“Gritty, raw, and a side dose of sweet lovin’. Rough & Tumble by Rhenna Morgan will warm your heart and melt your panties.” —#1 New York Times bestselling author Audrey Carlan (Calendar Girl series)
A self-made man with his fingers in a variety of successful businesses, Jace Kennedy lives for the challenge. From the start, he sees Vivienne Moore’s hidden wild side and knows she’s his perfect match, if only he can break it free. Earning this woman’s trust is a task unlike any he’s faced so far, but Jace didn’t get where he is by giving up.
Vivienne’s determined to ditch the rough lifestyle she grew up in, even if that means hiding her true self behind a bland socialite veneer. Dragging her party-hound sister out of a club was not how she wanted to ring in the New Year, but Viv knows the drill. Get in, get her sister and get back to the safe, stable life she’s built for herself as fast as humanly possible. But Viv’s plans are derailed when she meets the club’s seriously sexy owner.
Jace is everything Vivienne swore she never wanted, but the more time she spends with him, the more she starts to see that he loves just as fiercely as he fights. He can walk society’s walk and talk society’s talk, but when he wants something, he finds a way to get it. He’s proud of who he is and where he came from, and he’ll be damned if he lets Vivienne go before showing her the safest place of all is in his arms.
Nothing like a New Year’s Eve drunk-sister-search-and-rescue to top off a chaos-laden twelve-hour workday. Vivienne dialed Shinedown’s newest release from full blast to almost nothing and whipped her Honda hybrid into a pay-by-the-hour lot in the heart of Dallas’s Deep Ellum. Five freaking weekends in a row Callie had pulled this crap, with way too many random SOS calls before her current streak.
At least this place was in a decent part of town. Across the street, men and women milled outside a new bar styled like an old-fashioned pub called The Den, with patrons dressed in everything from T-shirts and faded jeans, to leather riding gear and motorcycle boots. Not one of them looked like they were calling the party quits anytime soon.
Viv tucked her purse beneath the seat, stashed her key fob in her pocket, and strode into the humid January night. Her knockoff Jimmy Choos clicked against the aged blacktop, and cool fog misted her cheeks.
Off to one side, an appreciative whistle sounded between low, masculine voices.
She kept her head down, hustled through the dark double doors and into a cramped, black-walled foyer. A crazy-big bouncer with mocha skin and dreads leaned against the doorjamb between her and the main bar, his attention centered on a stunning brunette in a soft pink wifebeater, jeans, and stilettos.
The doors behind her clanged shut.
Pushing to full height, the bouncer warily scanned Viv head to toe. Hard to blame the guy. Outside of health inspectors and liquor licensing agents, they probably didn’t get many suits in here, and she’d bet none of them showed in silk shirts.
“ID,” he said.
“I’m not here to stay. I just need to find someone.”
He smirked and crossed his arms. “Can’t break the rules, momma. No ID, no party.”
“I don’t want a party, I want to pick up my sister and then I’m out. She said she’d be up front. About my height, light brown, curly hair and three sheets to the wind?”
“You must mean Callie,” the brunette said. “She was up here about an hour ago mumbling something about sissy, so I’m guessing you’re her.” She leaned into Scary Bouncer Dude’s formidable chest, grinned up at him, and stroked his biceps with an almost absentminded reverence. “May as well let her in. If you don’t, Trev will spend closing time hearing his waitresses bitch about cleaning up puke.”
Too bad Viv didn’t have someone to bitch to about getting puke detail. Callie sure as heck never listened.
Bouncer dude stared Viv down and slid his mammoth hand far enough south he palmed the brunette’s ass. He jerked his head toward the room beyond the opening. “Make it quick. You might be old enough, but the cops have been in three times tonight chomping to bust our balls on any write-up they can find.”
Finally, something in her night that didn’t require extra time and trouble. Though if she’d been smart, she’d have grabbed her ID before she came in.
“Smart move, chief.” The woman tagged him with a fast but none-too-innocent kiss, winked, and motioned for Viv to follow. “Come on. I’ll show you where she is.”
An even better break. The last search and rescue had taken over thirty minutes in a techno dance bar. She’d finally found Callie passed out under a set of stairs not far from the main speakers, but the ringing in Viv’s ears had lasted for days. At least this time she’d have a tour guide and an extra pair of hands.
The place was as eclectic on the inside as it was out. Rock and movie collectibles hung on exposed brick walls and made the place look like it’d been around for years even though it reeked of new. Every table was packed. Waitresses navigated overflowing trays between the bustling crowd, and Five Finger Death Punch vibrated loud enough to make conversation a challenge.
The brunette smiled and semi-yelled over one shoulder, never breaking her hip-slinging stride. “Nice turnout for an opening week, yeah?”
Well, that explained the new smell. “I don’t do crowds.” At least not this kind. Signing her dad’s Do Not Resuscitate after a barroom brawl had pretty much cured her of smoky, dark and wild. “It looks like a great place though.”
The woman paused where the bar opened to a whole different area and scanned Viv’s outfit. “From the looks of things, you could use a crowd to loosen up.” She shrugged and motioned toward the rear of the room. “Corner booth. Last I saw your girl she was propped up between two airheads almost as hammered as she was. And don’t mind Ivan. The cops are only hounding the owner, not the customers. My name’s Lily if you need anything.” And then she was gone, sauntering off to a pack of women whooping it up at the opposite end of the club.
So much for an extra set of hands. At least this part of the bar was less crowded, scattered sitting areas with every kind of mismatched chair and sofa you could think of making it a whole lot easier to case the place.
She wove her way across the stained black concrete floors toward the randomly decorated booths along the back. Overhead, high-end mini sparkle lights cast the room in a muted, sexy glow. Great for ambience, but horrid for picking drunk sisters out of a crowd. Still, Viv loved the look. She’d try the same thing in her own place if it wouldn’t ruin the tasteful uptown vibe in her new townhouse. Funky might be fun, but it wouldn’t help with resale.
Laughter and a choking cloud of smoke mushroomed out from the corner booth.
The instant Viv reached the table, the chatter died. Three guys, two girls and the stench of Acapulco Red—but no sister. “You guys see Callie?”
A lanky man with messy curly blond hair eyed her beneath thirty-pound eyelids and grinned, not even bothering to hide the still smoldering joint. “’Sup.”
The redhead cozied next to him smacked him on the shoulder and glowered. “She’s after Callie, Mac. Not stopping in for a late-night chat.” She reached across the table and handed Viv an unpaid bar tab. “She headed to the bathroom about ten minutes ago, but be sure you take this with you. She stuck me with the bill last night.”
Seventy-eight bucks. A light night for New Year’s Eve, which was a damn good thing considering Viv’s bank balance. She tucked the tab in her pocket. “Which way to the bathroom?”
The girl pointed toward a dark corridor. “Down that hall and on your left.”
Viv strode that direction, not bothering with any follow-up niceties. Odds were good they wouldn’t remember her in the morning, let alone five minutes from now.
Inside the hallway, the steady drone of music and laughter plunged to background noise. Two scowling women pranced past her headed back into the bar. One glanced over her shoulder and shook her head at Viv. “May as well head to the one up front. Someone’s in that one and isn’t coming out anytime soon from the sound of things.”
Well, shit. This was going to be fun. She wiggled the knob. “Callie?”
God, she hoped it was her sister in there. Knowing her luck, she was interrupting a New Year’s booty call. Although, if that were the case, they were doing it wrong because it was way too quiet. She tried the knob again and knocked on the door. “Callie, it’s Viv. Open up.”
Still no answer.
Oh, to hell with it. She banged on the door and gave it the good old pissed-off-sister yell. “Callie, for the love of God, open the damned door! I want to go home.”
A not so promising groan sounded from inside a second before the door marked Office at her right swung wide. A tall Adonis in jeans and a club T-shirt emblazoned with The Den’s edgy logo blocked the doorway, his sky blue eyes alert in a way that shouldn’t be possible past 1:00 a.m.
Two men filled the space behind him, one shirtless with arms braced on the top of a desk, and another leaning close, studying the shirtless guy’s shoulder. No wait, he wasn’t studying it, he was stitching it, which explained the seriously bloody shirt on the floor.
“Got more bathrooms up front. No need to break down the damned door.” Adonis Man ambled toward her, zigzagging his attention between her and the bathroom. “There a problem?”
Dear God in heaven, now that the Adonis had moved out of the way, the shirtless guy was on full, mouthwatering display, and he was every book boyfriend and indecent fantasy rolled up into one. A wrestler’s body, not too big and not too lean, but one hundred percent solid. A huge tattoo covered his back, a gnarled and aged tree with a compass worked into the gothic design. And his ass. Oh hell, that ass was worth every torturous hour in front of her tonight. The only thing better than seeing it in seriously faded Levi’s would be seeing it naked.
“Hey,” Adonis said. “You gonna ogle my brother all night, or tell me why you’re banging down one of my doors?”
They were brothers? No way. Adonis was all…well, Adonis. The other guy was tall, dark and dirty.
Fantasy Man peered over his injured shoulder. Shrewd, almost angry eyes lasered on her, just as dark as his near-black hair. A chunk of the inky locks had escaped his ponytail and fell over his forehead. His closely cropped beard gave him a sinister and deadly edge that probably kept most people at a distance, but his lips could lull half the women in Texas through hell if it meant they’d get a taste.
Viv shook her head and coughed while her mind clambered its way up from Smuttville. “Um…” Her heart thrummed to the point she thought her head would float off her shoulders, and her tongue was so dry it wouldn’t work right. “I think my sister’s passed out in there. I just want to get her home.”
Adonis knocked on the door and gave the knob a much firmer twist than Viv had. “Zeke, toss me the keys off the desk.”
Before either of the men could move, the lock on the door popped and the door creaked open a few inches. “Vivie?” Callie’s mascara-streaked face flashed a second before the door slipped shut again.
Months of training kicked in and Viv lurched forward, easing open the door and slipping inside. “I’ve got it now. Give me a minute to get her cleaned up and gather her stuff.”
Adonis blocked the door with his foot. The black, fancy cowboy boots probably cost more than a month’s mortgage payment, which seemed a shame considering it didn’t look like she’d be able to pay her next one. “You sure you don’t need help?”
“Nope.” She snatched a few towels out of the dispenser and wetted them, keeping one eye on Callie where she semi-dozed against the wall. “We’ve done this before. I just need a few minutes and a clear path.”
“All right. My name’s Trevor if you need me. You know where we are if you change your mind.” He eased his foot away, grinned and shook his head.
“Oh!” Viv caught the door before it could close all the way and pulled the bar tab out of her pocket. “My sister ran up a tab. Could you hold this at the bar for me and let me pay it after I get her out to the car? I need to grab my purse first.”
He backtracked, eyeballed Callie behind her, and crumpled the receipt. “I’d say you’ve already covered tonight.” He turned for the office. “We’ll call it even.”
Fantasy Man was still locked in place and glaring over one shoulder, the power behind his gaze as potent as the crackle and hum after a nearby lightning strike.
She ducked back into the bathroom and locked the door, her heart jackrabbiting right back up where it had been the first time he’d looked at her. She seriously needed to get a grip on her taste in men. Suits and education were a much safer choice. Manners and meaningful conversation. Not bloody T-shirts, smoky bars and panty-melting grins.
Snatching Callie’s purse off the counter, she let out a serrated breath, shook out the wadded wet towel, and started wiping the black streaks off her sister’s cheek. A man like him wouldn’t be interested in her anyway. At least, not the new and improved her. And the odds of them running into each other again in a city like Dallas were slim to none, so she may as well wrangle up her naughty thoughts and keep them in perspective.
On the bright side, she didn’t have to worry about the tab. Plus, she had a fresh new imaginary star for her next late-night rendezvous with BOB.
* * *
Damn if this hadn’t been the most problematic New Year’s Eve in history. It wasn’t Jace’s first knife wound, but getting it while pulling apart two high-powered, hotheaded drug dealers promised future complications he didn’t need. Add to that, two more customers arrested at his own club, Crossroads, in less than three days, and nonstop visits from the cops at The Den, and his New Year wasn’t exactly top-notch.
Thank God his brother Zeke wasn’t working trauma tonight or he’d have had to have Trev stitch him up. That motherfucker would’ve hacked the shit out of his tat.
“You ’bout done?” Jace said.
Zeke layered one last strip of tape in place and tossed the roll to the desk. “I am now.”
“Took you long enough.” Jace straightened up, tucked the toothpick he’d had pinched between his fingers into his mouth and rolled his shoulder. It was tight and throbbing like a son of a bitch, but not bad enough to keep him from day-to-day shit—assuming he didn’t have any more drug dealer run-ins.
“I don’t know. Our straitlaced partygoer didn’t seem to mind me taking my time.” Zeke packed his supplies into one of the locked cabinets, the same triage kit they kept at every residence or business they owned. It might have been overkill, but it sure as hell beat emergency rooms and sketchy conversations with police. “Thought for a minute there the sweet little thing was going to combust.”
“Sweet little thing my ass.” Trevor dropped into his desk chair, propped his booted feet on the corner of his desk, and fisted the remote control for the security vids mounted on the wall. “I’d bet my new G6 that woman’s got a titanium backbone and a mind that would whip both your asses into knots.”
Jace snatched a fresh white club T-shirt from Trev’s grand opening inventory and yanked it over his head, the wound in his shoulder screaming the whole time. “Based on what? Her courtroom getup or her uptight hairdo?”
“Like I judge by what people wear. You know me better than that.” Trev punched a few buttons, paused long enough to eyeball the new bartender he’d just hired ringing in an order on the register, then dropped the remote on the desk. “You ask me, you’re the one judging. Which is kind of the pot calling the kettle black.”
The setback hit its mark, the Haven tags he wore weighting his neck a little heavier, a reminder of their brotherhood and the code they lived by.
It’s not where a man comes from, or what he wears, that matters. It’s what he does with his life that counts.
Twenty-seven years he and Axel had lived by that mantra, dragging themselves out of the trailer park and into a brotherhood nothing but death would breach.
“He’s right,” Zeke said. “You’re letting Paul’s campaign crawl up your ass and it’s knockin’ you off course.”
Damn, but he hated it when his own mantras got tossed back at him. More so when he deserved it. He let out an exhausted huff and dropped down on the leather couch facing the string of monitors. “Play it again.”
Trevor shook his head but navigated the menu on the center screen anyway.
“Not sure why you’re doing this to yourself, man.” Zeke pulled three Modelos out of the stainless minifridge under the wet bar and popped the tops faster than any bartender. God knew he’d gotten enough experience working as one through med school. “Paul’s a politician with a grudge, nothing else. Watching this again is just self-inflicted pain. Focus on the real problem.”
Jace took the beer Zeke offered as the ten o’clock news story flashed on the screen. The third-string reporter’s too-bright smile and pageant hairdo screamed of a woman with zero experience but eager for a shot at a seat behind the anchor desk.
“Dallas’s popular club, Crossroads, is in the news again this New Year’s Eve as two additional patrons were arrested on charges of drug possession with intent to distribute. Undercover police are withholding names at this time, but allege both are part of a ring lead by Hugo Moreno, a dealer notorious in many Northeast Texas counties for peddling some of the most dangerous products on the street.”
“She’s not wrong on that score.” Zeke plopped on the other end of the couch and motioned to the screen with his bottle. “The number of ODs coming in at Baylor and Methodist the last six months have been through the roof. The guys from DPD swear most are tied to some designer shit coming out of Moreno’s labs.”
Trevor leaned in and planted his elbows on the desk, eyes to Jace. “You think Otter’s going to hold out long enough to waylay Moreno?”
If Jace knew the answer to that one, he’d be a lot less jumpy and minus one slash to his shoulder. Pushing one pharmaceutical genius out of his club by strong-arming him with another was a risky move at best, but it sure as shit beat ousting Moreno on his own. “Otter’s a good man with a calm head on his shoulders and a strong team. If he says he’ll only let weed in the place and keep Hugo at bay, I’m gonna give him all the backing he needs. DPD’s sure as hell not going to help. Not the ones in Paul’s pockets, anyway.”
“Paul doesn’t have any pockets,” Trev said. “Only his daddy does.”
Right on cue, the camera cut to an interview with Paul Renner as reporters intercepted him leaving another political fundraiser.
“Councilman Renner, you’ve been very vocal in your run for U.S. Representative in supporting the Dallas Police Department’s efforts to crack down on drug crime, and have called out establishments such as Crossroads in midtown Dallas. Have you heard about the additional drug arrests there tonight, and do you have any comments?”
Renner frowned at the ground, a picture-perfect image of disappointment and concern. Like that dickhead hadn’t been trying to screw people since his first foray from the cradle.
“I continue to grow more concerned with establishments like those run by Jace Kennedy and his counterparts,” Renner said. “It seems they continually skirt justice and keep their seedy establishments open for business. It’s innocent citizens who end up paying the price, courted by heinous individuals peddling dangerous substances and amoral behavior. My primary goal, if elected to the House of Representatives, will be to promote legislation that makes it difficult for men like Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Moreno to escape justice.”
The toothpick between Jace’s teeth snapped in half. He tossed it to the coffee table in front of him and pulled another one of many stashed in the pocket of his jacket.
“It’s official, now.” Trevor raised his beer in salute and tipped his head. “You’re an amoral son of a bitch leading innocent citizens to ruin.”
Motion registered in one of the smaller security screens, the bathroom door outside Trevor’s office swinging open enough to let Little Miss and her seriously drunken sister ping-pong down the hallway. The two were about the same height, but you couldn’t have dressed two women more differently. Next to Little Miss, her sister was best suited for a biker bar, all tits, ass and wobbling heels. Not that she was bad to look at. She just lacked the natural, earthy grace of the sober one.
Damn it, he needed to pace. Or get laid. Just looking at the ass on Little Miss in tailored pants made him want to rut like a madman. Never mind the puzzle she presented. Trev wasn’t wrong—she had a shitload of backbone blazing through those doe-shaped eyes. The combination didn’t jive with her image. Nothing like a paradox to get his head spinning.
“Guess we found one way to get his head off Renner.” Zeke knocked back another gulp of his beer.
“What?” He back and forthed a glare between his brothers.
Trevor chuckled low and shifted the videos so Little Miss’s trek to the front of the bar sat center stage. “Zeke said the only thing you’ve done amoral was that freak show you put on with Kat and Darcy at last month’s barbecue.”
“Fuck you, Trev.”
“Fuck her, you mean,” Trev said. “No shame there, brother. You didn’t even see her up close. If you did, you sure as shit wouldn’t be sitting here rerunning sound bites of asshole Renner.”
“Hell, no,” Jace said. “A woman that uptight is the last thing I need. Or did you miss her casing not just Zeke patching up my shoulder, but the bloody shirt on the floor, too? You’ll be lucky if the cops don’t show from an anonymous tip called in.”
Little Miss and her sister stumbled into the front section of the bar, the sister’s arm curled around Little Miss’s neck in a way he’d bet would still hurt tomorrow morning.
Nope. Sweet hips, fiery eyes and a good dose of mystery or not, she was the last thing he needed right now.
Two men blocked Little Miss’s path.
The women stopped, and the drunk sister swayed enough it was a wonder she didn’t topple onto the table beside her.
One of the men palmed the back of Little Miss’s neck, and she jerked away.
Jace surged to his feet, grabbing his leather jacket off the table. “I’m headed to Haven. You hear more from Axel at Crossroads or get any more grief from the cops, let me know.”
Both men let out hardy guffaws and waved him off.
“Twenty bucks says our buttoned-up guest gets some help on the way out the door,” Trev said.
Zeke chimed in behind him. “Yeah, let us know if Sweet Cheeks tastes as good as she looks.”
Bastards. The sad thing was, Trev was about to score a twenty from Zeke, because Jace might not be willing to curl up with Little Miss, but he wasn’t watching men paw her either.