As a member of the elite Hostile Operations Team, Jake “Harley” Ryan expected that deadly assignments were a part of the deal. What he didn’t expect was to be sent on a suicide mission.
There were three men in the room besides him. Colonel John Mendez, the bad ass HOT Commander; Lieutenant Colonel Alex Bishop, the quieter but no less lethal Deputy Commander; and Declan MacKenzie, the legendary founder and leader of MacKenzie Security, a firm with government contracts and operatives around the world. That a private contractor was here in the HOT command center didn’t surprise him. That a private contractor was here to request his help did.
“You want me to go back to Georgia and pretend the last seven years didn’t happen? Just waltz up to the clubhouse and act like nothing’s changed?” He cocked his head as he stared at the three men. “What makes you think the Brothers will take me back? It’s more likely they’ll kill me on sight.”
Declan MacKenzie exchanged a look with Mendez. Then he shoved himself off the table he’d been leaning against and reached for a folder. He took out a sheet of paper and handed it to Jake.
“They might kill you, sure,” Declan said. “But I think you’re smart enough not to let that happen. And the colonel here is smart enough to make sure you get sent home under less than honorable circumstances so everything looks legit. Play your cards right and they’ll take you back.”
Jake glanced at the paper in his hand—and his gut twisted. Judge Harold Mason, aged sixty-four, widely believed to be on the short list for a Supreme Court seat, lay in a coma in an Atlanta hospital after a single car crash. His wife had died. There was a picture of the accident scene. It wasn’t pretty.
“That’s the judge who offered you a choice, right?” Declan asked. “Prison or the military?”
“Yeah.” It was more complicated than that, though. Judge Mason was responsible for who Jake had become—and who he hadn’t become. Jake had been young and angry when he’d faced the judge. Hell, he’d even been stupid—but his court-appointed attorney had not. Jake had barely been eighteen, and he’d figured going down with the Brothers of Sin was simply a rite of passage. He was still a recruit at that point, but he’d have done anything to belong to that group of badasses and earn the right to be a full-fledged Brother.
His attorney, along with the judge, had convinced him otherwise—Jake still didn’t quite know how—and here he was. An elite soldier. The best of the best. A man who could face overwhelming odds and win every time. Who stared death in the face and fucking laughed at it.
“He’s still in danger,” Declan said. “Unless we can get Brandon Cox and the Brothers on murder charges for Mrs. Mason and attempted charges for the judge.”
Jake set the paper down. “Look, I’d do anything for Judge Mason. He saved my life—but I wasn’t a witness to the crime. How can I possibly do anything to prove the Brothers had a hand in it?”
“You can’t. But there’s a woman who can.”
Another piece of paper was thrust into Jake’s hand. A woman’s face stared back at him. She wasn’t smiling. She had a faraway look that spoke of sadness and determination. She was climbing from a car, her long legs bared as her skirt rode up. She had long dark hair and blue eyes. She also had a wealth of tattoos, all in shades of black and gray—on her arms and legs, across her collarbone, over her belly where the cropped top she wore exposed the skin. There were words on her thighs.
It wasn’t ugly, though. On her, it was beautiful. As if she were made to wear ink.
He shook himself. “Then why aren’t you talking to her? Why ask me to get involved?”
It wasn’t that he wouldn’t throw himself on a grenade for the judge, but he wasn’t quite seeing how this worked yet. Why they needed him.
“We’d love to talk to her—but she won’t talk to us. Her name is Eva Gray. She’s twenty-four, a tattoo artist. She does work for the Brothers. Hell, she may even be involved with one of them, though we don’t know that for sure. But I can’t get any of my guys close enough without putting her in danger. You, however, could walk in as a Brother and get what we need.” Declan paused, his gray eyes growing troubled. “She’s in danger too, Jake. If my FBI sources are right, she’s the only witness willing to finger them. We have to get in there and get her out—and we have to convince her to talk or she’ll never be safe again.”
Jake glanced down at the photo. “She doesn’t look worried. She’s probably someone’s old lady. Maybe even Brandon’s. How do you know she’ll talk at all?”
“She called in an anonymous tip to the FBI. She’s willing but she needs some persuasion. Time is running out.”
Jake stood and handed the photo back to Declan. This woman had dared to break the code and call in a tip. It might have been anonymous, but clearly the FBI knew who’d done it. And the Brothers had ways of finding out things they shouldn’t know. When they did, they’d eliminate her.
“When do I go in?”
* * *
Eva Gray shook her hair from her face and bent back to the arm of the biker she was currently tattooing. It was a colorful tattoo, one with skulls and roses and twining vines. The dude gritted his teeth as she set her needle to his skin again. The inside of the arm was one of the worst possible places to get a tattoo. The skin was thin, the nerve endings were abundant, and it hurt like a motherfucker.
“You gonna make it, Duke?”
The old bastard snorted. “Yeah, little girl, I’ll make it.”
Eva laughed as she continued her line work. “I think you will. Tough man.”
She kind of liked Duke, as much as it was possible to like any of the Brothers. Which, for her, wasn’t much. But he was nice enough and never tried to cop a feel the way the others did.
The door to the studio opened and a chill breeze rolled in. It was October, so the days were getting cooler, but that wasn’t the source of the coolness in the room. At least not for her. Without looking up, she knew that Brandon Cox had walked in.
Yeah, she had to take it easy. Because she’d gone through a lot to get this close to the Brothers—to Brandon—and it wasn’t over yet. Years of work. No sense rushing when she was on the verge of victory. Patience was a virtue. It had served her well for seven long years of preparation, and it would continue to serve her well until she achieved her goal.
“Hey, baby, how you doing today?”
Eva glanced up at Brandon and gave him a sugary sweet smile even though he made her stomach turn. “Just great, Brandon. How about you?”
He swaggered over and leered at her. He wouldn’t touch her. Not yet, though she suspected his patience was beginning to wear thin on that score.
“I’m great, baby. Be even greater if you’d let me taste those sweet lips of yours.”
Revulsion slid down her spine like rancid grease. But she smiled anyway. “Can’t do that, man. You know I don’t mix business and pleasure.”
When she’d started tattooing the Brothers six months ago, she’d made it clear that if they wanted her art, they had to respect her rules—which had become doubly important when she moved to the compound a little over two months ago. Since she was damn good at what she did, they went along with it—other than the various attempts at copping a feel, which she always stamped down hard.
“Honey, there are other tattoo artists.”
“But none as good as me.”
Duke snorted. “She’s got you there, boss.”
“Yeah, yeah, all right. Shame to waste that body though.”
“Is there something you wanted, Brandon?” she asked. “I’ve got another hour on Duke before I can get to you.”
“Not me, baby.” He turned and made a motion and another man walked inside. “Need you to do something for my man Jake.”
Eva’s heart skipped as her eyes met cool amber ones. Her jaw felt as if it had dropped to the floor. She swallowed.
Jake Ryan. Dear God. He’d been a Brother all those years ago when Heather was still alive. She knew it because, before he’d joined a motorcycle gang, he’d been in her high school. She’d spent hours staring at Jake from behind her glasses. Hours imagining pressing her mouth to his and tasting him. He’d been a bad boy, moody and just this side of delinquent, and she’d been oh so fascinated. Her and every other girl.
He hadn’t made it through their senior year, however. At a certain point, he’d left school. She’d seen him around town in his cut, the jacket that proclaimed him a Brother. How he’d gotten a motorcycle she’d never known, but just seeing him rumble through town on his Harley had been enough to set her heart racing.
Her heart was hammering now, and not because he was gorgeous. She told herself that he wasn’t going to recognize her. No one had. No one. Not the people she’d known in school, not her aunt who still lived in town, not a single person. She’d changed that much. Deliberately.
Who she’d been before was dead, and there was only Eva Gray in her place. It had to be that way.
But she still dropped her gaze from Jake’s and focused on Duke’s arm. She’d bobbled the line she was working, but she could fix it.
“All right, sure. What’s he want?” she asked.
Brandon clapped Jake on the back. “He’s going to need the Brothers of Sin freshened up. It’s faded a bit since he left us for the military.”
Military? She’d wondered where he was when she’d returned to town and he hadn’t been in the club anymore. Thought maybe he’d gone to prison or something. So many of the Brothers rotated through the system like it was a revolving door that she didn’t think he’d be any different.
And she certainly hadn’t cared that she’d be taking him down along with the rest of them when the time came.
“Sure thing. Just have to finish Duke first.”
“Take your time,” Jake said. His voice was so unexpected that it hit her like a splash in an icy pool. Deep, resonant, filled with all that sexy promise she’d worshipped back in the day.
After Heather had gone inside the club, she was only allowed out with an escort. She’d visited Eva and their mother as often as she could, and sometimes Jake was the one tasked with accompanying her when she did. He wouldn’t come inside the house, but when Eva took him a drink on the porch, he was nice to her.
“I intend to,” she said. Because she couldn’t afford softness with these men. They were predators. One whiff of weakness and they’d rip her throat out.
He snorted. “I see why you hired her,” he said to Brandon. “Sexy and bitchy. She’d make a great old lady.”
“Don’t go gettin’ any ideas,” Brandon said gruffly. “Eva treats her body like it’s a sacred temple or something. She won’t fuck a Brother. Will you, baby?”
She didn’t glance up. “Nope. I gotta stay true to my art.”
“See? Crazy bitch, but she’s good with the ink.”
“Love you too, Brandon,” she deadpanned.
One of these days she’d go too far, but for now the leader of the Brothers of Sin only laughed. Evil, murdering bastard.
“You let me know when you’re ready for some real lovin’, baby, and I’ll give it to you good and hard.”
Not if she gave it to him good and hard first. And she wasn’t talking about sex.
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MAX is coming on November 29th! Today I have an exclusive excerpt for you. Here’s Chapter One, which is unedited and may not be in quite its final form yet. Enjoy!
“What the hell?” Max muttered. He’d just turned into the driveway at Applegate Farm and it wasn’t quite what he’d expected. He kept his foot on the brake of his truck and let his gaze sweep the green grass and white rail fences. It was pretty, if a bit tattered at the edges, but where was the racetrack? And why was there an arena and a horse that was… what? High-stepping like something in a parade, that’s what.
The horse was big and flashy, a chestnut with a red mane and tail that were lighter than his coat. There was a rider on his back, a woman with dark brown hair set in a ponytail that bounced as she posted up and down while the horse trotted around the arena.
Max had expected a racetrack with jockeys perched high on horses’ backs, exercising them in the morning coolness. The paperwork he’d gotten hadn’t said what kind of horse farm, but since this was Kentucky, he’d just assumed.
This woman was not a jockey. Her legs were on the horse’s sides, not folded up beneath her. The horse’s head was high and proud—and there was that prancing thing going on.
He didn’t know a whole lot about horses, but he knew this wasn’t a thoroughbred racehorse. Which didn’t make a lot of sense. Why had his father bought a horse farm that clearly wasn’t a racing establishment? Where was the profit in that? Max would have said that his father was always looking for the best way to make money at anything, so this made little sense.
“Dammit, Dad, what have you done?”
It had been seven months since his father had died. Colin Brannigan hadn’t told a soul that he’d gotten a diagnosis of a rare and aggressive cancer. No, he’d moved himself to the Bahamas and died surrounded by paid caretakers rather than his family. And then he’d left a bunch of envelopes with his handwriting on them, each addressed to one of his seven sons, and asked Aunt Claire to distribute them.
Max’s had arrived a couple of months ago now, when he’d finally been Stateside again, but he hadn’t opened it right away. He’d stared at it and then propped it on his bedside table with a plan to open it the next day. Enough time had passed that he knew it wasn’t money. The estate was in trust and wouldn’t be distributed for five years. Typical Dad in many ways.
His brothers had gotten odd bequests—a motorcycle, a lodge, a map, the family house—so he’d expected his would be odd too. He hadn’t known how odd until he’d opened the envelope, which hadn’t happened the next day since Ian Black had called him with another overseas mission. Max had grabbed his gear and headed out, glad to avoid the contents of the envelope for another few weeks.
When he’d returned a few days ago, he’d had to stop putting off the inevitable. The envelope had contained a deed to a horse farm in Kentucky, along with a contract that explained the terms. There was a catch, of course. There was always a catch.
He eased the truck down the driveway and parked beside the barn. It was a big barn, long and painted white. He got out of the truck and surveyed the area. There was a house tucked under some trees a few yards away. It was an older house, brick with white columns, and had that look of genteel Southern decay that you often saw while driving through the old towns of the South.
The farmland was rolling, with tall grass that would probably be harvested for hay, and other fields were dotted with horses. He counted ten horses in the pasture, and three babies.
The woman on the horse had stopped trotting. He thought she was finished, but then she did something with the reins and the horse started doing something that looked… well, odd. It was almost like a trot, except it wasn’t, and the horse looked regal and elegant while doing it.
Still, Max wasn’t here to watch horses. He was here to find Elinor Applegate and talk to her about selling this farm. Another woman walked out of the barn just then and stood beside the arena to watch. When she spotted Max, she started walking toward him. He moved in her direction and when they were close enough, she smiled. She was a pretty blonde, petite, but he suspected she was stronger than she looked if she was out here handling horses.
“Hi, welcome to Applegate Farm. I’m Lacey Hamilton. What can I help you with today?”
Max took her proffered hand. “Max Brannigan. I’m looking for Elinor Applegate.”
Lacey’s eyes crinkled as her smile widened. “That’s Ellie,” she said, indicating the woman on the horse. “She’ll be a few more minutes if you care to wait.”
“Yeah, I’ll wait.” It wasn’t like he had anywhere else to be right now. He’d told Ian that he wasn’t taking any jobs for the next month or so while he disposed of his inheritance. He thought of the day when Knox had opened the storage facility and found out what Dad left him. They’d been on the phone when Knox made the decision to put the key in the lock and then Knox had emailed him after. Now Max was wondering why he couldn’t have gotten the motorcycle. At least he’d know what to do with that.
“So I’m guessing these aren’t racehorses,” he said as he watched the horse in the arena fly around it, still doing that high-stepping gait.
Lacey laughed. “Definitely not. Ellie raises and trains American Saddlebreds.” She nodded toward the arena. “That’s a rack, if you’re wondering.”
After a moment of surprise, he decided that Lacey wasn’t discussing Ellie’s chest. “It’s different, that’s for sure.”
“It is. But it’s beautiful, right?” Lacey whooped then, surprising him, but she was yelling at Ellie and the horse as they flew by. “Yeah boy!”
Max couldn’t deny that it was beautiful. There was something fluid and graceful about the way the horse moved—and the way the rider sat up straight and tall. “Yep, it’s amazing. I’ve never seen that before.”
Lacey smiled. “You came on a good day then.”
Ellie brought the horse to a stop and then bent over and hugged his neck. The horse stood there blowing and sweating, his mouth working the bit while she petted him. Then she sat up and gathered the reins loosely. The horse started walking toward the exit.
“Come on into the barn,” Lacey said.
Max followed her inside. He’d ridden horses a couple of times growing up. There’d been that summer when his parents had taken them all to the Algoma Resort and he and his brothers took a lesson from the trainer there. The biggest surprise had been Mom. She hadn’t needed a lesson at all. She’d gotten on that horse and took off like she’d been born to it.
Max could still remember the smell of the stables, that sweet hay and horse smell that had filled his days. They’d been happy days with his family—before his mother died and everything changed.
Walking into the stables now, he was hit with that same smell. It was a happy smell—and a sad one because it reminded him, forcefully, that both his parents were gone and he’d never be that carefree little boy he’d once been. Hell, as if that was the only reason he’d never be carefree again.
He shook off his dark thoughts as Lacey chatted beside him. Now was not the time.
“Hey, Ellie, got a visitor for you,” Lacey said as Ellie strode down the aisle, leading the horse. Max did a bit of a double take at the size of the beast—and the diminutive form of the woman standing beside him. “I’ll take Champ.”
“Thanks,” Ellie said, handing the reins to Lacey and patting the horse on the neck. “You were a good boy, today,” she said. “Extra carrots for you.”
Max moved out of the aisle as Lacey led the horse past him, then turned and faced Elinor Applegate. She was small, about five-four or so, and when she smiled his heart did a little skip thing that was completely unexpected.
“Hi there,” she said. “I’m Ellie—what can I help you with today?”
“I’m Max.” He expected her to react to his name, but she didn’t. She just kept looking at him with a smile on her face in spite of the fact her eyebrows drew together for a second.
She didn’t know him. Dammit, Dad, what are you playing at?
“It’s nice to meet you, Max. Are you here about the HVAC? I called for service yesterday, but I thought Roger wasn’t sending anyone out until tomorrow.”
“No,” he said, and she frowned slightly. “I’m Max Brannigan. Colin Brannigan’s son.”
* * *
Ellie’s mouth went dry and her heart beat a little faster. She’d known this day was coming, but she’d kept hoping as the months went by since Colin’s death that it wouldn’t come until later this year. She only needed a few more months and then Champ might just save her bacon—and the farm’s bacon.
But if a Brannigan was here now, then time was running out. She tried to keep the smile on her face as she gazed at him. Holy cow he was tall. And seriously beautiful. Dark hair, silver eyes, and the kind of muscles that said he could haul hay and not even feel worn out at the end of the day. Not that she imagined the son of a media tycoon had ever hauled hay. Or gotten dirty for that matter.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, bringing her mind back to the topic at hand. “Your father was a good man.”
He looked momentarily surprised. “Thank you.”
“Can I offer you something to drink? Sweet tea? Lemonade? Water?”
She didn’t know what else to do with him. Plus she wanted to stall for time since she was pretty sure she didn’t want to hear whatever he’d come here for. His brows drew down for a second as his gaze raked over her. She knew her face was red from exertion and she could feel the sweat dripping between her breasts. She looked like hell while he looked like something that had walked off one of his father’s movie sets.
“I’m fine, but you look like you could use something,” he said.
Yep, she looked like hell.
“Come up to the house.” Not that she wanted him inside her home, but she wanted him in her barn even less. He could take this all away from her—or so she assumed. She didn’t know the terms of Colin’s will or who got what—she only knew she hadn’t gotten her farm back. Not that she’d expected a man she’d only met once would leave it to her, of course. The Brannigans owned it and could do what they wanted.
She tried not to imagine the worst as she trudged up to the house with Max at her side. He didn’t say anything as they walked and she didn’t either. How could she speak when her throat was tight and her mind conjured the worst?
She’d beg him. That’s what she’d do. Just a few more months. Just until Louisville and the World’s Championship Horse Show at the end of August. That was all she needed. She had no pride when it came to her horses and her farm. She’d do whatever it took to keep them.
Stop it, Ellie. You don’t know why he’s here. He could just be checking on a Brannigan investment.
Yes, he could—but that wasn’t any better, was it? As an investment, Applegate Farm sucked. She pulled in a deep breath as she stepped up onto the stone porch and reached for the door. Max beat her to it, pulling the screen door wide so she had only to open the big wooden door to the house.
She tried not to focus on his presence behind her, on the heat and size of him as he stood so close. The door swung open and she stepped into blessed coolness. The house was old, dating from around the turn of the century, but at least Momma had invested in air conditioning when she’d had the money.
“Come in and have a seat. I’ll just be a second.” She showed Max to the settee in the living room and then tried not to think about how he dwarfed it as he sat down. His legs were long, and his arms were packed with muscle. Not the kind of muscle that came from a gym, though she imagined some of it did, but the kind that came from hard work.
She hadn’t realized it when she’d been looking at him in the barn, but it was definitely a shock now. She’d have said a Brannigan didn’t need to work a day in his life to be comfortable and fed. It made her wonder what kind of hard labor he must have done to get that way. Probably something like rock climbing or an extreme sport. Hadn’t she read that one of his brothers was an extreme athlete?
Yes. Luke Brannigan.
Max lifted one eyebrow and Ellie dragged her gaze away, mortified that she’d been staring. “Sure you don’t want anything?”
Boy was he. “Make yourself comfortable. I’ll be right back.”
She marched into the kitchen and tugged open the ancient refrigerator. After she grabbed a bottle of water, she rolled it over her forehead and cheeks before twisting off the cap and taking a drink. She stood at the sink, staring out at the rolling fields and the horses grazing peacefully, tails swishing, before she drew herself up and headed back to the living room.
Max looked up as she entered and she forced herself not to react to his pretty face. Not this time. She sank onto a chair opposite and set her water on the side table. Then she pasted on a smile.
“I don’t suppose you’re here for a social call, so if you’d like to tell me what this is about, we can get on with it.”
Take the bull by the horns, Ellie. That’s what Momma always used to say whenever Ellie had hesitated over something. Typically, Momma was talking about a training a horse. Hesitation was defeat when dealing with horses. And maybe it was with this man too.
Max Brannigan stretched his arm along the back of the settee, muscles bunching and smoothing as he did so. Ellie’s mouth went dry.
“No, not really. My father left me this farm and I came out here to see what kind of operation you have. I have to admit that I’m disappointed.”
Ellie felt his comment like a blow. It also raised her hackles. “I’m sorry we’re not up to your standards, Mr. Brannigan.”
A flush of anger and embarrassment rolled through her as she thought of what he must think sitting in her rundown living room. The house was old and historic, but in desperate need of repair work. Except work took money, and that was something she didn’t have. She should have never invited him inside. Now he was here and she had to endure knowing that he was looking down his nose at her and her home.
He frowned. “I’m sorry, that came out wrong. I meant that I don’t understand why my father bought this farm. You’re raising Saddlebreds, according to Miss Hamilton, and I fail to see why he would have been interested in something so, well, decorative. I expected racehorses. Something that could earn money.”
Ellie’s pulse was a wild thing. As if she hadn’t heard it all before. Saddlebreds were useless. Flighty. Silly. What could anyone possibly see in these horses? They got so little respect outside of the Saddlebred community. They weren’t Olympic horses, weren’t racehorses, weren’t work horses—she’d heard it all, and it just wasn’t true. Saddlebreds were versatile, intelligent. Hell, they used to be Calvary horses during the Civil War—how was that decorative?
Still, if she looked at it objectively, she could understand his confusion. He wasn’t a horseman, and racehorses made more sense for a tycoon like Colin Brannigan to have invested in.
Ellie cleared her throat, uncertain how much to say. “My mother and yours were good friends. When my mother needed an investor, your dad was there. She offered the farm as collateral and we’ve been paying the loan back faithfully ever since.”
It was much more complicated than that, but Ellie wasn’t telling him any more than he needed to know. Some things were too private, and too heartbreaking, to discuss with strangers. Even a stranger who was the son of the man who’d helped out at a very bad time.
“I didn’t know that. He didn’t explain it in the paperwork he left me.”
Ellie twisted her hands together in her lap. “I will pay you back, Mr. Brannigan. I send in the money every month, or as much of it as I can—and I hope to buy the loan outright in the near future.”
He was frowning. “How soon?”
She hesitated. It was nothing more than hope and speculation at this point. “I-I don’t know. A few months. Maybe a year.”
If she was lucky. If Champ kept working the way he was going and she won the five-gaited stake at Louisville in August. If someone offered to buy him once he did, though the prospect of losing such a talented colt hurt on many levels. So many ifs to get where she needed to go.
Max’s frown grew deeper. “I’m not interested in running a horse farm, Miss Applegate. You can buy the loan back now—or we can discuss liquidating the property and settling the debt.”
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