Zeke Dugan is not a man who walks the straight and narrow. He may have sworn an oath as a trauma doc, but he has zero problem leveraging his medical skills outside a hospital if it means giving his family an advantage. Blood before business. All that changes when shy Gabrielle stumbles into his life.
Mechanic Gabrielle Parker prefers the complexities of an engine over men. Her life wasn’t always quiet and well-ordered, but now that it is, she finds peace in the solitude. When a robbery in her neighborhood forces her out of her safe bubble, she never fathoms that a dangerous, cocky trauma doctor will fix more than her injuries.
Zeke doesn’t play by the rules but is exactly what Gabrielle needs in her life. He’ll show her the fierce and uncompromising protection that comes from belonging to a man like him. No one will hurt his woman, even if it means putting the very men who saved his life at risk.
Friday nights were such an irony. With no social life, Gabrielle Parker could stay up as late as she wanted and sleep to obscene hours the next day, but there was never anything worth burning the midnight oil to watch. On the bright side, she’d logged a few more hours of overtime at the garage. Fixing clunker engines that should have been scrapped years ago might not compare to a hot date, but one more paycheck and that computer she’d been saving for was a done deal.
She dodged a nasty pothole on the dark country road and steered her custom ’71 Chevy C-10 truck into her tiny subdivision. God, she loved where she lived. Big yards, a beautiful lake not more than three hundred feet beyond her backyard, no fences, and down-to-earth people. Dallas and its suburbs might be caught up in everything new and flashy, but Elk Run clung to its sixties and seventies charm. In fact, it was the only neighborhood in Rockwall or around Lake Ray Hubbard that hadn’t sold out. There sure wasn’t any waterfront property left. In the past ten years, all the land around the lake had either been gobbled up by big conglomerates for their huge money-making enterprises, or fancy, schmancy neighborhoods lined with jaw-dropping McMansions.
Rounding the wide curve at the end of the one-street edition, her headlights swept her single-story, ranch-style home. The simple rectangle layout with its shallow, gray asphalt roof and buttery-yellow siding probably wouldn’t appeal to other people her age, but she wouldn’t trade it for anything. She could do without the empty driveway, though. Her brother’s missing car was no surprise. After all, Danny had a thriving social life, but in the two years since their dad had died and left them the house they grew up in, she still hadn’t gotten used to coming home without Pop’s car being in the third empty space.
She slammed the shifter into Park, killed the engine and snatched her purse off the bench seat. Maybe Danny being out on the town was a good thing. No older brother meant no one giving her grief over her movie selection. She could Pretty Woman it up all night and no one would be the wiser. Or maybe tonight she’d splurge and give Troy a go. Hard to say no to Brad Pitt in his heyday.
Two steps past the gleaming indigo hood of her truck, she stopped dead in her tracks. Mrs. Wallaby’s porch light wasn’t on. She could have sworn she’d left it on this morning when she fed her vacationing neighbor’s cat, but then she’d also been running thirty minutes late for work and hadn’t had her first cup of coffee. With that combination, she was lucky she’d made it to the garage with jeans on.
Keys jingling in the otherwise quiet spring night, Gabe cut across the three-quarter-acre lot to her neighbor’s house. Now was as good of a time as any to pick up the mail and make sure Astrid had enough to eat. The sky was deep sapphire velvet with not one cloud to mar it. People in the city didn’t have a clue what they were missing on a night like this. Fancy skylines and close conveniences might be nice every now and then, but no way would she trade it for the starry goodness overhead.
She thumbed through Mrs. Wallaby’s mail on her way to the front stoop, sorting out the weekend sale circulars and bills. Unlocking and opening the front door, she flipped the hallway light on, let the storm door swing shut behind her, and ambled through the short entry.
She’d made it halfway through the living room before the darkness registered. In the corner, the lamp she definitely remembered flipping on before she’d left this morning sat dark on the end table next to the couch. And where the heck was Astrid? The only time she no-showed at mealtime was when strangers came to visit.
The fine hairs on the back of her neck and arms lifted and a shudder trickled down her spine. The house was pure quiet. No breeze, no settling creaks, or humming from the air conditioner. Just dark. Eerie, too-quiet dark.
She dropped the mail on the coffee table and slid her phone out of her jeans pocket. No reason to freak out. Mrs. Wallaby probably just sent one of her grandkids out to check on the house and they’d accidentally trapped Astrid in a bedroom. It sure wouldn’t be the first time the skitzy cat had found herself in such a bind.
Punching the main button on her phone for a quick check-in with her neighbor, the home screen flashed a blinding white. Before she could blink her eyes back into focus, quick-moving, heavy footsteps pounded from the hallway behind her and a bulky, shadowed form lumbered toward where she stood. For one freeze-frame moment, his remarkable gaze locked onto hers, spotlighted by the phone’s soft glow. Before she could dodge out of the way, he shoved her hard to one side. Her boot snagged on the coffee table, and the right side of her torso slammed crosswise against the marble top.
Son of a freaking gun. That hurt.
The screen door slammed, and the rumbling echo of her crash course with Mrs. Wallaby’s anvil-sturdy furniture still resonated through the house, but no more footsteps. And thank God for that, because her side felt like it had gone head-to-head with an engine block. Rather like a stubbed toe times ten thousand while some unseen force squeezed her lungs in a vise grip.
She pushed to her back and yelped into the darkness. Okay, so moving wasn’t a super bright idea. Neither was breathing. But staying here was even higher on the stupid scale. Yeah, the house was quiet now, but only an idiot hung around in the dark after a run-in with a thug, and she was definitely not an idiot.
Bracing her ribs with one arm, she sucked in a very limited breath and forced herself upright. An ugly grunt croaked up the back of her throat and a cold sweat broke out across her forehead and neck. For about five seconds, she wasn’t even sure staying vertical was a maintainable goal. If she couldn’t see with her own eyes that Mrs. Wallaby’s table was still whole and hearty post-tumble, she’d have sworn a sliver of the marble had broken off and buried itself between her ribs.
She shook her head and clamped tighter to her phone. She staggered to the sliding glass door that led to the backyard just in case the shady linebacker was still out front and flipped the lock. Putting her weight into opening the door, she tottered out into the night as fast as her protesting ribs would tolerate and dialed 911.
* * *
Two hours since Zeke Dugan had walked away from his last trauma case, and he still couldn’t unwind. After three twelve-hour emergency shifts in a row, his body might be on board with a direct trip home and a whole lot of shut eye, but his psyche was still jonesed up from blood, guts and gunshot wounds.
Punching the locks on his Z28, he strode to the private rear entrance of Trevor’s new bar, The Den. Not a snowball’s chance in hell he’d have brought his custom ’69 hot rod to Deep Ellum if he’d had to park it out front, but safe in the private back lot with Beckett’s security cameras overhead, only an idiot would mess with his baby.
The crowd’s low and happy rumble hit the second he pulled the door wide. Barely nine o’clock on a Friday night and the place was already packed, which went to prove that Jace and Axel weren’t the only two Haven brothers who could launch an entertainment venue. Any businessman who could draw the Deep Ellum crowd before eleven or midnight was a genius.
Zeke chin-lifted to the little brunette bartender he’d referred from his own days slogging drinks while he worked through med school. “Hey, Vicky. Guys busy?”
“Only if you call Trevor gloating over his full house with Jace and Axel busy.” She motioned to the adjacent room through the wide arch, never breaking stride on the order she was working. “They’re laying down roots in their usual booth. You want a Bohemia Weiss?”
“Yep. No hurry.”
She grinned. “You sure? You look like you need a shot of something with more punch.”
Oh, hell no. “You forget my Mr. Hyde side?”
Her smile died, and this time she nearly fumbled a shot glass. Of course she hadn’t forgotten. Zeke’s hair-trigger temper had intervened in the form of unforgiving fists and zero conscience when a bunch of frat boys thought it was a good idea to not take no for an answer where she was concerned. It was a wonder he hadn’t gone to jail. But then again, that was the night he’d met Jace and Axel. If it weren’t for them heading off the cops, he’d still be tending bar, but with a record, instead of living his dream as a trauma doc.
Her expression softened, understanding and grateful all at once. “I haven’t seen that side of you in years, but if it’s high-end Brazilian beer you want, then that’s what you’ll get.”
“Appreciate it.” He ambled to the opposite side of the bar, weaving through the forest of square tables and laughing patrons. Trev had wanted a place where people could hang out as regulars but with a trendy vibe. He’d absolutely nailed it. Rock music and movie memorabilia from the past forty years adorned exposed red brick and ivory mortar walls, but the bar along the back had literally been flown in from Kilkenny, Ireland. If a Hard Rock bar got it on with an Old-World Irish pub, The Den would be their out-of-control offspring.
Crossing into the second room, the whole atmosphere shifted. Tiny white lights like the ones that went on Christmas trees were strategically placed on the ceiling so they didn’t look strategically placed, and every seating area had its own style. Sixties to ultramodern, tables or booths, it didn’t matter. Every spot gave a nod to a different trend.
Not surprisingly, more of the women hung out in this room, which was also why the brotherhood had its own reserved spot in the back. No one sat there but brothers or those they’d claimed for their own. Ever.
Jace, Axel and Trevor all marked his arrival about three steps into the room and offered everything from a raised beer to shit-eating grins in the way of greeting. The tension he’d been carrying around all night seeped out of him. This was what he needed. If anyone could help him get to the bottom of whatever was eating him, it was his brothers.
He jogged up the three steps to the raised, semienclosed space and rounded the table for a chair with primo viewing. “No Viv tonight?” he said to Jace.
Jace finished off his Scotch and slid the empty out where their waitress could see he needed a fresh one. “Got a gig she’s working tonight. Some of Trev’s old buddies.”
Axel snickered. “Not thinkin’ managing a male dance review falls under your new wife’s definition of hardship.”
“Whoa,” Zeke said to Trevor. “Been a while since you’ve been in touch with your old crew.” In fact, Trev studiously avoided all reminders of his brief stint shucking clothes for drooling women.
Trevor raised his beer and eyeballed Jace over the rim. “I’m actually surprised Jace didn’t put up a fuss when I told Viv what the guys needed. They might not go full monty onstage, but backstage it’s a damned free-for-all.”
Jace stretched one arm along the back of the vacant chair next to him and smirked. “So long as they don’t touch and I’m the one burning off the sexual frustration after, I don’t care if they drop trou the second she walks in the back door. Besides, Viv worked up is a thing of beauty.”
“Ach, Christ,” Axel said. “There he goes again. Rubbin’ his good fortune in everyone’s face.”
Their waitress sauntered up the steps, hips swinging and long, uber–platinum blonde hair hanging loose to her shoulders. The impact would have been a knockout if the smile on her face didn’t feel so calculated. “Vicky sent your refreshes. Scotch for Axel and Jace, Bud for Trevor, and Bohemia Weiss for Zeke.”
Impressive. Zeke didn’t recognize the woman so she had to be fairly new. Either Vicky had prepped her good before sending her in with refreshes, or she was a woman with drive. The question was whether the drive was healthy ambition or geared toward snagging a sugar daddy.
Trevor finished off his beer and slid it to the waitress. “Thanks, Lannie. Don’t worry about us for a while. If we need you, we’ll flag you down.”
So she was after a sugar daddy. Too bad. Good help willing to learn and grow in a place like this would be a godsend to Trevor with all his success.
“You sure?” she said. “I don’t mind checking back.”
“We’re good, darlin’.” Pure calm, cool Trevor. With the life he’d been born into, the guy made it a point never to lose his head for fear of leveling justice via his fists.
Disappointment penetrated those vibrant, but all too worldly green eyes of hers a second before she spun and sashayed down the steps.
“She’s a persistent lass,” Axel said.
Trev pushed back on the hind legs of his chair and rested the butt of his beer bottle on his thigh. “A little too much for my taste. Never seen a woman scope out and target customers with big cash to spend faster than Lannie.”
“You sure she’s not a plant?” Jace said. “Never know who might be out for info.”
Trevor shrugged and took a swig of his beer. “Knox ran a check. Wouldn’t hurt to have him take another go, though.”
“Where the hell are he and Beckett anyway?” Zeke said. “I thought they were coming out tonight?”
“Knox is knee-deep in some hacking case. Beckett had a last-minute call from some socialite out in Fort Worth in need of a security detail,” Jace said.
Axel snickered and sipped his Scotch. “Bloody bastard never could say no to a pretty face.”
“More like a pretty paycheck,” Trevor said. “Beck said she’s got good long-term client potential with low risk.”
“Damn. I wanted to hear how Danny was doing with Beckett’s crew.” Zeke had been the one to introduce Danny Parker to the brothers almost two years ago. If things kept going the way they were, he was all but one vote away from being the next addition to the family.
“Not a bad word to be heard,” Axel said. “Beckett says the man’s taken to security and protection like an adolescent boy to Playboy.”
Not surprising. Danny’s future had damned near gone to hell in a handbasket his senior year in college, breaking into high-end homes and stealing what he needed for a blossoming drug habit. According to Danny, it was his dad and a serious come-to-Jesus one-on-one that had knocked some sense into the young kid. “Knox ever finish the deeper dive on Danny’s background?”
“Not much more than what we uncovered when you first brought him in,” Axel said. “Always worked at the same body shop. No major changes in relationships. His mom’s still stacking up minor drug offenses, though how the hell she’s dodging them I’ll never figure out.”
“She a looker?” Trevor asked.
“Haven’t seen a picture, but Knox has,” Jace said. “Said she doesn’t look a thing like Danny, but probably held her own about twenty years ago.”
Zeke turned his bottle on the tabletop, widening the circle of condensation around it. “She going to be a problem?”
“Don’t think so,” Jace said. “Knox found trails where Danny’s given her money, but no evidence it’s more than him making sure she keeps her distance. From what we can tell, there is absolutely no love lost between mom and the rest of the clan.”
“He’s got a sister, right?” Trevor said.
Jace nodded. “Yep. Gabrielle.”
“Gabe.” All heads shifted to Zeke. “He calls her Gabe. Says all the guys do.”
“You met the lass?”
Zeke shook his head. “No. Been by there a few times and have seen her truck out in the drive, but she’s always locked up in the bedroom when I’m there. Got a sweet ride. Another one of Danny’s custom jobs, a ’71 Chevy C-10 with a highboy conversion.”
“A woman with a custom truck.” Trevor shook his head and knocked back more of his beer.
“Not surprising really, if you think about it,” Zeke said. “She grew up with men. Danny said their dad kicked her mom out when Gabe was little. Add to that, she works with men all day as a mechanic. Danny says she’s a really good one, too.”
Jace planted an elbow on the table and ran his thumb through the beard along his jawline. “Well, she must spend a lot of time there, because she hasn’t got much of a social life. Knox said she didn’t have one damned social media account active. No records. No tickets. Hell, all he could find in the way of pictures was her driver’s license. For a twenty-four-year-old in today’s world, she’s an anomaly.”
“Any idea how we find out more about her?” Zeke said.
Trevor tipped his head to the wide arch that fed in from the main room. “We could just ask him.”
Sure enough, Danny ambled into the room hand in hand with a tiny little brunette with supershort hair and a biker vibe. His customary wool skully was in place, this one navy blue instead of his usual gray or black. His black hair hung way past his shoulders. Blended with his dark skin, most people chalked him up as Native American on first glance, but given what Danny had shared about his dad, Zeke guessed his ancestry ran closer to India.
“I don’t know.” Zeke tapped the side of his beer with his thumb. “Any time Gabe’s come up in conversation, he’s gotten tight-lipped. I get the feeling he’s sensitive where she’s concerned.”
“Protective.” Axel twisted enough to get a better view of Danny, now introducing himself to his lady’s friends. “Not a bad characteristic in my book.”
As if he felt the four sets of eyes on him, Danny turned and locked gazes with the rest of them.
Jace waved him over.
Danny gawked, obviously surprised by the summons. Considering no one but brothers, Viv or the moms ever sat at their table, the shock was understandable. Even the women around Danny seemed a bit stunned.
Still, he didn’t hesitate. If Jace’s invite made him uneasy, he didn’t show it, making his way through the casual sitting areas like he traversed the path every day.
Before he hit the top stair, Zeke stood and held out his hand. “Hey, man. Didn’t expect to see you here tonight.”
Danny clasped his outstretched palm. “Didn’t exactly plan on it, but…” He motioned over his shoulder where the brunette still waited with her friends. “Sometimes you go where goodness leads, yeah?”
He shook hands with the guys and took a chair with his back facing the crowd. Not a bad move considering how many curious eyes were pinned on him. Trevor dove in first, making small talk and asking about Danny’s gigs with Beckett.
Axel leaned in and rested his forearm on the table. “You thinkin’ Beck’s line of work is something you might be interested in long-term? Or are you more interested in building your custom work?”
Danny’s eyes widened. “Hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Can’t really pull custom work alone. Not without a bigger pipeline.”
“If Zeke’s ride is any indication, you got a serious gift.” Jace dipped his chin. “If it’s something you enjoy doing, then you should do it.”
A ringtone sounded and Danny grimaced. He slid his phone out of his back pocket, checked the home screen, and frowned. For about two seconds, it looked like he’d answer it, but he sent the call to voice mail instead and sat the phone face up on the table. “Sorry.”
Before anyone could answer, the phone lit up again.
“This ain’t a job interview,” Jace said. “You need to take the call, take it. That seat won’t combust while you’re gone.”
Danny picked up the phone, scanned the men at the table, and stood. “Yeah, it’s my sister. Give me a minute.”
As soon as he hit the bottom step, Jace mirrored Axel opposite him and crossed his arms on the table. His gravelly voice was only loud enough those at the table could hear. “Well, that could prove a timely opening.”
“Timely, or altogether wrong.” Zeke jerked his head to where Danny was standing not fifteen feet away. Danny’s stare was hard and locked on some distant spot against the far wall, one hand planted on his hip and tension radiating off him hotter than a late-August afternoon in Texas. “Whatever she wants, it doesn’t look good.”
Zeke had no more finished his sentence then Danny hustled back up to the table. “Hey, guys. I hate to do this, but—”
“There a problem?” Jace said.
“You could say that. My sister’s hurt. Had some asshole tackle her while she was checking on a neighbor’s house.”
The buzz Zeke had fought to unplug since he’d walked out of Baylor’s level-one trauma center ratcheted back into top gear. “Hurt how?”
Danny shook his head. “I don’t know. Not bad enough she couldn’t call me herself, but bad enough I could hear paramedics in the background givin’ her shit for not taking treatment.”
“It’s bad enough she called paramedics?” Zeke said.
“Not her. The cops. Sounds like she walked in on a break-in next door.” He met each man’s eyes one at a time, but did it with an urgency that said he’d put his sister’s needs before his own without a backward glance. “I gotta go.”
Zeke stood. “We’ll take my car. I got my stuff in the back.”
“Man, I can’t ask you to do that. It’s all the way out in Rockwall.”
Rounding the table, Zeke slapped Danny on the back. “I know where you live. My ride was practically reborn in your garage, remember?”
“Ah, the legendary birthing place of badass hot rods and our fearless doc in action.” Axel stood and chin-lifted to Jace. “This I gotta see. You in?”
Jace threw back the rest of his Scotch, plunked the tumbler on the table, and followed his lead. “I hear Rockwall’s a happening place on the weekends. Can’t miss this.”
Trevor grinned and rose slow from his chair. “Have a feeling I’m gonna regret missing this, but I got a business to run. Y’all have fun.”
Danny stood rooted in place, his gaze shuttling between the three of them.
Axel motioned him down the stairs. “Your sister needs you, and we’re following you two. Get a move on.”
God, the look on Danny’s face was priceless, the lingering worry for his sister mingled with the disbelief he had not one, but three men at his back when he needed it. Zeke slapped him on the shoulder and jerked his head toward the back parking lot. “You heard the man. Let’s do this.”