“Save a horse, ride a cowboy! When a book can make a city girl want to cowboy up…you’ve got one hot read!” ~Audrey Carlan, #1 New York Times Bestselling Author
Trevor Raines lives on the edge of legal. A good guy doing bad things to save lives, the only rules he follows are his own, and there’s nothing in the world that will change that. Until Natalie Jordan walks into his life…
Natalie’s only interest is in making a fresh start. She’s a woman with a plan, and the plan doesn’t include a man with secrets, no matter how kind—or intoxicating—he is. But this cowboy is determined to break down her walls, keep her safe and make her his.
Trevor had no interest in settling down, but there’s something entirely too appealing about the woman he can’t stay away from. There’s only one thing to do—change his plans…and hers. When Natalie’s ex resurfaces to threaten her new life, Trevor will move heaven and earth to make sure the bastard can’t hurt her again. Except saving Natalie means outing his own secrets—and it could mean losing her forever…
Any bar owner in Dallas’s Deep Ellum district would be tickled shitless with a light crowd on a dreary, October weeknight. But seeing more than half the tables of his own pub occupied and both bartenders knocking out nonstop drink orders—that was a thing of beauty.
Not too shabby for a college dropout. But then, if there was one thing Trevor Raines had learned from his brothers in the last ten years, it was that the right focus and a little ingenuity made anything attainable.
Beside him, Jace Kennedy leaned into the brotherhood’s reserved table and motioned with Scotch in hand at Trevor’s newest waitress across the room. “That one’s a hustler.”
Trevor followed his gaze in time to witness said hustler sidle up to one of the oversized corner booths with a drink-laden tray balanced on one palm. She was a little thing, five-foot-one at best and couldn’t weigh more than a buck-twenty sopping wet, but she had a smokin’ curvy body to go with her girl-next-door charm, a combination he’d known right away would be a hit with the men. Normally, that kind of combo would’ve made hiring her a no-brainer—even with her lack of experience. But for some reason, the idea of men hitting on Natalie Jordan nonstop had tweaked him hard enough he’d damned near turned her down.
“Just hired her a few weeks ago,” he said. “Basically told me she’d be the best waitress I ever had if I gave her a chance.” It had been the desperation behind her vow that had tipped the scales and made him offer the position. So far, she’d made good on her claim. In fact, for a woman who’d never taken a drink order in her life, she’d acclimated to her new job a whole lot better than he’d anticipated.
“Gotta love a woman with spunk,” Jace said.
Another of their Haven brothers, Zeke Dugan, nursed his Bohemia Weiss and studied Natalie over the rim. “She looks familiar.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Trevor said. “Since I was just hiring for a waitress, Knox only ran a cursory background check. He still turned up an expired RN license she hadn’t put on her application. Was a long time ago though.”
Zeke nodded. “Yeah, that’s gotta be it. But she didn’t work down in trauma with me. I’d remember that swagger.”
Zeke’s fiancée, Gabe, looked up from the wedding magazine anchored between her and Jace’s wife, Viv, and smacked him on the shoulder. “You’re weeks away from being a married man. You’re not supposed to appreciate another woman’s swagger anymore.”
“Didn’t say I appreciated it, gatinha. I said I’d have remembered it.” He snatched her hand before Viv could drag her back into all things wedding dresses and cakes, kissed her knuckles, and grinned. “I’ll take your leisurely strut to a power walk any day.”
Trevor reclined against his seat back and considered his newest hire while she worked, an act he’d caught himself doing a little more often than he’d like to admit with her being an employee. Defining the way Natalie moved as a power walk was a little harsh. Yeah, she got from point A to point B without a whole lot of dillydallying, but it didn’t diminish the subtle sway of her hips or the way her body flowed from one task to another. Fluid and smooth like a full river after a heavy rain.
Done with handing out drinks, Natalie wove through her section, eyes sharp and checking for needed refills. The soft mini lights strung across the ceiling cast her pixie features in an easy glow, and the standard-issue tank top with The Den’s logo showcased one helluva rack. One he’d already caught a whole host of men eyeballing, and that made him seriously consider outfitting her in an oversized T-shirt.
She’d just about made it back to the arched opening that led to the main bar when she slid her phone out of her back pocket, checked the screen, and hurried out of sight.
“Damn it,” he murmured before he knocked back the last of his beer.
“There a problem?” Jace asked.
Probably. Despite how good she’d worked out on the floor and the pure joy of watching her move, there were some bad habits he couldn’t overlook. “Fucking cell phones. I told her they’re off-limits while she’s working and I’ve busted her with the thing twice tonight.”
“Could just be checking the time,” Zeke said. “And if she’s taking care of her people, what’s the harm?”
“If you were with a patient, would you text?”
Zeke chuckled. “Point taken. But then I don’t have time to text when someone’s bleeding out all over the ER’s floor.”
“With your attention span, you’d probably try.” Jace spun the toothpick anchored at the corner of his mouth with his tongue and focused on Trevor. “Don’t jump the gun on your new girl too quick. Could’ve been a misunderstanding on her part. If she’s doin’ all right otherwise, talk to her first. Unless you’re in a big hurry to start interviewing again?”
“Hell no.” The last round had taken him three weeks to hire two girls. Natalie had ended up being the only one worth the effort.
Viv straightened from the mini wedding huddle at the end of the table and slid the two-inch-thick bridal magazine right in front of Gabe. “Really? You don’t like that one? It’d look great on you.”
Gabe dipped her chin and aimed a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me glare back at her. “I fix cars for a living and wear jeans three hundred and sixty-two days out of the year. The only thing a train is going to do for me is make sure I face-plant in front of everyone.”
“I don’t get it,” Trev said to Zeke. “If you’re not doing a big shindig, why go through all the cake and dress nonsense? Just let me fly you to Vegas like we did for Viv and Jace.”
Viv scowled good-naturedly across the table. “Cake and dresses are not nonsense. No matter where they get hitched, every woman gets to feel pretty on her wedding day.” Seemingly satisfied she’d gotten her point across, she licked her finger, flipped to the next page, and hunched closer to Gabe.
Zeke lowered his voice, obviously intent on skirting any more dirty looks from the women. “Gabe doesn’t know what she wants yet. Whatever we do will be just family, but if she opts for someplace quick and fun, we’ll take you up on the ride.”
Trevor shrugged. He still didn’t get why everyone made such a big deal out of one day when what really mattered came after. “Whatever works.”
“Spoken like a man who’s not yet surrendered. One of these days though…” Jace grinned and sipped his Scotch.
Trevor held up both hands. “Don’t turn your matchmaking sights on me. I’m not a qualified candidate for marriage.”
“Don’t know why you’re so against it,” Zeke said. “Out of all of us, you’re the one who had the best relationship role models.”
“I’d hardly call my dad a role model.”
Zeke’s expression blanked hard and fast. “I meant Frank. You’re nothing like your biological father, flesh and blood or not.”
Right. Because Trevor had done so well reining in his fists growing up. Didn’t mean he didn’t wish Zeke was right.
Deftly dodging a chatty group of girls who weren’t looking where they were going, Natalie hustled to a twelve-top full of rowdy college guys and started doling out pints. If she had any clue half of them were eyeing her sweet ass, she didn’t show it. He, on the other hand, was having to fight grinding his molars to dust.
One of Natalie’s customers reached out as she rounded the table and tried to wrap his arm around her waist.
Trevor tensed, braced to intervene, but Natalie shifted just in time, patted the guy good-naturedly on the arm, and hurried back to the bar. Then she slid her phone free and checked the screen without breaking stride.
“I gotta go deal with this.” He stood, snatched his empty beer bottle, and motioned to everyone’s drinks. “Anyone need a refill?”
“Nah,” Zeke said. “We’re good.”
“Zeke and Gabe are heading out to Haven with me and Viv,” Jace added. “The moms keep begging for a chance to weigh in on the dress.”
Trevor shook his head. “Women.” He chin-lifted toward Zeke. “You wanna tie the knot someplace outside of Texas, the offer stands. You takin’ Gabe out in my Cessna might have made her giggle, but my G6 will make her purr.”
“Got a rock on her finger, brother. Stop trying to sweet-talk my woman.”
Winking at Gabe as he rounded the table, he squeezed Viv’s shoulder. “Thought you knew. The ones you can’t have are the best ones to chase.”
Not that he’d ever chased a woman. Between his genes and long-term relationships being a pipe dream too dangerous to pursue, there’d never been a need. He ambled through the room, eyeballing the handsy bastard who’d tried to corral Natalie. Which was stupid, really. She’d handled it fine, and his manager, Ivan, wouldn’t have tolerated it for more than a nanosecond, but for some reason it pissed him off.
Inside the main room, the gleaming honey-stained bar he’d flown in from Dublin was packed with everything from Goths to post-workday businessmen. The rock and movie memorabilia he’d paid a small fortune for hung from every wall, but gave the rest of the old-world pub décor a trendy edge. Two of the other waitresses were stationed at tables near the front but Natalie was nowhere in sight.
He sidled up to Vicky behind the bar. “Where’s Natalie?”
Frowning, his top-notch bartender scanned the room and tucked her bottle opener in her back pocket.
A dark-headed guy with full sleeves and gauge earrings big enough to shoot a .44 through swiveled from his wingman. “You lookin’ for the perky little waitress with the powerhouse stride?”
Great. Another one to keep an eye on. “Yep, that’s the one.”
The guy nodded toward the employee entrance at the back of the bar. “She ducked out there a few minutes ago.”
So much for Zeke’s time-checking theory. As rules went, Trevor didn’t spout a long list, and he damned sure couldn’t go bending the ones he had no matter how efficient an employee was. “Appreciate it.”
The crowd’s rumble and the bass from some new alternative rock song on the sound system faded as he strolled down the back hall. A woman leaned against the far wall with arms crossed waiting on whoever was hogging the bathroom, but otherwise the space was deserted. Maybe Jace was right and he was jumping to conclusions. Although, how the hell he could misread her palming that damned device all night he couldn’t fathom.
Slowly, he eased the door latch open. The employee parking lot’s lights buzzed overhead and the thick humidity walloped hard before he’d so much as put one boot heel on the asphalt.
Natalie’s voice cut from the shadows on the far side of the lot. “I know you’re scared, but you can’t call the cops.”
Stepping free of the door, Trevor found her perched on one of the more private picnic table benches his employees used for smoke breaks. Her back was to the entrance and she fisted a good chunk of her mink-colored hair on top of her head like she might pull it out in another half a second.
Oddly, seeing her so tense knocked his plans for a come-to-Jesus talk down a notch and made him want to find out what was wrong and fix it instead.
“Mom, if you call the cops, he’s just going to haul us back to court. I can’t afford any more attorney fees.” She paused and sat up straighter, letting her dark hair fall free around her shoulders. “I know he’s the one not following the rules, but it won’t matter with the kind of friends he’s got. Just keep the lights off, keep Levi quiet, and don’t answer. I’ll be home after the bar closes.”
His instincts bristled, the potent fear in her voice and the fact that anyone would have to hide in their own home putting all his senses on high alert.
She glanced over her shoulder, and her eyes popped wide. Her voice dropped, but not enough to cover her words. “I gotta go, Mom. You’ll be fine. Wyatt’s an idiot, but not enough to break down the door.”
Break the door down? Who was this asshole and, more importantly, what the fuck was he doing harassing Natalie?
She clicked off the phone and stood, slipping the device in her back pocket with the same practiced ease she’d shown all night.
Trevor forced his fingers to release their death grip and let the door swing shut. “There a problem?”
“Nope. All good.” Striding his direction, she pasted a fake smile on her face and motioned toward the picnic tables. “Just needed a quick break to settle something at home.”
A lie. Not one her body language indicated she was comfortable giving him, but a lie all the same. Keeping his place in front of the door, he crossed his arms and cocked his head. There were two ways his could play this—call her on what he’d overheard, or see if she’d pony up the info on her own. Considering he hated anyone poking into his own business, he opted for door number two. “Pretty sure we talked about my policy on phones during work.”
She stopped just out of reach and squared her shoulders. Despite her proud stance, her gaze didn’t quite reach his, focusing on his collarbone instead. “Yes, sir.”
“So are you going to tell me why you’d risk your new job breaking that policy?”
“I’d rather not.” The same gumption she’d shown the day she’d interviewed fired bright behind her eyes, but there was something else there tonight. A worry she couldn’t quite hide beneath her sass.
He didn’t know this woman. Not really. Not her backstory or what was going on at home, but everything in him fought to scoop her up, tuck her and whoever was on the phone someplace safe and make her spill everything so he could fix whatever was wrong. Though, given the stubborn look on her face right now, that probably wasn’t the most efficient path forward. Better to tackle it from a more professional angle to start. “Not gonna lie to you, Nat. You’re good with the customers. Reliable. Fast. Friendly. I have a hard time finding one of those qualities in a waitress, let alone all three. I’d rather not have to cast my net for a replacement, but you’re not giving me much help.”
She swallowed big and pinched her lips together like it was all she could do not to rip him a new one. “My son’s seven, and my mom’s scared to death of my ex. I keep my phone with me so they can reach me if they need to. I promise you, I’m not letting it interfere with my service, but if that’s a deal breaker for you, then I understand. I can either finish out the night, or cut bait now.”
Oh, yeah. Total attitude and sass wrapped up with the kind of lingo he could appreciate. And she’d given him exactly the in he’d needed to dig deeper. “Your mom got a reason to be afraid of this guy?”
She held her tongue, but her face blanched a shade or two.
“Not asking for you to tell me the sordid details,” Trevor said. Though calling Knox and getting every scrap available had shot to the top of his to-do list about three minutes ago. “I’m asking so I can gauge if I’m gonna have a rowdy asshole show up at my bar. I also need to know if this is going to be something you juggle on a daily basis.”
She huffed out a tired exhale and her shoulders slumped. “I’d say her fears aren’t unfounded, but it’s not something you’d have to deal with here. Wyatt saves his tantrums for smaller audiences.”
Reflexes born at a young age flared hard and fast. Trevor knew exactly the type of tantrum she meant. Had lived under his father’s tyrannical fists for seven years before fate and his mother’s death had turned his whole world upside down. “Get your stuff and get home.”
“You’re firing me?”
“No, I’m telling you to quit jacking around here and get home to your son.” He forced himself to take a solid breath and unclench his fists. “From here on, if you need to keep the phone with you, that’s fine, but use it in private. I don’t need other employees claiming I play favorites. And next time, don’t try to handle two issues at once. Tell me or whoever’s managing the club you’ve got an issue then get your butt home and deal with it right.”
For the first time since he’d met her, the careful mask she kept in place slipped. A stunning smile replaced it, so beautiful and potent it whispered through him with an almost divine absolution.
“Thank you,” she said. It was barely more than a whisper, but thick with enough emotion it almost knocked him over. She reached out as though to touch his arm, but tucked her elbow back against her side just as fast. “I promise. You won’t regret this.”
Before he could respond, she slipped around him, yanked opened the door, and hurried down the dark hall.
He caught the door in one hand before it could close and stared after her, dangerous ideas he had zero intent of halting taking root in his head. Not only was making a concession for Natalie where phones were concerned a foregone conclusion, her ex had just stepped front and center into Trevor’s crosshairs.