her trek
home, watching my rearview mirror like a hawk just in case this
dickbag shows up. We take the side roads to get to the small,
detached one-level house shes renting out near that spot where
she was taking pictures. The place is secluded. On her side of the
road, the houses are separated by large yards, and theres
nothing but bare land, cattle, and a few barns on the other side.
Robin steps over to my driver side door once she parks in her
driveway and unloads her purse, guitar, and a file folder that was
in her back seat.
Im good from here, she tells me.
I dont agree, but Im not gonna argue.
Thanks. Have a good night.
The unsettled feeling in my chest doesnt let up after she goes
inside and locks up. Its still with me when I get home. I twist
and turn all night, and there are several points where I want to
vault out of bed to check up on her. The next morning, just so
that I dont end up going batshit crazy, I take the long way to the
office, intent on passing by her house.
Except I dont count on seeing Robins baby blue relic of a
Chevy truck a few cars aheador a dark gray late model Honda
sedan that seems to be following her.
11

ROBIN

S ome wise and wholesome sage said to never take your


smartphone with you into the bathroom.
Bad advice.
Crappy, if you ask me. No pun intended.
The one time I decide to mosey on into my bathroom without
it, all hell breaks loose.
I shouldnt even be here this late in the morning. Normally,
by now Im sitting at my desk at work, waiting for Mr. Rochford,
my one-man-show do-everything lawyer boss, to belt out all
manner of unreasonable demands that I follow, no questions
asked. I may have a passion for singing country western classics,
but I have to remind myself that my voice and guitar playing
skills dont pay all the bills.
Today, I get in my beat-up truck, drive halfway to work, and
what do I do? I forget something at home. The file folder. Its the
one my boss sent me home with to research well into the night.
And its sitting right where I left it at two oclock this morning. I
can blame both this mornings forgetfulness and my lateness on
the sleep deprivation, or on that mini-standoff between Reid
and Dave, but my boss wont care.
After the fifteen-minute return drive to my tiny old one-story
house about twenty-five miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, I
hurry inside. Rush hour isnt bad on the highway, but its way
too late for me to get in before Mr. Rochford today. I drop my
keys and phone on the wall-mounted all-in-one coat rack
shelving in the entryway, get the file, and then my nervous
stomach kicks in. Im sure to be late, but I know better than to
leave the house without taking care of my bodily functions.
As Im sitting there wishing I had my phone to at least call my
boss and tell him about my lateness, I hear a loud thud. The floor
and walls shake. Theres an ear-popping noise next, and the
sound of glass breaking.
I lift the curtain covering the window behind me and crane
my neck to look out the window that faces the backyard. The sky
is still blue. Theres not a cloud around or anything else in the
sky, which means that ruckus cant be daytime fireworks,
aircraft flying overhead, or rare bad weather.
My ears start to ring from the pressure change.
It cant just be someone opening the front door, but I have
hope for a logical explanation.
Hello? I call out, praying that its Josh, my older brother,
and that he just used his set of keys, slammed the door really
hard, and broke something on his way in. Its a longshot, given
that he lives and works over half-hour away in North Vegas.
Still, Im wishing for a simple reason for whatever is happening
on the other side of this door.
Josh? Is that you? I shout.
Theres no answer. Then something else crashes nearby. Im
one hundred percent sure that I did not leave the front door
open, so the sound has to be coming from inside the house. I
finish my business in the bathroom, making sure to flush and
quickly wash my hands, just in case its my landlord. I highly
doubt it, on account of the fact that hes a busy part-time casino
owner and full-time cattle rancher who owns all the land around
here for at least half a mile in each direction.
Hello? Whos there? I shout out one more time over my
shoulder as I dry my hands on a towel.
As I turn to reach for the doorknob, I notice the smoke.
What the hell?
Smoke starts to seep into the bathroom from under the door.
Its thick and black. I take a chance and touch the doorknob
lightly. Its hot as hell. That cant be good. My father is a retired
fire chief, and Josh is also a firefighter, as are pretty much all my
male cousins, so I know what this means.
Fire.
A serious one, likely from some type of explosion so hot that
it immediately burned some of the house contents to ash. The
knot grows in my stomach as a new reality sets in.
I am trapped in the bathroom.
Part of me wants to push the door open and run like hell out
the only other door that can let me outside fastthe kitchen
door at the back of the house. I know better. Id be unconscious
from smoke inhalation, and probably dead from the killer heat
before I make it ten feet. Shit. I should be thinking about my
immediate survival, but my judgment is temporarily clouded by
the panic-inducing fact that all my worldly belongings are
burning on the other side of this door, including my phone and
my bosss files. If I survive this blaze, Mr. Rochford will kill me.
Giving up is not something Ive ever done willingly before, so
I begin to problem-solve. I grab all the towels on the rack, dump
them in the bathtub and turn on the shower faucet to soak them.
Once theyre good and wet, I wrap one around my mouth, nose,
and head. Bundling up the rest, I jam them up against the
opening at the bottom of the door. It does a good job of stopping
more smoke from coming in, but I cant delude myself about the
trouble Im in. A quick exit from this death trap is the only thing
that will save my hide.
I look around the bathroom and check the double-hung
window behind the curtain above the toilet tank. Each section on
its own is way too small to get my hips through. Even if I strip
down naked and grease myself down with petroleum jelly or
lube, Im sure to get my ass stuck. But hell, Im willing to try
anything. If I can punch or kick out two sections of glass and
their wooden frame, maybe I can squeeze out sideways.
Opening this window is risky all on its own. I have to make
certain assumptions, the biggest one being that once I break
glass in this window, its not going to become another venting
route for this blazing inferno on the other side of this door. Just
case it is, I douse myself with the leftover water in the bathtub.
Climbing up on the ledge of the tub, I drag down the curtain rod,
throw the plastic shower curtain as far away from me as
possible, and I slam one metal edge of the curtain rod through
the window to break it. I make myself a small as possible in the
tub, counting to thirty just to be safe.
No backdraft.
Probably because the front window must be open and feeding
enough oxygen to the blaze. Nothing changes in the room except
for the fresh air entering through the now broken window.
Thats a great sign. I remove as much of the glass from the
window as possible, and when thats done, I begin to bang
against the wooden frame at the center of each double hung
section. You would think panic has allowed the adrenaline and
accompanying superhuman strength to kick in, but Im no
stronger than I was five minutes ago, before this all happened.
As I work at it, I call out for help. Not even my head and
shoulders can fit through this quarter of the windowpane. If I
can get higher, I might be able to kick out the wooden sections,
but theres nothing in this room that can support my weight.
Standing on the toilet seat cover doesnt help either.
Its no use. Im really trapped.
I can only pray that someone is driving along the road in front
of my place, and that theyre paying enough attention to notice
my house is on fire. All the homes on this side of the road are so
far apart that none of my neighbors will hear me unless theyre
right outside. And its all desert fields, cattle, and tumbleweed
on the other side of the road.
Help! Fire! Help me! If anyone can hear me, please call 9-1-
1! I shout, using the curtain rod to make more noise as I bang it
repeatedly against the wooden window frame.
If this is going to be the last few minutes I spend on earth, I
wont go quietly.
Thats when the sexiest, yet second most unnerving voice
booms through the window from outside.
12

REID

S tand back, Robin! I shout through the broken window at


the back of the house.
What the hell are you doing here? Robin asks.
Hopefully, saving your life. Get as far away from the window
as possible. Completely out of its trajectory.
Got it. Shes quiet for a second, then shouts out, Im in
the bathtub!
Good. I use the gutters downspout nearby to scale the wall.
Bracing my arms and legs at the rooftop just above the window, I
pump my legs out, swing my body down, and kick the wooden
window frame. With a loud thud, the horizontal frame shatters.
My legs dangle inside the window now, and I just need to hold on
long enough for Robin to climb up, at which point I can hopefully
teeter backward and drop to the ground outside. Neither of us
can afford to have anything else go wrong, or well both end up
stuck inside the bathroom.
I need you to climb up my legs now, Robin, I tell her. Make
it quick. Im not sure how long I can hold on.
Coming! She steps up on the toilet tank. Where am I
supposed to hang on to you?
As high as you can reach on my chest. I tighten my grip on
the gutter. Now, Robin.
Imjusttrying to avoidyour junk.
Right now Robin! Im losing my grip.
Okay! She jumps up and clings to my neck, turning her
body sideways.
Easing my back into a slight arch, I pull us out of the window.
Hold on tight and wrap your legs around my waist. Im going to
let go now.
She does so with some hesitation, and with another slight
kick backward, I let go. The fall isnt too bad at all, and I manage
to land feet first, but with the distance of the jump, the force
pushes me backward, and I fall on my back, with her on top of
me. Ive never seen a woman scramble to get off of me so
quickly.
Thank you, Robin says to me, dusting off her hands. Did
you call 9-1-1?
Yes. Theyre on the way.
She promptly turns around and heads to the front of the
house in a jog. I pull her arm back when I realize shes about to
climb the front porch steps. You cant go in there.
But my phone is inside. Any my guitar, my purse and car
keys oh my God, my bosss files! She tries to wrench her arm
away, but I pull her to the side of the house. Let me go, Reid! I
have to get some things.
She must be in shock, or in denial about the blaze in front
of us.
We have to wait, I insist. The house is fully involved. Just
look at it. Even your truck is damaged.
Robin looks up and stares at the flames and smoke billowing
up to the sky as though she is seeing it clearly for the first time.
She looks up at me, takes my hand, and says, Thank you, like
she means it.
Robin and I sit in my vehicle parked at the other side of the
street while we wait for the emergency responders to arrive. The
only three calls that she makes are to the boss at her day job, her
insurance company, and her brother, Josh. She leaves a message
for her boss, who is at a court hearing, and strangely enough, her
brother was just redeployed from North Las Vegas where he
works to support a forest fire emergency on the Carson Range
spur of the Sierra Nevada. The insurance company takes some
basic information to start her claim, and instruct her to call back
once fire responders have had an opportunity to forward a
report. Her parents, sister, and singing partner are all out of
town at the moment.
How did you know to come find me here? she asks after
some time, as I type out a text to let Leo know what Im up to.
After your ex-boyfriend got so worked up at Whiskey Jacks
last night, I figured Id pass by on my way to work to see if
youre okay.
I dont understand how the fire started so quickly. There was
a crashing sound in the living room, and then the smoke started
seeping into the bathroom. I wasnt even supposed to be here.
I saw. My SUV was a few vehicles behind you when you
turned into your driveway.
So, wait. You saw me park? That means you must have seen
how this happened.
Someone driving a dark gray, late model Honda sedan was
following you. He parked a little way down the road, and Im
sorry, Robin. I wasnt close enough to stop him. I saw him throw
what must have been a homemade Molotov cocktail through
your front window. The person was wearing a red baseball cap,
but Im almost sure it was your ex.
Her jaw drops, and her lips start to tremble. Dave? He did
this? He tried tokill me?
It happened so fast, I wasnt able to stop him, not without
leaving you inside.
So hes still out there?
Yes, but the police will find him.
If I dont find him first.
I cant stand witnessing her heartbreak on learning someone
she was close to did this to her intentionally. Im even more
relieved to see an ambulance van and two police cars arriving on
the scene in my rearview mirror, followed shortly by a fire truck.
They all quickly move into action. A paramedic checks out Robin
for possible smoke inhalation while firefighters set up to fight
the blaze. The police direct the roadway traffic, and one of the
officers takes Robins and my initial statements and our contact
information.
Were cleared to leave soon afterward, but Robin refuses to
come to my place. She demands that I take her to her day job.
You cant go to work in this state.
I have to, she tells me. I just lost everything. I cant just
sit around.
Her boss phones her back just in time. He tells her not to
come in, thankfully, but that only fuels her need to remain
outside her burnt up shell of a rental house. She wont eat or
drink. It takes a lot of coaxing to make her sip on a bottle of
water to avoid dehydration. By the time the firefighters put out
the last of the blaze, they come by and confirm what I expected.
The structure is not cleared for re-entry until their fire
investigators return to the scene to determine the cause. Theyve
even cordoned off her truck.
Robin is shaking at the shock of the news.
I offer to take her to her parents place, but she cant go there
either. Theyre out of town, and Robins spare key for their
house is on her key chaininside of her cordoned off rental
house. Shes cried so much in the last couple of hours that she
can hardly speak.
Youre coming to my place, I tell her. Its not a request. If
Dave can do this once, hell try it again once he realizes he didnt
succeed the first time, but he wont know to look for you at my
condo. Youll be safe. Theres lots of room. You can stay in the
guest room until your family or friend gets back.
Taking her nonresponse as consent, I drive her to my low-rise
condo building and show her up to my unit. Robin uses the
bathroom, drinks another bottle of water, and curls up on the
spare room bed. I sit in the armchair beside the bed. After she
drifts off to sleep, I go to my home office and use the time to get
some work done.
Leo phones me for an update, and I keep up with emails and
other tasks I can handle from home. I check her room every so
often, but with the exception of bathroom pit stops, Robin
doesnt move from that bed for the entire rest of the day,
evening and night.
13

ROBIN

A fter the day that I had yesterday, I should be running for


the hills and swearing off men altogether. I totally
expected Reid to have made a move on me by now, but he
has surprised the heck out of me. So far, hes given me space. He
was quiet all day yesterday. I turned down all of his offers to feed
me lunch and dinner, or whatever he thought I needed so that Id
be comfortable. I couldnt eat anyway. For the rest of the time,
hes been in his bedroom or his office.
I should be thanking my blessings for his hospitality and low-
key behavior at his place. And thanking him from the bottom of
my heart for being at the right place at the right time yesterday.
I do appreciate what hes done.
I even value the space hes given me. All night, and right up
until I wake up long before the crack of dawn. At that point, Im
too wired to sleep a minute longer, so I use his spare bathroom
to get myself a shower and throw on the clothes he laid out for
me to wear. The t-shirt and cargo shorts dwarf me completely,
but Im not going to complain.
Heading to the kitchen, I do my best to figure out the coffee
situation. Its the least I can do after hes opened up his place to
me like family. While I look through his kitchen cabinets for
coffee mugs, Reid saunters in.
Good morning, I greet him as he stands there in
sweatpants.
Morning, he all but yawns out. Did you have trouble
sleeping, or do you have an early day today?
I slept okay. Couldnt stay in bed anymore. Do you want
some coffee?
Sure. So, you know its Saturday, right?
I slouch my shoulders. The tragedy of yesterday starts to
replay all over again. I guess so I mean, I should find myself a
calendar or something. Now that I dont have a cell phone
anymore.
Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot. Give me a second. He leaves the
room and returns a little while later with a smartphone in his
hand. Youre more than welcome to use my personal cell, he
informs me, setting down the phone on the countertop. Ive got
another one I use for work.
You dont have to do that, you know?
I know. You should have a number other than your original
phone to leave with your family, friends and other contacts.
Otherwise youll have to constantly check your voicemail. Keep it
for as long as you need it, at least until you get your bank cards
and photo ID replaced. That can take a while, from my
experience.
I pour black coffee into a mug and pass it to him. Dont
remind me, I whine, leaning on the counter beside him.
Thats when I notice the scars on his arms and chest. There
are dots of pink, and scarlet, and circular raised spots in his skin
tone. Reid doesnt react to my staring, but when my hand
reaches up to touch one on his bicep, he clasps his hand
over mine.
What happened to you?
Im fine. These are all from long years ago.
From your time in the army? Ive seen pictures of people
injured by IEDs, but these
No. My three tours were like Disneyland compared to where
I got these fancy little souvenirs.
What?
I have my old man to thank for them. Theyre cigarette
burns. Not many people knew he used me as his own personal,
child-sized ashtray.
I dont even know what to say to that. Christ, Reid. I
didnt know.
Its over and done with. Ancient history.
Talk about perspective. Here I am, feeling sorry for having
had one bad day, acting like its the end of the world that I lost
things I can replace over time, when Reid started off his life at
the center of a tragically horrific home situation.
He takes a sip of the strong brew and shrugs. I can put on a
t-shirt if it makes you uncomfortable.
No. Its fine.
Sorry I brought up replacing you photo ID and stuff.
Its okay. That reminds meI have to phone Rusty at
Whiskey Jacks.
He turns to face me. Youre not planning to show up for your
gig tonight, are you?
Well, lets see. I dont own a single guitar anymore, but like
Im starting to see now, Im lucky to be alive, and my voice
didnt go up in flames, so the singing will continue. I need the
cash more than ever.
Dont you have renters insurance for your apartment
contents?
I do, but Ive been squirreling away my tips in a jar at home.
A couple thousand dollars down the drain, just like that. Im an
idiot, right?
No. Youre not. Leaning one hip against the counter, his
free hand wanders into my hair. Its the first time that I welcome
his touch by leaning the side of my face toward the warmth of
his hand. You just have bad taste in men, he jokes.
I deserve that. Just be sure to put yourself in the pile too.
Reid flashes me a grin. Sowhat are you saying?
He pulls me into his arms. I dont give him an ounce of
resistance. Theres no fight left in me. I just want strong arms
around me and a warm body to hold me tight.
I put my coffee mug down beside me again, burying the side
of my head into his chest. Im sayingI dont know. It takes
me a long moment, but I tilt my head up to look him in the eye.
Maybe Im not saying anything at all. Maybe Im tired of
talking, Reid.
He relieves himself of his coffee cup too, and runs his hands
down my arms, wrapping them around my waist. His gaze is
intense, like a laser that bores heat right through me as he takes
it all in. My body temperature rises. I dont care that hes
probably slept with more women than the population of Nevada
and my sister.
Im about to break two cardinal rules. Never sleep with your
big sisters ex-boyfriend, and never get into bed with a scorching
hot, sexy, womanizing manwhore. But rules have been broken in
getting me here. Rules like never torch an ex-girlfriends place
with a Molotov cocktail, never mess with an ex-girlfriends
livelihood, never kill an exs spirit by destroying her means to
make the music that calms her soul. And for Reids father, never
harm a helpless child. Now, Im ready to break some rules too,
especially when breaking them can lead to some healing on both
our parts.
I rationalize that its probably a good thing that Reid doesnt
want to put down roots.
I dont either.
For the moment, all I want is a release.
Reid tightens his grip around my waist. He lifts me up until
my feet are off the ground. I wrap my legs around his hips and
tuck my head into his neck, soaking up the warmth of his chest
and arms. With a half-turn, he starts walking. Were out of the
kitchen, in his bedroom and on his king-size bed in no time.
He gets into bed beside me. I can tell he doesnt plan on
rushing this. My guess is he wants to make sure this is what I
want. Hell, I really do, and second-guessing myself is off the
table now that my judgment is clouded, my knees are weak, and
my core is screaming for him. Reid pulls me in closer. My foot
instinctively slides up along the sinewy muscles of his calf. It
moves higher still, to his dense, bunched, corded thigh muscles.
I dont stop until the back of my heel digs into the small of his
back, with my mound pressed firmly at his thick, hardened
groin area.
I tilt my head up to meet his darkened, half-lidded eyes.
Licking my lips, I give him a subtle nod as my hand skims down
his chest. Reid clamps his hand over mine when I make it past
his abs to the waistband of his sweatpants. His eyes search mine,
but he doesnt speak. I nod again, smiling slightly at the raspy
groan that escapes his throat. His other hand runs up my back
and winds its way through my hair. With a tug on my hair that I
dont expect, he smashes his mouth to mine.
Parting my lips, I let the moment and our bodies take us
where they want to go. Reid rolls on top of me, pulling my hand
thats over his groin up over my head and pinning both hands to
that spot with one of his. I sigh into his mouth as the searing hot
skin of his chest rubs against my breasts through my t-shirt,
causing my nipples to tighten until theyre hard, needy pebbles
desperate for his hands to touch and his mouth to taste.
Without ending the kiss, he grinds his hardness against my
mound. It takes all my will not to beg him to rip off our clothes
and take care of the throbbing between my legs. But I dont want
to talk. I love our hushed breaths, sighs, hisses, groans and
moans that fill the air around us like its own instrumental
music. With a tug, Reid grips the hem of my t-shirt, pulling it
over my head. He removes the rest of our clothes with an
impatience that sends a thrill of need up and down my back.
Soon his tongue is traveling from my mouth, down my neck and
stops at one nipple with a rough, heated flick that makes me cry
out with pleasure. He gently closes his lips over the nipple and
sucks hard, so hard that I arch my back off the bed from the
contrast in sensation.
I want him to bury his manhood deep inside of me right this
instant.
Foreplay can be postponed, for Christs sake.
Postplay sounds better.
He must want the same thing, because he stretches a hand
over to his night stand, returning it with a strip of condoms. Im
shivering with need. I want to be the one who rolls that condom
up his shaft, but his hand shill has both of mine pinned above
my head. Reid is not ready to let go of the reins just yet. So far,
he knows all the right places to touch, so I let him continue, in
spite of the grinding of my hips for more contact.
Reid takes the signal. Moving off from my breasts, and
without releasing my hands, he lifts his torso up off me, rips
open a condom with his teeth, and rolls one on.
I almost quiver through an orgasm when he grabs my hips
and flips me over onto my stomach. Almost. Lifting my ass high
in the air, Reid gets behind me, pressing his cock at my center.
He bends forward and kisses the spot on my spine between my
shoulder blades. That kiss trails up to my neck, and turns into a
wicked bite that sends me completely out of my mind. Im
panting heavily, pressing my ass backward, ready to plead for
mercy, hoping hell take me hard.
The mercy fuck.
I aint too proud to ask for it right now.
A whimper leaves my lips when his hand grips into my hair
and wraps a handful around his fist. With a long groan, he
positions his hardness at my opening. I cant wait. My hands and
knees push into the mattress and I thrust my ass into him as he
sinks inside of me.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Hes thick, hard and fills me up.
I press my eyes shut, willing myself not to come right there
and then from with the way his thickness and ample length
create pressure against my inner walls, stretching me in every
direction as my channel responds by tightening its grip on him.
He pulls almost all the way out, and Im on the verge of crying
for him to get back inside of me. Thank God he buries into me
again, harder this time, gripping one hip to improve the anchor
of his other hand in my hair, and still controlling my
movements. I cant crane my head back any further. Hell, Im
sure to lose a few hundred strands on account of this one time.
One time with Reid.
Totally. Worth. It.
After a few reps moving at this slow, deliberate pace, Reid
picks up speed. Deeper he goes. And faster, so fast, the sounds
overtaking our feral noises are the slapping of our bare skin and
the creaking of his bedsprings. His hand on my hip slides closer
to my drenched, swollen bud, and covers it completely. He flicks
his index finger over my most sensitive spot, and after some
intense strumming, it does me in.
Electrifying jolts of pleasure shock my system, weakening
every muscle in my body and sending me into convulsions as
I come.
I cry out so loudly that Im sure it sounds like Im being
tortured. But I dont care. Neither does Reid, who continues to
piston in and out of me, taking what he needs and giving me the
ride of my life. I cant stop the waves crashing over me even if I
try, and when he find his release and stretches out beside me,
the only thought in my mind is I. Want. More.
One time is not enough.
Closing my eyes, I soak up the satisfying revelry, and bide my
time for when he takes me again.
If.
Ive heard about his one and done track record, and one time
wont be enough for me anymore.
I just hope he wants it as much as I do.
14

ROBIN

O ne time is not enough for Reid either.


Maybe the one and done reputation he has earned
refers to one session, or one night. I dont know, but Im glad its
not over yet.
I cant stop my fingers from grasping the cool cotton sheets
on Reids bed. If I press any harder, Im sure to rip them. Lifting
my head, I glance down my body at his head between my legs.
Hes been teasing, pleasing and torturing my clit, my folds and
my center for longer than it takes to travel the Vegas Strip. Ive
probably erupted more times than the Old Faithful Geyser. Im
so sensitive now, so tender, and my inner muscles are
exhausted. But hes so good, strumming on me like Im his own
personal instrument.
Swallowing hard, I relax my head on the pillow. My hands run
through his low haircut, wishing there was more to grip on to as
he buries his tongue past my folds, lapping hungrily at me. Im a
virtual puddle under his treatment.
God, I could so get used to this.
The questionor rather, the certaintyof not being able to
have him again knocks around in my head, sobering me up for a
split second. After being with him this way, is one day really
enough? Or should I be grateful for experiencing such an intense,
emotionally rich yet finite sliver of time with him? I imagine Ill
be reliving this day in my head over and over again. Its sure to
be scorched to my short-term and long-term memory.
I smile.
This is the kind of sensual experience that can fuel scores of
future battery-operated climaxes. The thought is so
entertaining, I let out a chuckle.
Reid looks up. Care to share whats so funny?
Not really, I tell him, and extend my arms in a plea for him
to refocus his attention.
He props himself up on one arm for a few moments, and
crawls up to relax beside me. Get on top, he rumbles out,
folding his arms behind his head. Before I change my mind and
devour you whole, beautiful.
I can handle riding this cowboy.
I hope.
Hes packing one hell of a big saddle, but I dont mind a
challenge once in a while. With a smile, I stretch one leg over his
thighs and place my hands on his stomach. Am I bad for
memorializing the moment by taking an extra-long appreciative
look at inch by glorifying inch of his package? If I am, so be it.
My staring must have an effect on Reid, because his cock
pulsates and throbs, seeming to swell that much more. His eyes
travel from my eyes to my lips, and pauses at my breasts. A hand
magically produces a condom and passes it to me. I lick my lips.
There should be time for tasting. Maybe later, because he grips
his shaft with one hand and points at the condom in my hand
with the other.
Taking some creative liberties from his direction, I shake the
wrapper around in my hand, but I dont open it. Instead, I scoot
my hips back, lower my head, and run my tongue around the
large, velvety tip. He moans his approval, grabbing the back of
my head as an invitation to continue. I relax my jaw and float
forward some more, taking in more of him, aware of my core
clenching with anticipation. He pumps his hips slightly. I lift
and lower some more with some help from his hand fisted in my
hair, reveling in the way he responds to me, and in how my
bodys need heightens.
With a moderate tug on my hair, Reid lifts my head
completely off of his length. He grabs the condom, rolls it on,
and takes hold of my waist. One fluid movement of his arms, and
the next second, my folds run along his tip, and its now my
inner walls lowering down, taking him in, eyes pressed shut,
hips rolling of their own accord, and hands on his pecs as he fills
me. The urge is strong to sit there for some time and appreciate
that full feeling deep in my womb. After a few moments, I cant
not move. Im too close.
A few more rolls of my hips drive me over the edge, causing
me so much pleasure that I cry out a sound that comes from deep
in my diaphragm as I ascend to my climax. Its so overpowering
and all-encompassing, I dont know which way is up anymore.
Reid meets me at my peak somehow, but it seems like its
happening somewhere so close, yet so far. I cant think. Im just
matter and bliss rolled into one sweet, wet, convulsing
sensation.
Reid pulls me down to his chest, wraps his arms around me,
and in a deep baritone, he whispers, You are amazing, woman.
You are too, I pant out, already drifting off into what Im
sure will be a dreamless sleep.
15

REID

T he insistent chirp of something foreign wakes me out of


a deep sleep. Believing its my alarm clock, I stretch my
arm to the night table and smack it hard. Its my goddamned
Blackberry, which I usually have on vibrate. I snatch it up and
look at the number.
Its Jared.
Calling at seven in the morning?
The concept of Jared doing anything before ten a.m. is
unheard of. This has to be important. Given that Leo has
assigned some of my regular responsibilities to him, I cant avoid
his call.
What? I grumble.
Wake the fuck up, son, Jared tells me. Weve got
business.
Go ahead.
Not this time. Come and answer your goddamned
front door.
Why the hell are you here?
Are you losing your hearing in your old age? I just said.
Business is calling. Chop chop.
Ill be right there, I tell him, rolling quietly out of bed so
that I dont wake up Robin. Shes resting soundly, and thats a
good thing. I drag on the closest pair of sweatpants and head
down the hall to answer the door.
What the hell is this about? I demand.
You wouldnt be asking me that if you checked the last three
emails Geoff sent to us last night.
What are they about?
Did you at least put on some coffee? He asks with one
raised eyebrow. What the hell kind of host are you, ya wily
bastard?
Keep your voice down. I lead him to the kitchen and point
to a chair at the table. Have a seat. Fill me in on the emails.
I start the coffee machine and sit opposite him at the table.
Those HR people at Mason Industries sent over a list of
seventeen names. Its not the shortlist we were hoping for, but I
think Geoff was able to whittle it down to six names based on a
few criteria. I thought Id run it by you.
What were the criteria?
We started off with the senior managers with access to the
Mason farm. Everyone unaffected by the last two years of
workforce changes was immediately dropped from the list. Ditto
for those affected where HR and the executive approved for their
requested transfers. That left seventeen managers. We cut that
down some more by looking at location analysis.
What do you mean?
Comparing the recent incident dates and times with their
workstation computer active usage times. If they were active at
their desk computers at the time of the incidents, we took them
off the list. Then we dropped a few more based on the distance
between their office locations and the incident sites.
Good, I agree with a nod. If its impossible for them to get
from one location to the next, you dropped them.
Exactly. That gets us down to six names.
How many of them are female?
Three.
Drop them from the shortlist for now.
Just like that?
Did the person in the baseball cap look like a woman?
No.
Drop them. Besides, the stats dont lie. Less than twenty
percent of convicted arsonist are female.
Maybe women firebugs are just better at not getting
convicted, he grins out.
Focus, kid. Did HR send over the entire employee files?
Not yet. Itll be couriered over tomorrow.
Make sure they send over photo and staff ID information.
Will do.
I tap on the tabletop. Wait. What are the names of the
three men?
He checks his Blackberry and scrolls through a file while I get
us two steaming cups of coffee. Wendell Morrison, Davison
Walters and Larry Claiborne.
Ages?
Hang onfifty-four, twenty-seven, and thirty-eight.
Drop the old one.
He takes a sip of coffee from his mug and stares at me as he
does it. Seriously? You got something against young people?
Do you see a fifty-four-year-old kicking up a stink over a
shitty lateral transfer or demotion? Hed be so close to
retirement that hes more likely to toe the line, not raise hell.
Maybe.
Okay. Get their pictures, and when you do, let me know what
you think. And be sure to compare them all to the composites
Geoff got from the video feeds.
Will do.
I tap on the tabletop. Anything else?
Just the question of anticipated targets and likelihoods if the
arsonist is planning to strike again.
Go on.
Theres a list of potential events, landmarks, and sites, he
tells me.
How many?
Forty-seven.
Thats way too many. Sort them by event date, their latest
physical security threat-risk assessment results, and by any
high-value assets on site. You should be able to get that list
down to one or two possible sites per day, if that many. But
check the timeframe between each of the prior incidents. Let me
know if theres any pattern.
Okay. I can do that.
And give me a call during business hours. Save the early
morning house calls for emergencies.
Jared smiles. There you go, knocking a dude for
enthusiasm.
Save it. We both know you just came by to see Robin.
Bullshit, he grins. Well maybe. So, wheres the pretty
little singer who knocked you down a few pegs the other night?
Mind your own damn business.
He raises his Blackberry to his lips. Why why why Hero, he
sings out in falsetto, eyes closed as he mimics Robins song from
that first night I saw her.
Get the fuck out of my place, I tell him. I cant encourage
this kid because I wont hear the end of it.
He drains his cup of coffee and puts the mug in the sink. Ill
be back.
No, you aint invited.
Stop busting my balls, son, he tells me as he heads back to
the front door. Tell Robin howdy for me.
Just keep me posted. Get those photos to me ASAP.
Will do. Later.
16

REID

W e came out to the kitchen to start dinner, but food


ends up being the last thing on our minds. Robins
lips meet mine and everything changes. Is it me or her that has
created this need to have more of each other? Is it some type of
reverse hero infatuation, one where I fall for her because Ive
helped her out of one too many ordeals?
Do I even care how this happened?
Ill figure that out later.
For now, I want to enjoy the way her touch makes me crave
her more. She crosses her wrists behind my neck, tracing fingers
through my hair as she kisses me, which is cut too short for her
to tug on. I match her kiss with fierceness, parting her lips, and
exploring every contour of her teeth and mouth with my tongue.
Its sure to leave both our lips swollen. Robin lifts up on her
tiptoes and grinds against my groin as her breasts rub against
my chest. I pick her up by the waist, placing her to sit on the
countertop, and with one arm, I pull her legs apart and wedge my
body between them.
Gripping her ass, I jerk her toward me and press her heat
against my cock. Its hard as granite, throbbing and wanting
nothing more than to drive into her and feel her tightness
around it. I reach my other hand up to the back of her neck, eyes
filled with lust, looking on as Robin unwraps the condom and
slowly rolls it up my cock. Once its in place, she leans her face in
toward mine and kisses me again. With a tilt of her hips and a
tightening of her crossed ankles, she welcomes me home.
Robin pulls from our kiss as I sink into her. Her head falls
back, her hands hang on to my biceps, and she matches each and
every stroke I deliver head on. I lift up her t-shirt to admire her
nakedness. As I pound into her, I lower my face to her chest.
Latching on to one nipple, I tug it into my mouth, circling the
hardening bud with my tongue. Shes whimpering and rolling
her hips in response, adding to the pleasure around my shaft,
allowing me deeper inside of her, so deep that I dont think my
cock will be content again unless its connected with her.
She whispers a simple plea into my ear, and I smile.
More.
It turns out that where Robin and I are concerned, more is
better. That has never been the case for me with any other
woman. But I need to be realistic. Shes here with me
temporarily. Eventually, shell go to her parents, or find herself
a place, and in all likelihood, there will be no more between us.
Ill face that reality when it happens. At the moment, while she
rocks her hips and her tight core pulls more of me inside of her,
Ill give her more.
I move up from her gorgeous breasts to her collarbone, and to
her neck, relishing her response to my every decadent bite on
her sweet skin. The moans, the breathy whimpers are almost too
much, and when her body tells me shes about to come, I almost
cant wait to send her to her peak. She relaxes her knees, leans
back some more, and snakes one hand down between us until
she has two fingers over her clit.
Fuck.
The image drives me out of control, and all I can do is piston
into her at a punishing pace. Her body begins to quake as we
come together. Were both weak and overflowing with our
releases, but Robin reaches up and kisses me hard. Were far
from over.
I find a reserve of strength to carry her back to the bedroom.
More is coming.
Or maybe not.
Robin moves out of my arms and kicks her legs over the side
of the bed. We shouldnt have done this.
I sit up, looking at her as she collects her clothes. What? Are
you kidding me? Tell me youre joking, Robin.
Glancing over at me for a moment, she pulls the t-shirt over
her head and puts on one thats less wrinkled. Im serious.
What we didwhat weve been doingits wrong. Youre my
sisters ex-boyfriend. I cant anymore, okay?
I dont see whats the big deal.
What? she shouts.
It was almost ten years ago. Your sister and I werent that
serious.
I cant believe you could say something so hurtfulbut
maybe this is the real you, huh? Selfish, arrogant and mean-
spirited. You didnt just break her heart, Reid. You killed her
spirit and her will to live.
Im sorry that happened. I couldnt tell her I was leaving,
Robin.
She steps into her sweatpants and drags them up her legs in a
huff, taking her anger out on her clothes. Why not?
Its complicated.
No its not. Its simple. You left because youre a coward.
You dont know anything about me!
I know enough! You left because it was the easy way out!
Thats not true.
It is!
Its not! I thunder out so loudly, Im sure the neighbors
hear. I left because I couldnt tell her, all right? I couldnt tell
anyone. I was still a minor. The only way I could enlist at
seventeen was to get parental consent. I had to forge my fathers
signature, and I couldnt take the chance that someone would try
to stop me from getting the hell out of Dads house. You think
these cigarette burns are bad? Theyre nothing compared to the
hospital visits for fractured ribs, broken arms, a separated
shoulder I can go on, but the point is, I couldnt stay there one
more day. All along, Danielle kept trying to convince me to stay.
I just couldnt.
So you knocked her up and left her without manning up
instead? she screams.
My head snaps like a whip in her direction. Sorry, what? I
ask, because I did not just hear what I think I heard.
Thats right, she spits out like venom. You took away her
virginity, got her pregnant, and then you left. Just like that.
I shake my head. She was pregnant?
Yes.
A million questions are going through my head, and theyre
coming out haphazardly. Did she have the baby?
She miscarried, Reid. Thats what caused her downward
spiral. Thats what made her try to kill herself twice with
prescription pills. She almost succeeded the second time. It
landed her in a coma for three weeks. And when she woke up
Danielle hasnt been the same.
I didnt know. Im sorry she went through something that
painful, but theres just one thing wrong with all of it.
What are you talking about?
I make sure Robin is looking into my eyes before I say another
word. Somewhere along the line, she was misled, probably by
Danielle. You have to actually have sex to produce a pregnancy,
Robin.
What?
I never slept with Danielle.
No. That cant be true.
We messed around in high school, but she was insistent that
she wasnt ready. We never went all the way. Not once.
Youre lying. Thats not possible. She was pregnant.
Not by me.
She told us you were the father.
I said it already, and Ill say it again. I never slept with your
sister. And Ill gladly confront her with it face to face. I get out
of bed, take Robins hand and put it over my heart. Theres only
one Sparrow sister Ive had my way with, and shes right next
to me.
Robin snatches her hand away. Bullshit, she shouts, and
jumps back a few feet. Danielle and my parents should be home
by now. I hope you dont mind letting me use your car. I have to
talk to her. Shell probably have another breakdown because of
this this outrageous lie. I cant believe youd make up
something so ridiculous. But at least I wont have to waste
another second hearing this craziness from you.
Yes, of course you can still use the SUV. Look, Im not lying.
Danielle must have had her reasons for telling you that I was the
father, but its not possible.
Save it for someone who cares, she shrieks. In almost the
same breath, she lowers her voice and adds, Oh, and thanks for
letting me use the car.
Be safe getting out there, I say. Maybe I should come
with you.
No. I cant be in the same room with you right now, let alone
the same vehicle. Ill I wont be coming back here. Josh or my
dad will return you SUV and phone during the day tomorrow.
And Ill pay you back for any costs you incurred.
You dont have to do that.
I will. Thanks for your hospitality, and for helping my while
my family was away. I just cant take this road. Not after what
Davison did.
Davison. Why does that name ring a bell? I tilt my head to one
side in confusion. Who?
Dave.
Wait, I tell her. Whats Daves full name?
Why on earth does that matter to you right now?
Humor me for a moment. Please. Whats his full name?
Davison Grant Walters. He goes by Dave Walters, but
sometimes he uses his mothers maiden name.
Davison Grant, I repeat. All the hairs on my neck stand on
edge, and the proverbial lightbulb goes on in my head.
Yes. Goodbye Reid.
With her arms at her side, and my phone and keys in her
hand, she leaves. I dont follow.
First of all, I have a murderous firebug to catch.
Robin may be the first person that I see myself having more
than a casual thing with, but she has taken a side. At this point, I
dont expect to see her again.
If Danielle lied to Robin and her family for all these years, she
has even less reason to tell the truth now.
17

ROBIN

I m riddled with guilt and embarrassment. My parents


cars are not in the driveway, so I can skip a welcome
home greeting with them until they get back home. I go to see
Danielle at her apartment above their detached garage. Its hard
to hug her right now, but this conversation were about to have
will bring up the past. Big, tight hug it is.
How was the trip? I ask her, warming her up before I drop
a bomb.
Amazing, she chirps. But dont worry about that. How are
you? Im so sorry to hear about the fire. God, you must have been
so terrified.
It was truly tragic, sis. Everythings gone. They wont even
let me enter the premises yet. I feel like Im in limbo right now.
Everything is surreal. Hey, lets talk about your trip.
Her face is beaming as she goes on about their visit to the
Space Needle, hiking in the Mount Rainer National Park, and
navigating the trails of the Hoh Rainforest. I cant remember the
last time Ive seen her this happy. The temptation to forget all
about telling her anything to do with Reid crosses my mind. Is it
worth it to raise the topic of Reids accusation? Can she handle
yet another world of pain? Do I really want to let Reid come
between us? I have no answers.
Danielle points at her suitcase at one side of the bed. I got
you something. Look in the top corner.
I dont deserve a gift. God, I hate feeling guilty. She sees me
hovering over her half-zippered suitcase and comes beside me.
Are you sure youre okay? she asks. I guess I should stop
asking that question. I hate when people ask me that. And you
just lost everything. Im so inconsiderate.
Shes inconsiderate? Good Lord.
She pulls the zipper to the main compartment the rest of the
way, rummages around the upper half of the clothes, and
retracts a pale pink top. Its a Jimi Hendrix t-shirt! she squeals
with delight.
Awww, thank you so much, I tell her, trying to conceal
some of the flat-out misery Im feeling.
Danielle has always been intuitive. She senses something is
wrong, and assumes Im disappointed. I know he was an
electric guitarist and that youre more into acoustics, but it
thought youd love it since hes such a legend.
I do love it, I stress. Its gorgeous. Perfect. And my
favorite color too.
Shes still not convinced. Maybe I should have bought a few
of those snow globes Mom and Dad brought back as souvenirs.
No, hun. I love this. I wouldnt know what to do with
trinkets. Especially now. And Ill actually wear this t-shirt. Its
great, hun.
Im glad you like it, she says with a smile, finally satisfied
that my weirdness has nothing to do with her gift.
With Reids car in the driveway, if Mom and Dad show up
now, theyll come up here while were talking. I cant risk having
to turning this into a super-awkward family meeting, so I bite
the bullet.
Danielle?
Yes?
Im so sorry to have to bring this up, but can I talk to you
about something that I know youll be upset about?
She shrugs her shoulders, and her lips form a thin line. Go
ahead.
Its aboutyou and Reid.
She flops back into bed. Hes back in town. I know.
Okay. I was also going to tell you that although hes been a
big help while you, Mom and Dad were out of town, I also think
hes a low-down, dirty liar.
Some men lie. I would say Reid is more secretive than
a liar.
Hmmm. Well, he lied about you, and Im mad as hell.
She lifts her torso off the bed, holding up her weight with her
elbows. About what?
Um I start, but cant bring myself to say it.
Come on. Tell me.
You know what? Forget it. Hes an idiot. Its not worth
mentioning.
No, I want to hear what he said. Tell me.
I cant. Its mean and heartless.
Danielle glares at me. Tell me! she demands.
All right. He said that when he left town to join the army,
you were a virginthat he did not get you pregnantI know,
right? Lying bastard.
Dead silence.
Danielles face turns green, and after about a minute of
shooting me an incredulous stare, she rockets out of bed and
runs to the apartment door, locking both the main doorknob and
the security chain.
Did you tell any of this to anyone at all? she asks, frantic.
No. Because its not true right?
She leans back against the door. A second later, her legs
buckle and she crumples to the floor. Tears fall. Her body
heaves.
Danielle? I repeat her name to get her attention.
Its true.
Mary Mother of God.
Its true?
What sorcery is this?
I cross my legs and sit beside her, pulling her into my arms to
help her calm down. Its true? Good Lord. Im sorry, Danielle, I
shouldnt have asked. I mean, I didnt know youd be this
upset or that it would end up being true. Its okay. Whatever it
is that happened, its in the past. None of it matters.
Im lying my ass off right now. It matters, all right. Reids
reputation is shit in my household. I have no doubt that if my
father or big brother ever sees Reid in person, violence against
him will follow. Slurs will be hurled. Shit will hit the fan. And all
of that slow-burning wrath in waiting is sure to be compounded
by one thousand if I spend more time getting to know him. Hell
go from persona non grata to lets form an angry mob and chase
him out of state.
I wanted to tell you, she admits in between sniffles and
sobs. I couldnt.
I rub her back and pull her tighter to my side. You can tell
me all about it now, or whenever youre ready. Its okay.
No, its not. I was so upset that he left, I lashed out. I slept
with one of the guys in our senior year. It was a one-time thing,
and when I got pregnant, I couldnt hurt Mom and Dad that way,
you know? It was easier to say that Reid did it to blame him.
God, I should have told you the truth. Im so sorry.
Dont be. Its over and done with. And I wont say a word to
anyone.
Thank you, Robinbut its okay now.
I study her face. Mom and Dad know?
She nods.
What about Josh?
Yes. I should have told you too.
I should be mad as hell for being left out of this family secret,
but the big picture is it makes my being with Reid a whole lot
easier. Its totally okay, sis.
Though I wonder why he told you after all this time.
Crap.
This time, the dead silence is on my end. She looks over at
me. Do you have any idea why he said anything?
Its my fault. I confronted him and accused him of hurting
you because something happened between Reid and me in the
last few days, I admit.
You and Reid. Her crying ceases, and her eyes narrow as
she studies me, now armed with this chilling new information.
Im not sure if to expect her to pass out from the heartbreak that
I broke a cardinal rule of sisterhood, or if shell reach her hands
up and rip every strand of hair from my head. You slept
with Reid?
I rest my head in my hands. I want to die from shame. Yes. I
know, Im a total slut. I am so sorry. It wont happen again,
Danielle. I promise.
You and Reid. This time, she nods as she repeats it.
Feel free to bitch-slap me, anytime at all.
I wont, and I believe I can live with that.
What? Why?
Danielle pushes off the floor with both hands and gets to her
feet. She wipes the tears and snot off her face with the back of
her hand. Becausebecause me and Barclay.
I look up at her from my spot on the floor. Its a good thing
Im sitting down. She and Barclay? They cant be any more
different from each other. Theyre like comparing oil and water.
Night and day. Country western music and Goth. But Barclay is a
sweetie. Hes sensitive, feels emotions so deeply, on a level
thats more empathetic than most men, and he would never hurt
Danielle.
You and Barclay?
She nods. Yes.
How long?
She covers her eyes in embarrassment. A year.
Jesus. Youre a vault! Barclay too! Youve been seeing each
other for a whole year?
It takes me a while to think back. Yes. It makes perfect sense.
The hushed tones. Her unexpected appearances at some of our
gigs that I had never mentioned to her. The other night at the
bar when Barclay went off the deep end that I sang that angry,
sad song for Reid. That time I walked into Moms pantry and
found him picking food from her hair.
Im the only one who doesnt know too, right? She doesnt
answer, but I dont need words. Its written all over her face.
Did he even go to Amargosa Valley at all? Or was he in the
damned camper van road trip with you, Mom and Dad? Wait.
Dont bother answering. I can telland I think I can live with
that too, sis.
Thank God! Its been hard sneaking around behind
your back.
You dont have to anymore. And I wont do any tiptoeing of
any kind with Reid.
Great!
For now, were just starting to get to know each other, so
lets just leave it at that. I havent spent that much time
with him.
Okay.
The loaner phone buzzes in my pocket. It must be Reid. That
reminds me. I have to give him the meekest, sweetest apology
for treating him like shit and accusing him of lying his ass off.
Theres a clicking sound at the door as I answer the phone. Hi
Reid. Can you hold a second?
Sure, he answers.
I mute the line. But first, wed better unlock the door for
Mom and Dad before they wonder whose SUV is outside.
True. Coming, Mom, Danielle shouts, reaching for the door
to unlock it.
I turn off the mute feature on the phone. Hi Reid. Hey, I
need to apologize for what I said earlier.
Forget about that for a second. Is he there?
Who?
Dave.
Why would he be here?
Get out of there now! Get in my car and bring your sister and
parents to my place. Now. Ill explain later.
Youre not making sense, Reid.
Robin! Listen to me. Leave the house now!
Were not in the house. Were in the apartment above the
garage.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice that Danielle is jiggling
the door knob. Thats strange, she says.
I cover the phone ear speaker to block out Reids hysterics.
What is?
Its not opening. Mom? she calls through the door. Really
funny, Mom, locking us in from out there.
No one answers.
Danielle pounds on the door. Mom?
I swallow hard. Reid? I shout into the phone, but the call
must have disconnected. Reids words sink in when I start to
smell smoke. I hear a car horn blaring from outside, so I look out
the front window.
Good Lord, no.
Dave?
Hasnt this man done enough? Apparently not.
Call 9-1-1! I tell my sister.
Sliding open the double-hung casement window transports
me back to my panic-stricken state as I relive the last fire he
caused. Except now, Danielle is with me, were on the second
floor, this window is metal and only opens about four inches,
and Reid is not here to save us.
Dave, unlock this door right now! I scream down at him.
Or what? he smugly shouts back.
You wont get away with this!
I have before, and even if I dont, Ive got nothing more
to lose.
Please, just open the door. Danielle is here. Shes done
nothing to you.
Collateral damage is inevitable, Robin.
Why do you want to hurt me like this? I plead.
Maybe you should give me an answer to the same question.
Please dont do this.
Tell me something. Do you think Ill miss you when
youre gone?
I dont have a comeback for that stupid question. Dave is not
going to let us go. I ignore him altogether and turn to Danielle
after she ends the 9-1-1 call.
What do you have around here that can break through the
glass in this window?
Its time for us to save ourselves.
Otherwise, one wrong move and we both go up in flames.
18

REID

R obins ex-boyfriend is my perp.


Dave Walters is Davison Grant is Dave Grant.
Davison Grant Walters.
Its all the same person.
The irony is so rich and acrid, I can taste it.
My fingers cant fly fast enough to get Jared or Geoff on the
phone. Its as though weve all been working in isolation,
studying different angles of this dickbag Dave.
Jared and Geoff were not at Whiskey Jacks on the night we
butt heads with Dave Grant. On their own, they dont have the
tools to make the connection with the employee files that Mason
Industries HR sent over, because those files identified Davison
Walters as one of the handful of potential disgruntled senior
managers.
Geoff spent hours of his time pouring over the video footage
with an unknown face in shadow under that company baseball
cap. Even now as I picture Daves face, theres nothing about his
features that would lead me to connect the video feed images
to him.
I have all puzzle pieces, and Ive been off work to take care of
Robin, who was victimized by This. Same. Fucking. Dave.
I want to kick myself for not realizing it sooner.
Neither Jared nor Geoff takes my call on the first try, so I grab
my keys and get into my personal car. Time to hustle my ass over
to Robins parents house. They can hate me all they want, but
Dave is the true enemy. Sure, it can turn out that hes staking
out one of the Mason Industries properties, but something tells
me that hes not done with Robin yet.
Robin has a fifteen-minute head start on me. I speed out of
my condos underground parking lot, burning rubber as I merge
into traffic like a madman. Its a twenty-five-minute drive to
Robins family home, and my theory about Daves next target is
confirmed when she mentions at the end of the call that she and
her sister are trapped.
Im less than five minutes away now, but were dealing with a
crazed idiot with a taste for blowing shit up lightning fast with
crude incendiary devices. Police, fire and ambulance response
times tend to be longer in the outskirts. I swear to God if he
harms a hair on Robins head, I will kill the motherfucker.
Fear starts to creep in.
I wont get there in time.
But someone else does.
I peel up to the sidewalk behind my SUV that Robins drove
here. Mr. Sparrow, Robins father, is standing on his front lawn.
A Remington twelve-gauge shotgun is cradled in his arms. He
racks a load and points it at Dave, whos on the mans driveway.
Dave is trespassing, unarmed and looking up at the fire he
started in the garage. He has a vicious, twisted smile on his sour
face. Im the one who should be smiling at the fact that Dave
must have a death wish, given that the barrel of the shotgun
trained on him is being held by a man who has the right to
protect his property and his kin. Theres not an ounce of remorse
in my mind as I hope that justice can be swift for a change.
I jump out of my car, snatch the tire iron in my trunk, and
cross their paths in a run. Its hard to get shot when youre
running. Taking the concrete steps up to Danielles apartment
two at a time, I get to the landing at the top.
Robin! If youre still in there, I need you to step away from
the door.
It feels like dj vu.
The adrenaline is flowing, so swinging the tire iron ends up
crashing down so hard on the door that it breaks the padlock off
the locking hasp and staple, and splinters the wood. I kick the
door open at the same time that the gun goes off down in the
yard. Ignoring the men, I rush inside to find Robin with one leg
hanging out the window, and Danielle getting ready to
follow her.
Robin pulls her leg back inside. Reid, youre here. Thank
God! she cries.
Lets get the hell out of here, I tell them. But keep your
heads down. Well wait at the top of the landing until your dad
puts down the rifle.
Hey Reid, Danielle waves.
Ive got nothing.
The three of us crouch down at the top of the landing
and wait.
Dads the one shooting? Robin asks.
I nod. Yes.
He never misses.
I know its cold, but after what Dave has done to Robin, Mr.
Sparrows track record had better hold up.
Yall can come down from there now, Mr. Sparrow shouts
calmly.
Dad, are you okay? Robin asks as we get to the bottom of
the stairs.
Im fine. Moms out back. Shes safe. Leaning the shotgun
against the front door, he walks over to his daughters, stands
between them, and pull them into his arms, ready to fuss over
their wellbeing like a father should. Did you two get hurt?
Were fine, Dad. Reid is too.
His eyes crawl over my face, and he gives me a nod. Thats
good enough for me.
Is Dave dead? Robin asks.
When I aim my rifle, I make sure I have cause to, and I shoot
to kill, Robin. And you know that I never miss.
A man after my heart.
The blaring sound of approaching fire trucks are like music to
my ears. There was only smoke in the apartment upstairs, but
downstairs, the contents inside the garage are ablaze. There will
definitely be some property damage, but everyone who matters
will live another day.
As for Robin and me, time will heal, and make way for more.
19
EPILOGUE - REID

O ne Month Later
I cant believe we salvaged so many things from my
place, Robin says on our third trip from her rental house today.
The fire investigators took close to three weeks to examine the
evidence, but they finally cleared the scene for re-entry inside.
There are so few items for her to salvage. A handful of
clothes, a charred part of one of her guitars and half of her song
lyric book, some jewelry, two night tables, and most of her metal
kitchen utensils. Geoff did take a look at her charred laptop and
felt pretty sure that he could recover her data. What Ive learned
about Robins is that to her, the glass is half-full.
Robin had planned to move back to her parents house. The
fire at Danielles apartment caused her to change her plans, as
Danielle would also need interim shelter arrangements while the
insurance for repairs got sorted out. Instead, Robin is renting a
temporary place of her own in a tiny apartment motel just two
blocks from the condo building where I live. I would say thats a
win-win.
I cant say for certain what we are. Its way too early to
speculate. She says were dating. Weve seen each other every
day for the past month, and I still cant get enough of her. To
me, were way past dating.
But whatever.
I place the last box into the back of my SUV and shut the
trunk door. This should be it for this trip.
Nice. Thanks for letting me leave the big stuff in your
storage locker while Im in transition, she adds, following me
to the passenger side.
I open the front passenger door for her, and she jumps in.
No problem, I tell her, and get in the driver seat.
I really owe you.
I clasp my hand over hers. No, you dont.
Youve been a big help to me. I cant thank you enough.
If you keep it up, Ill have no choice but to add to your
punishment, I say with a grin. Who knew that innocent little
Robin was into spanking. Its one of the many things that keep
surprising me about how much we fit.
A playful smile lifts up on her face. You promise?
You know I do. In factwere leaving this stuff in the back
and taking a detour.
Where to?
My place, I announce. And that ass of yours will be so raw
when Im done with you.
Shes practically bouncing in her seat beside me for the entire
way home. Before Robin, I never met a woman who enjoyed
being spanked as much as I loved doling it outfor fun, of
course. We both get a hell of a lot of enjoyment out of it.
I park in my underground spot. Robin hangs off my arm as we
walk to the elevators, and for the ride up. She all but runs into
my condo unit once I unlock the front door.
Then, she stops short. Her mouth drops open.
Oh, my word! she drawls when she sees the surprise
waiting for her in the foyer. Its a restored Fender guitar and
carrying case, almost identical to the one that was destroyed in
the fire. Reid! When did you do this?
I grin. There are perks to running a business with my four
closest friends. Jared took care of it for me. Its missing all the
custom accents on your old one, but it was too close to pass up.
Thank youits gorgeous.
You like?
Gosh yes! I love it. She starts to fan her eyes with both
hands. Ive seen her cry a few times now. I wont ever get used to
it, but at least these are happy tears. What can I say to the man
who gave me the other half of my music back?
You dont have to say anything. Just enjoy it. Arent you
going to open the case? For all you know, I just got you an
empty case.
Robin steps up to the black hardshell case, picks it up by the
handle with reverence, and carried it into the living room.
Sitting on the sofa, she places it on her lap, and after an intense
moment of soaking up the moment, she opens it. Its more face
fanning, and chirps of thanks. She helps me see how enjoyable
life can be when we cherish the little things.
And the big things too.
Check the back of the guitar, I tell her.
Her eyes widen as she stares over at me. Theres more?
Just one more thing.
Robin lifts up the guitar, gingerly flipping it over. She catches
sight of the envelope stuck to the back of it. What is this?
Open it.
The tears flow freely when she does. Omagad omagad! Two
tickets to Nashville, and a half-day, all-inclusive recording time
slot at RCA Studios. Including a top producer? You did this
for me?
Actually, the idea was mine, but the execution was by one of
our clients. Consider it a thank you from Mason Industries for
the part you played in stopping an arsonist.
She closed the guitar case, and once its safely on the coffee
table in front of her, she jumps into my lap and wraps her arms
around my neck. Thank you so much.
Im glad you like it.
I love it. I think youll love Nashville when we fly out there.
Oh, Im not going. The two tickets are for you and your
guitarist.
What? Really! she squeals, peppering my face and neck
with more kisses.
Of course. Just make sure you let Barclay know therell be
hell to pay if he lets anything happen to you out there.
Hell be good. She jumps out of my lap and grabs one of my
hands. Sodidnt we rush back here to settle the issue of
someone getting punished?
I throw her over my shoulder and waste no time carrying her
to the bedroom. Lowering her into my bed, she rolls over and
gets on her hands and knees. Robin knows the drill. I smile and
lean over her, releasing a hard, loud smack on one ass cheek
through her jeans. She croons out a moan that tightens my balls
and stiffens my cock.
Youre really enjoying this, arent you? I ask with a groan.
She looks back at me and nods. I love a good spanking in the
morning, she teases.
I love doling it out on that ass, I confess. But if you ever
stop enjoying it, you make sure and let me know.
Probably not until Im old and shriveled up. Spank me,
soldier.
Were perfect together. I dont want to remember what my
life was like before Robin sang that first chord about a month
ago, and Im certain that it would be holy hell without her now.
Some may say we barely know each other, and if they were to
ever say that to my face, Id tell them theyre dead wrong.
She wiggles her ass to get my attention, and sits back on her
knees to undo the waistband of her pants. That triggers a race to
remove everything were wearing. I only win because the clasp of
her sports bra gets caught in her hair. Getting in behind her, I
help her out by cupping my hands over her breasts as she gets
her hair untangled. Okay, I help myself.
Robin pushes her ass back into my groin, covers my hands
with hers, encouraging me to massage and tease both nipples in
synchrony while my dick gets a sample of whats to come. Ive
been craving her since we left my place this morning. Ill have to
limit the spanking and part those ass cheeks in short order.
I slide one hand from her breasts, down her stomach and let it
settle at her mound. She hisses out a sigh, and on her own,
bends forward again, with her butt sky high, the invitation for
me to do what she likes me to do. I crash my hand down on one
ass cheek, then the other, and repeat about a dozen times until
only scarlet handprints cover her backside. The sight drives me
out of my mind, until I completely lose my cool. Fucking her
hard is the only option. Grabbing her hips, I line up my
throbbing cock at her tight, drenched folds, get a condom on,
and pull her ass back, sinking into her. Shes just as ready,
jerking her body back and creating an instant push and pull
rhythm that we both love.
In no time, her inner walls pulsate and tighten around my
shaft. Shes about to come. I thrust in and out of her, picking up
the pace, and not stopping, even when she lifts up slightly,
sticks her ass out some more, and reaches her hand up and back
into my hair as she finds the angle that multiplies and expands
her orgasm to its fullest.
Her muscles are out of control and her body is weak and
trembling from pleasure. I continue to pound into her pussy, and
when the tension in my balls builds up to an unbearable mix of
pain and heat and pleasure, I take advantage of the proximity of
her neck, clamping my lips to it as I spill into her.
Lowering her to the bed without coming apart from her, I
close my eyes, bury my nose in her hair, and enjoy the calm ease
of relaxing with my girl.
You know Ill be ready for more in no time, right? she asks
in a whisper.
I sure do, I whisper into her ear.
Youd better, because my flavor of punishment involves
lyrics, she jokes.
Trust me, I wont cross you. No way do I want to hear
another country western song about me.
Good. Because that last one was actually easy on you.
That was easy?
It was. Do you realize how many words rhyme with Reid?
I kiss along her neck and suck her earlobe in between my
teeth. I dont think I want to know.
Words like bleed, heed, need, plead, deed, feed, seed
I think I get the idea, but you dont need to brainstorm on a
breakup song, I whisper. I plan to do right by you, my little
songbird.
She turns her head just enough to press a kiss on my lips. I
love the sounds of that.
I smile. And I love you.
I didnt intend to say that for a long time, but Im glad I did.
Robin is beaming. Shes happy, and to me, nothing else matters.
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ABOUT BELLA LOVE-WINS

Bella is a Wall Street Journal (Begging for Bad Boys) and USA
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About the Author
From Author Bella Love-Wins.
I love writing steamy, high-action romance stories about firefighters,
billionaires, shifters, and alpha males who know what they want and aren't
afraid of laying claim to the women who catch their interest. I love a happy
ever after ending. I enjoy reading, hiking, the countryside, and traveling to
destinations unspoiled by commercial tourism, like Las Vegas. :)
Like so many characters in my novels, I enjoy action, romance and
unexpected love connections that take your breath away. For the next while,
you'll find me plotting and writing about my latest stories on my Macbook.
Read more at Bella Love-Winss site.