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Hawk: A Rough Romance by Piper Stone – Serialization (Part Three)

Did you miss the Prologue and Chapters 1-4? You can find them here.

Did you miss Chapters 5-8? You can find them here.

Chapter Nine

Hawk

A simple box full of pictures and clothes.

A house that I barely recognized.

A brother who I should have gotten to know.

All three were kicking me hard in the gut. My brother had lost his life in the same way as his wife. The irony was… I wasn’t certain I bought it. Hell, I wasn’t certain about anything at this point. However, I didn’t believe in coincidences. Drake had wanted to fight fires for a reason and not just in memory of his dead wife.

I’d placed the lightweight box in the middle of the coffee table, unable to peel away the tape in order to look inside. I wasn’t entirely certain I wanted to know what Drake kept in his locker at the firehouse. Just hearing that he’d talked about me only added to the level of guilt, the horrendous feeling keeping me on edge. While I wanted to believe that there’d been no foul play with regards to his death, my gut remained on high alert.

I snickered and rolled my eyes, moving into the kitchen in order to grab a beer. Bryce’s influence seemed to be rubbing off on me. There was no doubt she was going to keep digging, no matter how many orders I issued or promises of punishment given. She was that kind of gal.

In your face.

Refusing to take no for an answer.

So damn beautiful my cock hadn’t stopped aching all day.

She was the kind of woman for whom you had to wrap your fist around her hair as a reminder of who was boss. Soft curves and long legs, a mouth meant to kiss on a summer’s day for hours and one hell of a sweet pussy.

I grabbed the bottle of beer, popping the top as I turned around, eyeing the kitchen island. The wicked round of passion at her place had left me hungering for more. Shit. I couldn’t keep my mind on the decisions that had to be made. How the hell was I supposed to stay in Missoula in order to give Ashley a good home? I hadn’t worked the ranch in far too many years to be confident I could handle the place by myself.

I glared at the file I’d brought from the attorney, finally ready to read all the various details. I’d have to look over the ranch tomorrow, although I still wasn’t certain what I should do with it. Drake’s last words had been right. I’d never cared about the ranch, preferring to play bad boy of Missoula with what I’d called my posse.

Right now, I could use Mustang’s advice. Hell, I could use his friendship. Sighing, I moved to the file, taking a deep breath before opening it. The pictures were even more dramatic now that I’d accepted what my brother had left me. I was so damn proud of him and his accomplishments. If only I’d told him even once.

After taking another pull of the beer, I shifted to the rest of the documents. There was a copy of his will and the custody papers I’d yet to sign. There were also corporate records, including tax returns. As I looked at the bottom line, I froze. “What the hell?”

He’d amassed a small fortune in a short period of time. When so many ranchers had faltered, forced to sell off their beloved properties, he’d succeeded in ways that were difficult to comprehend. As I pulled the last bank statement into view, my hands began to shake. This was crazy. The three million dollars in cash unheard of.

I dropped the paper, struggling to make sense of what I was seeing. How many times had I told him that he was a fool for even considering following in our father’s footsteps? How many times had I enjoyed making fun of his studious attitude, his straight A’s? I rubbed my mouth, trying to take it all in.

There was also a trust for Ashley, one that would make her a very wealthy woman when she turned eighteen. My brother had thought of everything. However, what troubled me were the updates on both the will and the trust. They’d been completed only two weeks before his death. Had he experienced a premonition about the tragedy?

I couldn’t think this way. My anger was already still too damn high. I took another swallow, the beer tasting stale. After shoving it onto the counter, I thought about everything I’d heard, including information from the attorney. Nothing was sitting right. While I had no doubt Bryce overdramatized stories to some degree, her concern was heartfelt and I had to admit that she continued to fuel the nagging pool of doubt furrowing inside of me.

I moved back into the living room, glaring at the set of stairs. Hell, no. However, I wanted certain answers to the questions that continued to build. There were no pictures in the living room or kitchen of Jaime, or of Ashley for that matter.

Wouldn’t a man who’d been grieving desperately, enough so to join the fire department, have pictures of her? And what about making certain Ashley didn’t forget about her mother? I moved down the short hallway leading away from the living room. The half bath showed obvious signs of a female’s touch, the spring-like colors certainly not something that Drake would have picked out. The laundry room was nothing special, although there were no clothes in baskets, both the washer and dryer empty. Either my brother was the cleanest man on the face of the earth, or someone had come in after his death.

The nagging increased as I walked into what my brother obviously used as his office for the ranch, the former large bedroom furnished with state of the art equipment, including a sweet-looking new laptop. As with the rest of Drake’s life, everything had its place. As I walked toward the desk, I swept the room, scanning the various bookshelves. From where I stood, I couldn’t see any hint of dust.

What I did see were several picture frames. I shifted toward them, bringing one into the dim light as provided by the sun peeking in through the half open blinds. The couple in the photograph included Drake. While he’d aged, adding a few pounds on during the last few years, his eyes were the same as before. Eager. Full of life.

The woman in the photograph was just an adult-size version of Ashley, her radiant smile and the way she was looking at Drake a clear indication of their happiness. The picture had been taken in front of the cabin. A second photograph included Ashley. A third with a couple I didn’t recognize, but they were standing in front of a lake on a summer’s day, drinks in their hands.

I carefully placed them where I’d found them, also noticing there wasn’t a line where dust should be.

The office was full of various files, maps, and other documentation, but after searching for over thirty minutes, there was nothing that seemed abnormal. Then why were there so many questions racing through my mind? Maybe I needed to talk with Mr. Weatherby.

I also needed to figure out about picking up Ashley and bringing her home, although I wasn’t entirely certain that was a good idea yet. I needed to be strong for her, to make certain she knew that her uncle would be right there.

Yeah, as if I could handle being the kind of support that she needed. I hadn’t even been able to provide that for my brother. I needed to make this my home, at least in the interim. I’d spent my entire childhood growing up in this house, yet it certainly didn’t have the same kind of vibes as when my parents had owned it. What I wouldn’t be able to do was sleep in the master bedroom, at least not for the time being. That meant I’d be back in my old room.

After grabbing my duffle, I took a series of deep breaths, attempting to find courage to go through with this. My feet felt heavy as I walked up the stairs, moving slowly toward the closed door to her room. I continued to feel like I was invading their privacy, although I now owned the home.

Home.

Even the word seemed foreign, pulling on the various ugly memories that had festered in my mind over the years. I placed my hand on the handle, my nerves more on edge than before. Time to suck it up and act like a man, as my father used to say. I dropped the bag in front of the closed door to the room I’d sleep in, glancing back and forth from the doors to the other two rooms. Where the house had seemed cramped all those years ago, it seemed huge to me now. Hell, I was used to a bunkbed sharing a barracks with several other soldiers. To me, this was paradise.

I shifted toward the master bedroom, managing to open the door. The space still held a woman’s touch with the plush deep purple comforter and adornments, although they’d certain seen better days. He’d refused to part with them.

The furniture had been replaced, the wooden floor as well since I’d last been here. I eased onto the bed, my legs aching. This was supposed to be my house after my parents were gone, but I’d simply told them I wasn’t planning on staying in Montana. I knew that was the day I’d broken their hearts.

At least my brother had been able to make it a home. I turned my head, catching sight of the stunning photograph of Jaime. He mourned in his private spaces. That was definitely a family trait.

While little of what had been owned by Jaime remained, I did notice a box in the corner of the closet with Ashley’s name written on top. It was another memory that I wasn’t ready to delve into. I laughed seeing Drake’s attire. He owned two suits and three dress shirts, all neatly hung along the wall. He’d been a true cowboy through and through.

When I finally walked out, I left the door open. Maybe I’d finally been able to crack open a small portion of the past.

Ashley’s room was something else entirely.

I realized after standing in the same place for five minutes that I couldn’t do it. Going inside the little girl’s room would mean I’d finally accepted my brother’s death and my new responsibilities. How could I do that? How could he be gone and how in God’s name would I rise to the occasion, providing her a good home?

I couldn’t do this. Not yet. Maybe I’d go check on the horses, even take a ride. I had to see the property at some point. Tomorrow would be spent getting to know the employees.

And going to the bank.

The other necessary items I’d leave with a question mark.

Entering my old room was not as cathartic as I would have imagined. I wasn’t certain if I had expected that my things would remain inside, but there wasn’t a single representation of my previous life, including in the color of paint on the walls.

The space was just as beautifully decorated as the living room, warm and inviting on every level. I was actually relieved that this could be any room in any house. I moved toward the windows, looking out at what had to have been a garden at some point. While there were still timbers in place, the four beds appeared to be overrun with weeds. Where my brother had made certain every other aspect of the house had been perfectly cleaned and organized, he’d cared less for the care and maintenance of an outdoor feature.

How many aspects regarding my brother was I clueless about?

When I heard a knock on the door, my normal reaction would have been to growl at the intrusion, but I was glad for the interference. Hell, I was one big chicken, uncertain how to walk into a little girl’s pink and purple room. What had happened to me?

When I opened the door, the look on Bryce’s face was sheepish, even though she held up a bottle of tequila and several limes.

“I thought a truce might be in order,” she said in a reserved manner, even though the tone of her voice would always bring about the beast within me.

“I don’t know. If you make any trouble…”

She wrinkled her nose, giving me a pouty look. “Me? Not a chance, cowboy.”

“Uh-huh. That’s what I’m afraid of. You can come in, although I was just getting ready to take a ride.”

“Oh, another meeting?” She’d changed, the black jeans and cerulean blue tee shirt befitting her personality. Although the cowboy boots were a surprise. Who did she think she was fooling? She was a city girl through and through.

“As in horses, the only way to ride.” I found myself grinning.

She exhaled in an exaggerated fashion. “I can stay here and wait for you, if you want.”

“Nope. You’re going to come with me.” I took the items out of her hand, easing them down next to the box.

I’d have time later to delve into far too much of a past I wanted nothing to do with.

“It’s still sealed,” she commented.

“And it might stay that way for a little while.”

“If I’m interfering, I can just go.”

I took both her hands into mine, my body reacting instantly. “Are you trying to tell me that you’re terrified of one tiny horse?”

“Tiny? They’re huge animals. Who are you kidding?” Her flushed face gave her away. She’d never been on a horse in her life.

I grinned as I shook my head. “I’m not going to take no for an answer. Besides, I could use the company.” As she nibbled on her bottom lip, I realized I adored the nervous tic. “Come on. You’ll ride with me.”

“O-kay, but if I get killed, I’ll come back and haunt you for the rest of your life.”

She had a way of getting under my skin, but on this day, she was the perfect medicine.

“Tell me about the ranch,” she suggested as we walked outside.

“I don’t know a whole lot about after I left town, but my parents bought this place for a song. Actually, my father told me he won it in a poker game, but that was never confirmed or denied.”

“Really?” She laughed, the sound filtering into every one of my muscles, ridding some of the tension.

“True story, at least according to my pops. From what my mother told me, my father had no idea what he was doing at first, which is why they almost lost the place more than once. But he got the hang of it. They boarded horses, had a small number of cattle for milk and meat processing and they got by. I know my father always had a bigger dream, more he wanted to do with the ranch, but he was boxed in, unable to grow.”

“Then how did your brother acquire more land?”

I chuckled. “That’s a good question, but I doubt I’ll find the answer to it. I know that Drake loved this place, certainly more than I did.”

“You wanted more out of your life, right?” she asked.

“Don’t we all?”

“I know I did,” she half whispered as we neared the fence. She hopped up on the bottom rung, leaning over as she gazed at the horses grazing in the pasture. “This wasn’t what I anticipated though.”

“Which big city are you from?”

Bryce wrinkled her nose. “It’s that obvious?”

“I can always tell a city slicker when I see one.”

She shot me another pouty look as I leaned against the fence. “Philadelphia.”

“Wow. You are a long way from home.”

“I know. The opportunity was a good one so I took it.”

“To work for the number three station in Missoula? Now, I might not know the entertainment business but I’m not an idiot. What did you do to piss people off?”

A bright crimson flush rushed up her gorgeous cheeks. For the first time, she seemed vulnerable, which surprised me. “I already told you that my sister and I didn’t get along. She just happened to be a reporter at the same television station.”

“Big ouch. Let me guess, serious competition.”

“Of the worst kind. While she didn’t mind seducing her way to the top, that wasn’t me. She got the promotions. I got the bottom feeder reporting. You know. Birthdays and traffic accidents. When she had an audition for the New York market, throwing it in my face, I was done. Sent out my resumes that very night.”

“And you chose Missoula,” I teased. “Not that we don’t have our share of horrific crimes, but there’s also the rodeo circuit, smokejumpers, our various outdoor festivals. I would guess it’s an entirely different market.”

She laughed, although I could tell that what she’d gone through had been painful. “Well, it kinda chose me. Given I’d never reported on a juicy murder or a political scandal, I had two job offers. One was a receptionist job at a television station and this one. I accepted without thinking, quitting my job fifteen minutes after the offer came in. Impetuous. Stupid. You can go ahead and say it. Trust me, I’ve said both words and a lot more to myself.”

“I was going to say courageous. Adventurous. It takes balls to leave your home and start something new.”

“Like the Marines?”

I studied the horses, realizing how much I’d missed them. “In a sense, I guess. I didn’t think I had any other choices. I didn’t give a damn about the ranch, or so I thought, and I was headed along with my posse down a bad road.”

“Posse. I like that. I wish I had one. Women aren’t too fond of me.”

“No friends, huh? I wonder why.”

She slowly turned her head, finally punching me in the arm. “I have one very good friend, I’ll have you know. She’s been… a godsend.”

“Montana takes some getting used to, but it’s beautiful country. Give it time to grow on you.”

“And this posse?”

I gave her a smile before moving toward the gate. “They’re all serving alongside me.”

“And you want to go back.”

“A part of me does. I’m not going to lie. Being a Marine is in my blood now. I enjoy fighting for my country, making a difference. Being an independent contractor kept me close to the action.”

“Mr. Adventure. You’re lucky to be alive.”

I shrugged, trying to shut down the memories. “Luckier than some.”

She trailed behind me as we walked toward the barn. “My guess is that everywhere you go you make a difference and you certainly will in Ashley’s life.”

“I’m not so certain I can.”

“Let me give you a piece of advice. Give it time. Being a parent will grow on you.”

Tipping my head, I noticed the mischievous look in her eyes, backing away before I could grab her. Another beautiful laugh gave me a huge smile. This girl just might be good for my soul. “Come on. Let me introduce you to one of Drake’s… one of my horses.”

“This is gorgeous country. The mountains. The pastures. The number of cattle.” Bryce held her hand over her eyes to cut out the glare as she stared at the set of mountains in the background. Seeing the property through her eyes was entirely different than every ride before.

“I’d forgotten how majestic it was. I guess I just took it for granted.” She felt good nuzzled against me. While she remained tense, I could tell she was getting used to the motions of the horse. My horse. I was shocked Drake hadn’t gotten rid of her.

“I don’t know how you could take it for granted. This is just incredible.”

“You get used to your surroundings. Plus, my pop called me a stupid young man, loathing everything about the way I grew up. He was right. Couldn’t wait to get the hell out of here.” I leaned forward, crowding Bryce’s space until I was able to place my hand against the mare’s neck, stroking Gracie until she snorted. This was more intimate than the time we’d shared together and for the first time since being back, I felt a moment of true peace.

Bryce followed my lead, brushing her fingers through the horse’s mane. “She’s beautiful. She’s yours, isn’t she?”

“How could you tell?”

“It’s easy to tell strong connections. I could see it in her eyes the moment you walked in.”

“I helped when she was born in one hell of a blizzard. She became attached to me immediately.” I would never forget the cold night, the long hours and the fear that the horse would lose her calf.

“You are a jack of all trades. What do you do for the military?” she asked as I moved the horse forward, taking it slow and easy since this was her first ride.

“I was a helicopter pilot for a special team as a Marine. Worked on explosives as a contractor, also flying a bird when requested. That’s all I can tell you.”

She tilted her head. “Military secrets.”

“Ones that help keep both me and my squad alive.” I felt myself tensing, my mind flashing back once again.

“Go. Go. Go!” Vader yelled, his voice booming above the whir of the blades.

I banked right, taking another hard swing in my effort to move the bird into safety. I couldn’t help but look down, every muscle tensing because of what was left behind.

“Jesus Christ. That was bullshit!” Mustang hissed.

“That was a setup,” Reaper added.

It was a mission I’d put together after weeks of surveillance, as well as the information provided by a soon to be dead man.

I would kill him with my bare hands.

“Are you all right?”

I heard the words, the vision immediately fading. “I’m fine.”

“You don’t sound fine. Where did you go?” Bryce pushed.

“Somewhere that I hope you never have to endure.” I pressed my heel into Gracie’s flank, pushing her harder. “Hold on, sweetheart. I’m going to take you somewhere special.”

While several of the fences that separated one of the properties from Big Meadow had been removed, others had been added to separate the various herds of cattle as well as the prized steer. Meticulous care had been taken, a significant amount of money spent. As we continued riding, we finally noticed some of the ranch hands, every one of them stopping what they were doing as we rode by.

Every one of them acknowledged our presence.

The attorney had been right. I was damn proud of my brother.

I knew without a shadow of a doubt that if someone had hurt him intentionally, they would face the kind of wrath and vengeance that I’d been trained for.

To kill in cold blood if necessary.

Chapter Ten

Hawk

“Stay low to the ground. You will shoot on my orders only.” My instructions were whispered, but my men heard every word.

“You sure about this?” Mustang whispered as he crawled forward, his gun positioned toward the camp.

“He’s sure,” Scorpion answered for me, already in position and waiting for my order.

“This is the only chance of getting him out alive,” I answered, hissing as I noticed a group of soldiers hovering near the dilapidated bunker. I knew their movements, had studied them on the infrared scanners for three nights, always the same. Tonight, the fuckers were alternating their pattern. Goddamn the worthless pieces of shit.

I waved my hand to the others, drawing Vader and Reaper closer, pointing to altered positions. Patience had never been my virtue and tonight, the entire situation was grating my last nerve. The insurgents had never been on the radar as far as the military was concerned, yet their numbers were growing.

As well as their methods of punishing any captured American soldier. It was time to eradicate the faction once and for all.

Too bad not everyone followed my belief.

The night was quiet, far too much for the mission in front of us, but I refused to succumb to fear. We would locate Snake and we would rescue him.

As the soldiers laughed, the smoke of their cigarettes blowing in our direction, I held my breath until they disappeared.

“On the count of three,” I whispered. “One. Two…”

Fuck.

I couldn’t get away from the visions, the memories clouding every inch of my mind. Drake’s death had only fueled the ache burning in my loins, the need to retaliate against the enemy.

Only this time, it was on home turf, the enemy someone Drake could have known, even trusted.

Meanwhile, I trusted almost no one.

“You okay?” Bryce asked, as if sensing my sudden tension.

“I’ll be better when you learn to follow my rules,” I muttered before nipping her earlobe.

“And you know that’s never going to happen,” she said, her body quivering against mine.

I tried to concentrate on the moment, yanking myself away from both the war and the ugly memories. A lot of fucking good that did. I could still see Snake’s smiling face, could hear his laugh. He’d been the practical joker of the group, the one who’d often kept the rest of us from going insane. He’d also been careless, forgetting his extensive training.

Gracie’s soft snorts brought me fully into the present.

As I rode through a bank of trees, I allowed Gracie to take the lead. She remembered the path, the time she and I had spent alone in our effort to get away from the family. The spot had been my place to think and plan. I’d never even taken a single member of the posse to the location, preferring to keep it to myself. If they’d known, parties would have occurred, destroying the quiet reverence I’d learned I needed.

I’d also never taken a girl here before, something that struck me the moment Gracie shot through to the clearing. Why did I want to bring Bryce here? The question was yet another in a long list that I wasn’t prepared to face or answer.

Memories were funny things. Often you would remember a special place fondly, only to find out that what you’d been pining for was entirely different. There wasn’t a human alive who didn’t need a place of respite and peace. The small lake had been mine. Fed from mountain springs, the water was crystal clear, rippling over small rocks. The secluded spot was just as tranquil as I’d remembered, although only a few hundred yards away, it spilled into a portion of the river.

“This is incredible, Hawk,” she whispered. “Picturesque.”

“This is the very reason my parents wanted the property. They even thought about building the house close, but the property lines would have backed it up to our neighbors and that didn’t suit my father.” I took a deep breath, able to smell the pine trees and the various wildflowers stretching out to the brilliant late summer sun.

“I could see a beautiful little cottage right over there,” she said, pointing to the bank on the opposite side. “One that has a wraparound porch with a hanging swing. And flowers. Lots of beautiful pots spilling with vibrant color.”

To hear her talk about the same kind of environment that my mother had wanted was as cathartic as it was touching.

“That’s exactly where my mother wanted it.” I eased off the horse, pulling her down. When her foot accidentally caught in the stirrup, she stumbled into my arms.

“Oh!” She pressed her hand against my chest, her mouth pursing as she took several shallow breaths.

Gracie offered another snort as she turned her head.

“What are you looking at?” I murmured to her before turning my attention to Bryce.

“You’re a very complicated man.”

“I told you, I’m dangerous. You should learn to stay away from me.”

“What if I can’t?” she asked, her tone laced with seductiveness.

I lifted her chin with a single finger, slowly shaking my head. “Then you might find nothing but heartache.”

Damn if her lower lip wasn’t trembling, her reaction driving straight into what was left of my heart. I knew in my gut that she deserved a hell of a lot better than me. I also didn’t want to hurt her, but my desire was something I had difficulty fighting. As I lowered my head, pressing my lips against hers, she arched her back, crowding closer.

She clung to me, rising as far onto her toes as much as her boots would allow. Parting her lips, she brushed them lightly across mine, finally darting the tip of her tongue just inside my mouth. Everything was slow and easy, a complete one-eighty from the powerful round of passion we’d shared before.

This woman was addictive, a drug I couldn’t resist.

Her smile.

Her insidious laugh.

Her haughty attitude.

Then there was one voluptuous body that would keep any man awake at night, dreaming of vile, incredible things.

Bryce could light up a room with her smile, even if her caustic mouth forced people to cringe. I knew how to handle her.

How to tame her.

Own her.

There was nothing or no one that was going to stop me.

Every part of me wanted to take her right here, ripping off her clothes and taking my time fucking her in every hole. I fisted her hair, savoring the softness of her curls as I held her still, allowing her to tease and explore. I’d never been a romantic, couldn’t care less for the pretense of dating or holding hands, but this was entirely different.

I longed to take my time studying every inch of her delicious body. Unable to stop my hunger, I captured her mouth, taking control. She didn’t fight me, yet ground her hips against mine, yanking the beast out of his lair. Her soft murmurs fueled my aching need, the electricity soaring between us.

My balls were tight, my cock swelling to an anguished point. The feisty woman knew exactly what she was doing to me, exaggerating the way she undulated back and forth. I thrust my tongue inside, entwining both as the kiss continued. I couldn’t get enough of her, my mind foggy, my vision blurry.

I ran my fingers down her sides, brushing them against the soft swell of her breasts. She shuddered at my touch, her entire body shaking. I felt the same as her fingers danced down my chest, moving dangerously close to my aching cock. There were so many thoughts racing through my mind, my head aching from the mind-bending desires that only fueled the unbridled hunger breaching the surface.

The adrenaline rush was almost crippling, my muscles aching.

When I finally broke the moment of intimacy, her eyes remained closed, her breath skipping. She dragged her tongue across her lips, allowing a soft purr. I was mesmerized by her shimmering skin, the way the sun reflected off her cheeks. A wry smile crossing her lips, she slid her hand down my chest, stroking me through the dense fabric of my jeans.

“Careful what you’re doing there, little lady. You already know I bite.”

“And I’m not afraid of you. Big. Bad. Wolf.”

“Hmmm… Then I need to remind you that I’m a wildcard, capable of doing any damn thing I please.”

She pulled away from me, taking long strides backwards, the smile on her face mischievous.

“Then you’re going to have to catch me.”

I chuckled, shaking my head as she attempted to run away, her laughter trailing behind her. I had to admit that I enjoyed the hell out of the way she tried to move quickly even in her stiff boots. Shaking my head, I shifted my gaze toward Gracie, the horse giving several swings of her head. “I know. The woman is incorrigible, isn’t she?”

Gracie snorted her answer, stamping her hoof onto the ground.

“You’re right. It’s time we teach her a lesson about who’s boss.”

The mare’s elongated whinny was her absolute approval.

Bryce’s laughter continued as she darted from one tree to the other, taunting me as only the woman could do.

“Uh-huh. Be careful what you ask for,” I warned her as I tugged the rope from the loop on Gracie’s saddle.

“Oh, I’m not asking,” she commented.

“Did I ever tell you that I was once the junior rodeo champion?” I rolled the rope between my fingers, savoring the feel of the knotted material against the rough pads of my fingertips.

“Sure you were. You can’t catch me,” she retorted, still laughing.

“Oh, the little girl has no idea, does she, Gracie?” I shifted my gaze back to the horse’s eyes, growling under my breath. I wanted to capture her.

Strip her.

Use her.

The barbarian cowboy in me surfaced as I knotted one end of the rope, tugging on it as I walked closer to Bryce’s location. Finally satisfied, I swung it in circles in the air, making certain that she was able to see what she was in for.

Even from the distance, I could see her eyes opening wide, her lovely mouth pursing in consternation. Then she took off running again, zigzagging her way in and out of the trees.

I took long strides in her direction, constantly swinging the rope as I approached. When she disappeared for a split second, hiding behind a massive oak tree, I shook my head. “You can run, Red Riding Hood, but there is nowhere on this earth where I won’t find you.”

There were no sounds for a few seconds, other than the leaves shifting in the light breeze and the water tumbling over rocks on the shore. I continued moving forward, catching a glimpse of her long hair.

“Tsk. Tsk. You have one chance to surrender or there will be hell to pay.” My voice boomed into the late afternoon sun, yet she didn’t make a sound.

At least at first.

I stood my ground, still swinging the rope, enjoying every minute of the chase. “Come out, come out wherever you are,” I bellowed.

“You won’t take me!” she exclaimed, bolting away from the dense bank of underbrush, running into the clearing.

Another growl erupted from my gut, the sound completely one of a barbarian hunter ready to catch his prey. All I had to do was take four more long strides, calculating the distance then tossing the rope. Everything seemed to be in slow motion as it careened through the air, falling ever so gracefully toward the ground, the wide arc drifting around her delicious body.

With one hard snap of my wrist, the rope snagged exactly as it was supposed to, the knot slipping until she was captured with ease.

“Oh!” she screeched, struggling to get out of my hold, falling to the ground seconds later.

Biting back a laugh, I walked forward as I yanked on the rope, dragging her gently over the ground. She rolled and tumbled, her arms caught in the giant sling.

But she refused to stop fighting, trying to dig her boots into the ground.

I took my time reeling her in, enjoying her strained and hateful expression. When she was dutifully positioned just in front of me, I hunkered down, remaining quiet while she cursed up a blue streak.

“Such nasty words for such a beautiful lady.”

She jerked her head in my direction, her body pitching back and forth. “I’m going to get you for this.”

I rubbed my temple, glancing out toward the water. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen. See, I’m the one in charge. The sooner you realize that the better.”

“Never!”

Every part of me was stoked like a raging fire, the flames licking at all portions of my body. While I enjoyed the game, more so than I would have ever imagined, I was hungry for more. Insatiable was the actual word. “You continue to need hard lessons.”

“No, I do not,” Bryce insisted.

“Hmmm… Let’s count the reasons why. You have a sailor’s mouth, a refusal to follow any rules, a need to thwart authority and… oh, yes. You have a nasty attitude.”

“Me? You’re the bull in a china shop. Ugh!” She fought even harder, rolling back and forth, the rope digging in.

“I think we have a dilemma here,” I finally said after a few seconds. “Now, I can strip you naked then tie you to one of the trees where I’ll leave you for maybe an hour. Or two. The creatures won’t feast on you too much, I mean not at first at least. I’ll return at some point to give you another well-deserved spanking.”

“Don’t you dare! That’s not fair,” she moaned.

“I think it’s extremely fair.” I could barely contain my laughter even as she further ignited the fire.

“I’ll do anything. Please.” Her face was twisted as she lifted her head, the venom in her eyes tenfold from where it had been before.

“Anything, huh?” I moved the rope from one hand to the other. “Let me think about this.”

“You’re a bastard!”

“Yes, I am well aware. So this dilemma we have.” I closed my eyes, taking a full minute before I held out a single finger. “Or, you could show your appreciation for me letting you go.”

“I already told you I’d do anything.”

“All right. I’ll accept your deal. Just remember that you said anything.”

“Fine. Anything!”

Goddamn, this woman was driving me bat-shit crazy, my cock pushing so hard against my jeans my balls were blue. Relief was desperately needed. “Then you’re going to give me one hell of a blowjob.”

She snapped her head in my direction as I moved closer. Instead of the nasty look of retaliation, the smile on her face would drive any man into committing pure sin. My heart slammed against my chest, the brutal hammering nearly suffocating.

“Do you accept?” I asked, watching as she managed to crawl onto her knees.

“Only if you release me,” she said coyly.

“Not a chance, sweetheart. I may be a cowboy at heart, but I’m no fool. I think you can handle yourself just fine while all tied up.”

Her brow furrowed, her look of defiance returning. “Oh, I can handle myself all right. We’ll just see how you handle my hot, wet mouth.”

“Challenge accepted.” I unbuttoned my jeans, taking a deep breath when she managed to rub the insides of my thighs, her fingers tickling every nerve ending. “See, you don’t have any issue working around your strict confinement. I’ll have to keep that in mind.”

“Don’t tease me,” she purred before taking her time pulling down my zipper. “You don’t know the kind of woman you just pushed over the edge.”

“And I’m certain you’re going to show me.” I shuddered, a breathless sound escaping my mouth as she tugged on both sides of the dense material, yanking until she was able to free my cock and balls. Damn, I ached all over, my sense of hunger off the charts.

She blew across my cock, her fingers caressing my thighs. I had to admit that I liked the sight of her wrapped tightly by the rope. I could do anything I wanted to her. Hmmm…

I would do all those things and more over the next several hours.

“Just remember what I told you,” she whispered then ran her hand under my shaft, drawing her finger up and down the length before wrapping it around my swollen sac.

The moment she squeezed, I let out a ragged hiss. “Fuck.” I realized my legs were shaking, my entire body electrified like some power grid.

Bryce slowly lowered her head, blowing across my cockhead before darting out her tongue, darting it across my sensitive slit only once. Then she eased back, gazing into my eyes, hers only half open.

“One bad girl,” I struggled to say, finally wrapping my hand around several strands of her hair, holding her in place.

Mewing, she rubbed her lips up and down my shaft, dragging her tongue around my balls in lazy circles. Every action she made drove me closer to the very edge of my own sanity. This was pure filth and I could do this every damn day.

She continued sliding her tongue up and down the length of my cock, slathering it with wetness, adding to the series of tingles cresting in my body.

I was forced to hold my breath as she sucked on my testicles, making the kind of guttural sounds that I could listen to forever. After a few seconds, I jutted my hips forward, merely as a reminder that I needed her hot little mouth wrapped around every inch of my cock.

The feel of her tongue darting back and forth until she took my cockhead into her mouth created a fog in my mind.

“Fuck. That’s it, baby. Suck me.” I wasn’t certain if my voice was audible. I kept my grip firm as she used her strong jaw muscles to suck on the tip, every sound she made exaggerated. She knew exactly what she was doing to me and as I gazed down with hazy eyes, I could see utter amusement. Another added fuel to the fire.

Allowing an exaggerated breath to escape, I finally closed my eyes, enjoying the sensations coursing through my cells and muscles as she sucked me.

Her sounds were more like a caged lion as she licked, rolling her tongue back and forth, her hands still able to stroke the base. As she twisted her long fingers, creating a serious round of friction, I struggled to be able to breathe.

“Goddamn,” I muttered, lights flashing in my peripheral vision.

She leaned back, blowing across the tip once again, the chuckle pushing past her delicious lips more vixen-like than ever.

I fisted her hair, yanking until she was forced to look into my eyes. Shaking my finger, I eased my hand down until I was able to roll the tip back and forth across her lips. “You’re not in control. You need to remember that.”

“Oh, I remember.” She opened her mouth wide, the mischievous look remaining.

I forced her to take three full inches of my shaft, barely able to control my hunger. I couldn’t wait to slide my cock deep into her tight little pussy.

Then her asshole.

The sounds coming from her mouth became more ferocious, growls and purrs only adding to the incredible moment.

“That’s it. Take every inch of me.” I planted my other hand on her head, rolling onto the balls of my feet, thrusting even more of my cock inside. When the tip hit the back of her throat, I threw my head back, issuing a heady roar toward the heavens. I took full control, pumping into her mouth with wild abandon, my body tense as a wire.

She darted her tongue back and forth, clenching her jaw muscles, only adding to the heat.

Within a few seconds, I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my control for much longer. My legs were shaking, my mind drifting in the perfect moment of bliss. I heard the change in my breathing, rattled as fuck.

When she squeezed my balls, there was no holding back.

“Fuck. Fuck!” The pressure was surreal, my balls ready to explode. As cum rushed into my cock, I pumped harder and faster into her hot little mouth. A rush of adrenaline matched the flow as I erupted.

While I held her in place, I could feel my resolve around her crumbling. When I released my hold, I tumbled backwards, struggling to be able to see. As I was finally able to open my eyes, the sight of her licking her lips was one powerful aphrodisiac.

“You are amazing.”

She exaggerated her movements, sliding the tip of her tongue around her mouth in lazy circles. All I could do was shake my head.

“I’ve been a good girl. You should release me,” she whispered, her tone dripping with sexual innuendoes.

“I don’t know,” I countered as I attempted to walk closer. Now I was so damn relaxed I couldn’t think clearly.

“A deal’s a deal.”

“That’s true.” I swaggered even closer, peering down at her. “But if you even think about being naughty again, you’ll get a spanking.” I pulled Bryce to her feet, biting back a grin from seeing the rebellious side of her return. The moment I unfastened the rope, I expected her own form of retaliation.

She simply stood close to the water, rubbing her arms as she studied me. Why did I have the feeling that she was up to something? “You ready to continue our ride?”

“Uh-huh, cowboy. Very much so.”

I lifted my eyebrows, watching her intently before giving her a come-hither nod then turning away. I should have known the little woman couldn’t be trusted. Instead of following behind me, I heard the light splashing of water and the second I turned around, she managed to toss cupped handfuls into my face. Another round of laughter floated into the trees.

“You shouldn’t have done that, sweetheart,” I chastised.

“What are you going to do about it?”

I laughed as I lunged forward, grabbing and lifting her into my arms. “You won’t learn.” As I inched toward the water, the expression on her face turned to absolute horror.

“What are you doing?” she demanded, struggling and kicking her legs.

“I think you need to cool off.”

She tossed a look toward the water, moaning, “You wouldn’t dare!”

I lifted a single eyebrow, stopping just two feet from the water. “You really don’t think so? You obviously don’t know me very well then. Now, the water’s going to be cold given it’s spring fed, but you’ll get used to it.”

“Don’t you even think about it!”

“Oh, you can swim, can’t you?” I swung her out, chuckling as she screeched, grabbing onto my shirt with a solid grip.

“Don’t do it, Hawk. Please. My phone. You’ll ruin my phone and I need it for work. You have to know that.”

Inhaling, I give her a curious look, furrowing my brow as I pretended to debate. “Give me your phone.”

“What? No. Don’t do this. Please,” she begged.

“Give me your phone or I guess you’re going to be out of contact for a long time.”

She hissed under her breath then fought to slip her hand into her back pocket, giving me a ferocious growl before handing it to me. “If you do this, trust me. I will get you back.”

I chuckled as I ripped the phone from her hand, the jarring immediately highlighting the screen and catching my eye. “What. The. Fuck?”

“What is it?”

I eased her down, keeping my hold firm and read it again. A portion of the text message had been cut off. “What’s your code?”

“What? Why?”

“Give me your code, Bryce, and I’m not fucking around with this.”

“Six, nine, four, three.”

I punched in the code, maneuvering to her texts. What I saw curdled my blood and there was no doubt in my mind.

My brother had been murdered.

Chapter Eleven

Hawk

Stop investigating the fires. If you don’t, you won’t like the consequences, Ms. Myers. People who meddle usually end up dead.

The words were simple enough, the threat chilling, the text coming from an unknown source. I paced the floor, trying to calm my anger as well as accept the fact Drake had been killed because of something he knew. That was the only conclusion I’d come to.

“The fucker is going to die,” I barked. I meant it too. I was finished with playing games of any type.

“You have no way of knowing who sent the message, Hawk.” Bryce was unusually calm. “You told me that the article was going to piss people off.”

“Yeah, but to threaten you is entirely something else. What about that fucking informant of yours? He knew your number.”

“Why would he do that? Why? That doesn’t make any sense. He wanted to expose whoever was behind this.”

Nothing did at this point. “Yeah, well, I wouldn’t put it behind the motherfucker. Maybe you were steered to write the story in order to hide something larger.” I could tell she was thinking about my words.

“Maybe. Maybe not. He seemed sincere and worried that his identity would be discovered. I hate to say it but I’m nervous,” she finally said. She moved toward the couch, sitting down and immediately pulling her phone into her hands. “What the hell did I discover?”

“Obviously more than you should have gotten yourself mixed up in.” I noticed in a few seconds that she was typing. “What are you doing?”

“What needs to be done. Bringing this fucker out in the open.”

“Give me the phone, Bryce.” I walked closer, holding out my hand.

“Nope. I started this and I’m going to finish it.” When she pressed her finger against the screen, I snatched it from her only to find she’d sent a terse and very pointed message back to the sender. While I was shocked the damn thing actually went through, I was livid that she’d purposely decided to antagonize the jerk.

Come get me, fucker. I’m not scared of little men with even smaller balls.

“Jesus. Fucking. Christ. Why did you do that?”

“That’s what I do,” she insisted.

“My God. Do you have any idea what kind of fire you’re playing with here? This could be some deranged asshole working alone. This could be an entire group of people. Men are dead. You should be scared to death, Bryce. Now, you’re going to listen to me because I’m only saying this once. You’re not going home. Period. You’re a target and that shit just isn’t going to happen.”

“And you’re not my caretaker, Hawk. I barely know you.” She looked away as soon as she said the words. “I had to send the message. I know you don’t understand.”

I stiffened, trying to curtail my own frustration. I could easily tell how worried she was. “Nope. I don’t understand why you’re purposely putting yourself in harm’s way and maybe you don’t know me, but I can keep you protected. I might be the only one who can.” I wanted to punish her, wrap my arms around her and hold her tightly against me, commending her bravery. Shit. She was a loose cannon.

“For the rest of my life?”

Sighing, I rubbed my eyes. We’d gone over this for almost two hours, although she remained tightlipped about much of what she’d already discovered.

“I have a job to do, Hawk,” she managed, unable to look me in the eyes.

“A job that might get you killed.” I slipped the phone onto the table, shaking my head. “Do not do that again. But if that fucker texts you back, you will show me. If you don’t…”

“Fine, but I can take care of myself!”

She was just as fiery as usual.

I hissed under my breath. “You’re right, Bryce. And you don’t need anyone around you. That’s obvious.”

“You should talk. You have so much anger furrowing in that big brain of yours that it’s going to explode one day.”

This wasn’t getting us anywhere. Fuck. Nothing was getting us anywhere but deeper in a pile of quicksand. I had no business trying to play detective, or protector or anything for anyone. I walked toward the window, staring out at the star-filled sky.

Night had fallen, a time I’d once loved. Now the darkness seemed oppressive, my heart heavier than before. Drake had lost his life searching for answers. What the hell it all meant was almost too much to even fathom. And I still hadn’t been able to venture into Ashley’s room.

I was a damn coward after all.

“I don’t want to argue with you,” she murmured. “I’m just trying to make this right.”

“Then we won’t discuss this at all.”

I couldn’t stand the thought of someone trying to hurt her.

“You know what’s funny? I enjoy spending time with you,” she said wistfully. “I shouldn’t. You’re a caged animal.” She laughed. “But one I like.”

Her reflection in the glass was enough to wrap a rope around my neck. I had no business getting involved with her, but the time spent with her allowed me to feel almost normal.

Almost.

“What are you thinking?” Bryce asked minutes later, still studying the screen on her phone.

“That whoever you pissed off will make good on his threat. We need to contact the sheriff.”

“You know how I feel about that. It’s not like I haven’t been threatened before.”

While she liked to play the brave female, I could see her hands continued to shake. “I don’t think you understand the ramifications of what you might have uncovered. That’s why Drake is dead.”

“So, you believe me,” she asked, shaking her head as she glared at me.

“I believe something occurred that Drake knew about.” I yanked out my pocketknife, moving directly to the box. “The only way to find out is to search through his belongings.”

“He wouldn’t have put himself in harm’s way on purpose. That’s crazy. Think about Ashley.”

“No, but my brother would have volunteered to work the fire if he believed that he might find some kind of evidence. And you’re not going to talk about putting one’s self in harm’s way.”

She exhaled, watching as I slit the tape on the box. “Maybe. You honestly don’t know that, Hawk. I did some additional digging today, even asked a friend of mine if she knew of any investigations that were ongoing on the recent incidents.”

I glared at her as I yanked off the box lid. “You need to stop fucking around with this. You also need to tell me everything. Screw whatever promise you made to that informant. All bets are off since that article was published. If there is something going on, there may be several people involved. Let. It. Go.”

“And I can’t do that. It’s my job.”

“Not to get killed,” I snapped.

Her continued glare was hateful at first, just another reminder of how brash she could be. The dominating man inside of me wanted to lock her inside the cabin, refusing to allow her to continue snooping, but I knew she’d find a way out.

“I’m not going to allow a few words to chase me away. Whoever sent that text is just trying to scare me.”

“Yeah? Then how did the asshole get your number? Why do you honestly think the person responsible sent you that text? Three firefighters lost their lives, others were hurt, and three buildings burned, maybe more over time. That gives the perpetrator the reason to make certain whatever truths are out there aren’t brought into the open. If you think your life isn’t expendable, you’re out of your mind. I’m not going to stand around and allow you to get yourself killed.”

She studied me intently, every part of her body tense. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you actually gave a damn about my welfare. And I’d say that you also know more than you’re telling me.”

Growling, I shifted my gaze away. “Don’t be a fool, Bryce. No story is worth getting killed over.” I was able to see a flash of pain on her face from my words.

“Fine. I created a mess. I was just trying to clean it up.”

She would always be a spitfire, a woman who refused to listen to reason.

“Are you certain you know this friend very well? Given the accusations that were made, whether you wrote the piece for the newspaper or not, your name was attached. That also means you should be leery of your producer. He seems like a cagey guy anyway.”

“How would you know?”

After sighing, I shook my head. “I could tell when I went to your office in order to find you. What I’m trying to say is that at minimum, you need to be careful who you talk to at this point.”

“Wow. My friend works in the DA’s office. Okay? She’s a junior level attorney but she’s in the know. She also has methods of investigating people and corporations that I don’t have access to. I thought she would a good source of information.”

When she looked away, I could tell she was hiding something. “What did you do? Do not lie to me.”

“Umm…”

“Hell, no, Bryce. You are not going to continue acting like some lone wolf. That will get you killed.” I snapped as I wrapped my hand around her arm, forcing her to look at me. “What did you tell her? I will drag you over my knee one more time if that’s what’s going to drive any level of reasoning into that thick skull of yours.”

“Stop. Okay? I asked her to check on what happened with Jaime Weatherby. You mentioned she died in a fire. That raised a red flag. It has to with you.”

I wanted to be furious with her, but a part of me was more curious than angry. “Yeah, maybe. And what did she say?”

“Becca said that Jaime died at her job, which was as a legal assistant for another firm. She was working late one night when the fire started in the basement of the old building owned by the partners in her firm. Jaime likely had no way of knowing what was happening until it was too late. Unfortunately, the firefighters couldn’t get to her in time. That’s why you think Drake might have volunteered for these fires, to find something out about his wife’s death.”

I sucked in my breath, hearing the story regarding Jaime’s death dragging out another feeling of rage. No wonder Drake had offered to become a volunteer firefighter. He wanted to find out what the hell happened. “I know my brother. If the fire was suspicious, he wouldn’t be able to let it go. What was determined to be the cause of the fire?”

“You’re just like your brother,” she chided.

I glared at her.

“You are one hard man. The investigator ruled it an accident. Faulty electrical system,” she said with a smirk on her face. “And before you ask, it’s a different investigator than for the recent fires, so there’s no connection there.”

“You’ve been busy.”

“That’s why I’m good at my job.”

Good. The woman did need to be hogtied or caged. “Someday you’re going to have to explain to me the meaning of the word good.”

“Very funny. Check the box. Maybe you will find something important or maybe there’s nothing to find.”

I wasn’t certain which I preferred. My mind remained foggy as I peered into the box, first noticing a ball cap positioned on top. As I pulled it into my hand, I could do nothing but close my eyes. The Marines. As I fingered the dense material, every emotion rolled through me, including guilt. My brother had been proud of my decision after all.

“Anything else you need to tell me?” I asked after a few seconds, struggling to place the hat on the table.

“Becca either didn’t know anything else that mattered, or she didn’t want to tell me about any investigations regarding the owners of the buildings.”

“Let me guess. You think she’s lying to you.”

Bryce exhaled in an exaggerated manner. “Yes, I do, but I didn’t press it with her. You have to remember, I’m a nobody in town. Plus, she seemed nervous.”

“Uh-huh. I still have a feeling you’re not telling me everything.”

“I’m not hiding anything from you, Hawk, but I’m not going to lie that her clipped answers put me on edge. We both want to learn the truth, no matter what the horrible answers might be. Yeah, I have a job to do but I feel obligated to find the truth.”

“The truth. Why the hell is that? I’m nothing but a story to you.”

“My God. Don’t play the martyr, Hawk. While you seem to enjoy the nasty attitude that you make certain everyone else around you experiences, I’ve seen the man inside, the one who’s feeling guilty about leaving his brother. I also experienced the one who hungers to actually enjoy his life. While I might not know all the damn reasons why you ran away to the military, I can see that you’re hurting because of all the lost time. That doesn’t give you a right to take it out on me. I’m not your punching bag. I’ve made my own mistakes. No one’s perfect. But I won’t be treated like your enemy.” She stormed off, throwing open the back door.

Goddamn it. I wasn’t equipped to handle an emotional woman. That had never been my forte. I rubbed my forehead, taking several shallow breaths.

“Wait.” The word was damn difficult to say.

“Why? So you can berate me a while longer? I’m not interested.”

I moved closer, as usual finding words difficult. “I’m sorry, Bryce. The last few days have been difficult, more so that I am able to admit to myself. I’m angry. Enraged. And yes, I feel guilty for leaving. At this point, I don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to do. I have a little girl who will need to depend on me, a ranch that requires someone who gives a damn about it, and a military life that might be in the shit shack. So yes, I have every right to be angry.”

She shifted out onto the deck, staring up at the night sky.

I studied her in the darkness; the way the light breeze shifted her long strands back and forth across her back and the way the bright moon highlighted her face. She had the ability to make me feel humble, embarrassed at my rants. No one, including my commanding officer, had been as effective.

“I can’t imagine what you’ve gone through, the horror of learning about your brother. I certainly have no clue what you’ve experienced serving our country, but you are right that this place and that little girl need you more than the Marines do. I wish I could help you feel better, but you’re not the kind of man who will allow anyone in. Then again, I’m not the kind of girl who usually cares. You confuse and frustrate the hell out of me. I don’t know what to say or not say, or how to express any emotions around you and I don’t like that. You just…” Her words trailed off, her shoulders sagging. “I have no idea what I’m saying.”

I walked closer, flanking her side and leaning over the railing. “You’re right and everything you said is true, but that doesn’t make it easy. That’s all I can say to you. I don’t allow people in. It’s been a hell of a lot easier to close myself off. Right or wrong, that’s worked for me. What I can tell you is that you’ve given me a few moments of peace, even joy during this bullshit. I will forever appreciate that. You are one infuriating woman, but right now, I’m glad you’re here. Truth is, I could use your help.”

“For?” she chided, her tone caustic.

There was something about the twinkling stars tonight that drew my attention. “Facing whatever happened to Drake. Trying to accept what I’m going to face with Ashley. I’ll completely understand if you don’t want to. We certainly aren’t in a relationship.”

I could feel her bristle, my words almost as caustic as hers.

“Nope. We’re not, Hawk. I’m just someone you spanked and fucked a couple of times. I’ll be happy to help. Then I’ll be out of your hair. For good.” She jerked away from the railing, the sound of her angst like a dull echo that I knew would never leave.

Fuck. I was a damn asshole. I grabbed her arm, yanking her toward me, my chest heaving as breathing became difficult.

“Just let me go, Hawk. This is all one big mistake. I promise that I won’t try to break into your house. I will do everything I can to keep Drake’s name out of the limelight as well.” She shoved her small fist against my chest, although there was no pressure, no real attempt to get away.

“Lady, I’m not going to let you go. I might be an asshole, but you make me crazy with desire. I’ve never wanted another woman this way. You’re not leaving. Period.” I cupped her face as a roar of fire licked through my veins.

“You’re not good for me,” she insisted, a single moan floating between us.

“Yeah? Tell me something I don’t know.” The woman was stubborn, far too much for her own good. If it was the last thing I would do, I’d keep her safe.

Even if it meant losing her in the end.

Her gaze in the moonlight was another harsh jab, daggers to my heart. The more she fought me, the more I craved her. I was overrun with the feelings of possession, the unbridled thoughts shifting everything else aside. “Woman, you belong to me. Don’t forget that.”

“I already told you. You can’t handle me.” Her chiding was followed with a sly smile as well as a single drag of her tongue across my lips. This time, she shoved her hands against me, able to pull out of my grasp.

“Not so fast, sunshine.” I snagged her arm once again, the force I used smacking her body against my chest. As I crushed her mouth with mine, she slipped her hand around my neck, the sharpness of her nails digging into my skin.

I thrust my tongue inside, my entire body aching, but soon after, we both stiffened.

Within a few seconds, the passion slowly dissipated. Perhaps the threat weighed heavily on our minds. I knew all I wanted to do was hunt down and kill the bastard, no matter the consequences.

I brushed my hand through her hair, trying to regroup, to figure out a plan. “As you said before, I need to find out what’s in the box.”

“Yeah, you do,” she stated quietly. “I think I’ll hang around, if you don’t mind. I’m not going to use whatever you find in some six o’clock news piece.”

I gave her a slight smile, thankful that she was able to put up with me. The burden of not knowing was increasing. “You know what happens if you do.”

She offered a slight smile as she pushed me toward the door. “Go. Get this over with.”

My feet felt heavy as I walked back inside. There were several tee shirts in the box and after pushing them aside, I noticed a group of pictures that had obviously been taped to Drake’s locker. The photograph on top created a wave of despair, crippling and numbing.

“What is it?” Bryce asked as she moved closer.

“A reminder of one of the best days of my life.” I closed my eyes, remembering the gorgeous afternoon, the family dinner one of the few I’d deemed it okay to come to. My brother’s high school graduation. My dad couldn’t have been prouder, especially since I’d almost flunked out twice. My brother? Top of the class. “Drake felt like he could take on the world.”

“It seems like he did. That’s a wonderful photograph. Is there a story?”

“We’d just come back from a ride, something he loved to do more than anything. We weren’t fighting as a family that day, something very unusual. Even my dad was in a good mood, taking off work for the day.” I forced myself to take another look, the smiles on our faces depicting a shared moment of happiness. If only I could go back to that moment in time. Shit. I’d been a jackass for a brother.

“It’s obvious that you loved each other very much.” She placed her hand on my shoulder, the action forcing another round of tension.

“Love is a funny thing in a family.”

She huffed, rolling her eyes. “That much I do know. What else is in the box?”

Hissing, I barely glanced at the other photographs before pushing them aside, although there were two of Jaime, several of Ashley. What remained in the box were things that could be tossed including toiletry items. There were no papers of any kind, no indication that Drake had either been investigating any entities or had found something on any of the fires.

Including Jaime’s.

Then I found an envelope nestled under a sweatshirt. While there was no indication of what might be inside, my initials were clearly marked on the corner. However, where it had once been sealed, the flap had been ripped open at some point. What the hell? “Drake meant for me to find this.”

“Jesus. Someone tampered with it.”

When I pulled the envelope into my hand, another instinctual flash floated into my mind. Whatever Drake had left had been sealed on purpose. And someone had violated his privacy.

Bryce peered over my shoulder as I yanked out two pieces of paper. The contents? Test results that allowed him to work with the fire department.

“That’s it? Examination reports? That doesn’t make any sense,” she offered.

“Nope. It certainly doesn’t.” Fuming, I had no doubt that there’s been more inside the envelope at some point. Even both pieces of paper had been folded crudely, not the way my brother would have placed something obviously important to him. He was far too neat and tidy. The paperwork had been placed inside almost as if an afterthought. Why bother?

My hackles were now on full alert.

I tossed the items into the box and dropped my head. What in the hell was actually going on?

“What are you thinking?” she asked as she pulled one of the papers into her hand.

“That there was more inside that envelope. That Drake had kept some information he didn’t want anyone to see. Maybe on the fire that killed his wife. Maybe on the recent fires. I know my brother far too well. He was meticulous with everything. There’s nothing in this house that indicates what he might have been onto.”

“Did Drake have a computer?”

Sighing, I nodded as I thought about his office. “Yeah, but if he has his computer protected with a password, there could be a number of combinations. How the fuck am I supposed to know what it is?”

She smiled, her eyes flickering. “Show me.”

I gave her a look before rising to my feet. What the hell. She was already involved, whether I liked it or not. Maybe she could actually help me find some kind of evidence. I headed into his office, flipping on the light.

“Your brother ran his company from here?” she asked as she moved toward the desk, fingering the laptop.

“That’s what I’m guessing.”

“That way he could stay close to his little girl.”

As she sat down, pulling the laptop closer, I moved toward one of the bookshelves. The man had read every business book it seemed not only in the industry but from others, including how to become wealthy. It would seem that Drake’s drive and resolve had been formidable. I admired the guy more than I could even put into words. He’d built an amazing life for his little girl.

“It is password protected. Any idea?”

“As I told you, none.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Birthdays?”

I gave her a few combinations, none of which worked.

“What about Ashley’s birthday?”

“Yeah, I guess it’s worth a shot. Let me see if it’s in the file.” Everything about this was becoming more unnerving, a puzzle I wasn’t certain I wanted to know the answers to.

I hesitated before walking into the kitchen, glaring down at the file on the counter. When I lifted Ashley’s picture into my hand, the same stabbing at my heart rushed into my system. I fingered the photograph as I’d done before, now wanting nothing more than to hold her in my arms. Perhaps I needed her as much as she needed me. Seeing her birthdate created another wave of anxiety.

The beautiful little girl with the golden curls had been born on my mother’s birthday. Hissing, I stormed back into the office, my breathing ragged. “Six-twelve-two-thousand-fifteen.”

Bryce offered a slight smile before punching in the code, her intense exhale acknowledgment that she’d been right. “We’re in.”

I watched as she typed furiously, her face pinched. When she sat back a couple of minutes later, shaking her head, I was just as angry as before. “Let me guess. There isn’t anything of use.”

“There are dozens of pictures on his computer, including several of the ranch, but nothing else and I do mean nothing. The computer was wiped clean. Who the fuck would do that?”

Narrowing my eyes, I thought about what she was saying before walking around the side of the desk. “What are you talking about?”

“If your brother ran his entire operation from this computer, then he’s been hacked. There is literally nothing on his computer. No files. No extra drives. I’m no cyber expert, but it had to have been professionally done.”

“What the fuck?”

“If I had to venture a guess, I’d say that someone wiped out everything on this computer for a reason. Maybe Drake had found something.” She lifted her head, worry encasing her expression. “Are you certain this was his business computer?”

“Not completely, but there isn’t another one in the house that I’ve found.”

“Have you checked Ashley’s room?”

I looked away. “Not yet.”

“Don’t you think it’s time that you do?” When I didn’t answer immediately, she continued. “Hawk. Whatever is going on, my guess is that your brother knew you’d figure it out. Don’t you understand how important you were to him or how much he believed in you? If you think the hat that the chief mentioned he wore all the time isn’t an indication, you’re blind and stupid. While Ashley is an innocent girl, she’s now your responsibility.”

I didn’t need the cold, harsh words to remind me of what I had to do in my life. I also couldn’t stand the fact that she seemed to know me better than I knew myself. Acceptance wasn’t an option. “You’re right. I’m not going to figure out what happened to Drake unless I put all the pieces together. That much I will give to my niece.”

“Then start by going inside her bedroom,” Bryce said quietly.

I nodded, backing out and heading toward the stairs, immediately placing my hand on the knob. As I walked into the room, I had an immediate sense of being closer to Drake. While everything was girlish, including the white canopy bed, there were subtle but obvious touches, including a duplicate of a teddy bear that I remembered from childhood. Drake had obviously tried very hard to assume the role of mother and father. Dozens of books were in the matching bookshelves, more toys and stuffed animals than I could count.

Her closet was almost full, but there were no signs of a computer. This was simply a room for a little girl to enjoy growing up around her mommy and daddy.

I closed my eyes, my chest heaving as I tried to breathe. Cut the shit, soldier. You have work to do.

I moved toward her miniature vanity, a purple velvet cushion covering the small bench-style seat, the edges covered in gold rope. A settee fit for a princess. Seeing the little jewelry box, I couldn’t help but open the lid. As music started playing to the dancing ballerina, a lump formed in my throat. Inside were beautiful baubles as well as a handwritten note, the writing I’d recognize anywhere.

Remember always that Daddy loves you.

There were no words to describe the heaviness in my heart or the weight that would remain for some time to come.

The loss was tremendous.

Oh, God. I closed my eyes, refusing to allow the tears to fall. I’d yet to shed a single one after hearing about my brother. I had nothing inside that would allow me to unravel the guilt that was so tightly woven around my heart.

As the song continued, I felt Bryce’s presence behind me, the comfort of knowing she was there unexpected. She had a distinct way of peeling back the layers one by one, forcing me to accept that there was something else to life other than work and anger. Sadly, I wasn’t certain I liked the man being unearthed. He was definitely not someone I was used to dealing with.

“I thought you might need some company,” Bryce breathed.

I rubbed my eyes, another round of anger trying to mix in with the sadness. Drake shouldn’t have been the one who died. “You have no idea.”

“Find anything?”

“Heartache,” I answered.

“I understand more than you know. She’s lucky to have you.”

“Yeah? I guess we’ll see about that,” I managed, able to see Bryce’s reflection in the mirror as I stared at the spinning dancer.

She inched closer, reaching around me to lower the lid. “Stop doubting yourself, Hawk. There is no need to. Being a good parent is all about love. The rest will come with time.”

“Wise words, but I’m not a patient man.”

“Then you need to learn how to be.”

I chuckled, more out of exasperation than anything. “I just don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“You take it a day at a time.” She rubbed her hand down my arm, sending a series of sensations down my legs. “When are you going to bring her home?”

I snorted as I thought about the question. “I’m not certain it’s a good idea right now. I need to find out what happened to Drake and I won’t put her in harm’s way.”

“Understandable, but you need to develop the relationship with her, Hawk. Start slowly. She’s lost her entire world.”

“And her voice.”

“What?” she asked, inching closer.

“She hasn’t spoken since she was told about her father.”

“That’s horrible. I’m so sorry.” Her whisper was strangled. “This might sound strange but are you certain she was told what really happened or just told her father wouldn’t be coming home?”

I gave her a quizzical look. “Why?”

“While she might not understand what heaven means, at least she knows that the reason Daddy is gone isn’t about her.”

I closed my eyes, still trying to grapple with the entire situation. “That’s a damn good question and one I don’t have the answer to, but I will find out.”

“Good. And bring her a teddy bear. Little girls always need special treats from the men who care about them.”

“I guess that’s something I need to keep in mind,” I said in a teasing tone.

She blushed immediately, lowering her eyes as if embarrassed. Then she smiled, the kind that lit up the entire room.

Everything about Bryce was unexpected, a breath of fresh air. My desire roared to the surface, hot and aching but the feeling was entirely different. I didn’t just want her to stay.

I needed her to.

She suddenly felt like the only fuel that would get me through this, a solid tether to keep me from the various demons clawing their way into my psyche. I could see confusion in her eyes, although she tried to hide it. She was entirely right. She didn’t know me, only that I was explosive and opinionated, refusing to take no for an answer.

I could tell I terrified her.

Words were needed, soft and inviting, dragging me all the way out of my comfort zone, but as I took her into my arms, they refused to come. Just like they had before.

Just like the last time I’d seen Drake.

“Lady,” I finally whispered, brushing my hand down the side of her face. “I won’t hurt you and I promise you that I won’t allow anyone else to either. I’m not a good man, certainly in comparison to my brother, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t mean something to me.” I felt her tension increasing and as she pushed her hand against my chest, another ache formed. She’d been hurt before, another reason for her running away from her former life.

“I believe you, Hawk. I just don’t know if I can do this.”

“Who hurt you before?”

After looking away, I was still able to see the despair in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me.” I pulled her chin toward me. “In case you haven’t figured it out, everything about you matters. Why we were put together I don’t know and I’m not certain if I can erase the pain you experienced or if I’m good for you, but right now, I want this.”

Bryce’s lower lip quivered as she brushed her fingers across my forehead then down the side of my face. “That’s the trouble. So do I.”

“Then—”

She placed two fingers over my lips, shaking her head. “Shush. No talking.” Rising onto her tiptoes, she lightly danced her tongue around the edge of my mouth. Ferocious need erupted, the kind that wouldn’t be denied.

“Hear me, woman. You are staying with me tonight,” I stated, this time my tone demanding.

“What if I try to run?” She blew across my neck, her words little more than a purr.

“First of all, if you even think about running, I will track you down. I am a Marine after all.”

“And second?”

“You don’t seem to listen very well,” I huffed. “Then I’ll give you the kind of spanking that will keep you from sitting down for a full week.”

“Hmmm… I don’t know about that.”

I allowed a dark growl to roll up from my chest as I entwined my fingers in her hair. “Oh, I do. Your memory is fading. You seem to forget, I own you.”

There were no rationalizing thoughts racing through my mind as the war I’d waged with my guilt and sadness continued on. She was a drug so powerful that I would do anything to have it. A rush of feelings exploded from deep within, forcing me to realize that I wanted this woman.

Not just for tonight.

Not for a casual fling.

I wanted to keep her, fuck her, train her, discipline her.

Forever.

Fuck…

Chapter Twelve

Bryce

Powerful.

Magnetic.

Unchained.

I could feel his beast so close to the surface, the creature longing to take over every aspect of Hawk’s world. But his need to control was entirely different than before. He was raw and reeling from emotions that he had no understanding of, his mask and shield cracking. I could see it in his eyes, in the way he looked at me. This wasn’t just about devouring me for the pure sense of lust.

This was indeed about ownership.

It was also about letting go. Maybe for both of us.

He’d reached through the dark crevices of my mind, grasping a hold of the personal sadness I’d refused to face. There was no point in remembering, only realizing that there were some betrayals that I couldn’t throw away just like my former life. They remained haunting me, chiding me no matter what concept of happiness I thought I’d found.

This was no different.

Even if Hawk was larger than life.

I was taken aback by his aggressive prowess as he held me, stirring feelings I had difficulty processing and ones I’d promised myself I would never feel again. The rush was incredible, addictive in every way. I was lightheaded, my body on fire and I wanted nothing more than to spend a night with them.

Even if in the back of my mind I knew we couldn’t last. He was broken, a man fighting the kind of demons that I wasn’t equipped to handle. He was dangerous on far too many levels, but not because of his domination.

Because I knew I could lose myself all over again, the hunger never sated.

But as he kissed me, holding me close to his massive chest, I let go, wrapping my arms around his neck. His hand was placed firmly against the back of my head, his grip firm and his breath scattered. Every inch of skin on my body had erupted with goosebumps, the small prickles driving the sensations to a level of euphoria. Our faces only inches away, I was still able to gaze into his shimmering eyes, catching a mere glimpse of his soul.

Reckless.

Abandoned.

Heartbroken.

He was a wounded animal, deadly yet charming. Formidable yet enticing. His allure was unequaled and as he pulled my face closer to his, I was swept away with desire.

“I want you,” he whispered, his voice rippled with husk and hunger. “I will have you and there is nothing you can do about it.”

A growl left his throat before capturing my mouth, immediately slipping his tongue past my lips, slicing it against mine. He rubbed his hand down the length of my back, adding to the dazzling jolts of electricity, finally cupping my bruised bottom. Even the sting that shifted across my buttocks was powerful, tossing me immediately into nirvana. How could one man have this much power over me, yanking at every string that had been holding me together?

Bottle rockets exploded into my mind as he snagged my hair, his fingers digging into my scalp. My eyelids were tightly clenched, my world spinning as I struggled to breathe. I clung to him, brushing my hand through his short-cropped hair as the stubble covering his face ignited a more intense round of passion. I wanted his beast. I craved his darkness.

I needed to feel his strength.

The taste of bourbon filtered into my mouth, my pulse increasing. The way his cock throbbed as he shifted it back and forth across my tummy pushed the flames into a firestorm. He continued to growl as the kiss intensified, his actions becoming savage as he ground his hips against mine.

I was wet and hot all over, my pussy aching as my nipples shifted against the thin tee shirt. My entire body was on fire. My mind was riddled with naughty girl thoughts of him twisting and plucking my hardened buds, the pain biting. No man had ever touched me this way.

Possessive.

Protective.

Brutal.

When he broke the kiss, nipping my lower lip, I could no longer feel my legs. He pushed my back into a slight arc, yanking back my head as he brushed his lips from one side of my jaw to the other, dragging his tongue down the side of my neck.

“Oh…” The single word resonated in the room, echoing in my ears. Everything was a beautiful blur as his guttural sounds became louder. I was weak in his strong hold, my fingers digging into his arms, the tips seared from the touch of him alone.

As he bit into the skin on my neck, I let out a strangled moan, no longer able to focus.

Easing back, a dark and dangerous chuckle rumbled up from his chest. “You will learn to obey me. My every command. My every requirement.”

His words titillated me even further. “And what if I don’t?”

Pushing me back several inches, the expression on his face was even more predatory, his pupils dilated. “Then you’ll face my wrath.”

“I think your bark is worse than your bite,” I teased. This was nothing more than a fantasy, but what a delicious retreat from the rest of the wretched world.

“Hmmm… It’s obvious I’m not doing my job. Maybe I will build a perfect cage, keep you locked away for my use only.”

“You know I’ll find a way to escape.”

His grin full of purpose, he tossed me over his shoulder with ease, moving immediately toward the set of stairs. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer. As he moved to the room just past Ashley’s, I realized just how much he couldn’t handle upsetting the surroundings his brother had left. “I can see I’ll have my hands full. You will need to be fully trained. Anal plugs. Nipple clamps. A collar.”

He would have no way of knowing the words were even more exciting, the threat of something so kinky only further adding to the embers constantly sparked between us.

As he eased me onto my feet, he brushed the tips of his fingers down the length of my arms. “Do not move,” he instructed.

I had no intention of doing so.

He flicked on a lamp, the single light creating a stunning illumination of the room: the beautiful comforter and comfy chair positioned in the corner by the window, the plump pillows that I envisioned being tossed over for another hard spanking, and the reflective mirror allowing a view of kinky acts occurring in the bed. Everything had a cozy appeal but was certainly nothing like the rugged man who hovered over me like a wild animal, his chest rising and falling as he directed his gaze toward me.

He closed the distance once again, rolling my long strands of hair behind my shoulders. Every touch was light, even gentle. The man was holding the beast in the cage. I knew better than to think it was going to last very long. He had a voracious appetite, his needs increasing every time we were together.

I tingled as he rubbed his thumbs across my cheeks, his hot breath cascading across my skin, creating quivers dancing down my legs. Everything about him was calculated, dominating.

A sly smile crossed his face as he raked his nails down my back, yanking the tee shirt from my jeans, tearing it from my body.

I ripped at his shirt, pushing the material up along his chest, allowing the heels of my hands to rub as I drew it over his head. A simple touch of his skin was enough to power an entire city, the heat scalding. I was breathless as I pitched his shirt across the room, feeling tiny in comparison to his massive body.

A growl flowed from his mouth as he cupped my breasts, flicking his fingers back and forth across my already hardened nipples. They were so sensitive, the lacey material of my bra only creating a stimulating round of friction. I was breathless, my heart thumping wildly as he toyed with me, pinching then releasing several times.

“My beautiful woman. You do crave pain as well as pleasure.”

I was breathless, unable to provide any kind of an answer.

Moans slipped past my lips as he jerked the straps of my bra down my arms before reaching around to my back, fumbling with the fastener. The moment he freed me of the tight confines, his upper lip curled, his expression just another reminder that I belonged to him.

The thought was terrifying as well as fascinating.

And exciting.

He was an adventure, a break from reality.

I closed my eyes as he lowered his head, swirling the tip of his tongue around first one nipple then the other, his guttural sounds more animal than man. He took his time sucking and licking. I was so wet, my panties soaked, the scent of my longing wafting into the air between us.

“Mmm… Tell me what you want,” he stated gruffly as he shifted a hand between my legs, rubbing up and down in a languishing manner.

Panting, the feel of the tough material against my wetness was ridiculously amazing. I realized I’d opened my legs wider, allowing him access. My God, I was begging him to take me.

Use me.

Fuck me.

As he continued rubbing, I realized I had difficulty forming words, my entire mind shutting down. There was only the raging desire I felt, my needs just as ravenous as his.

“I… Mmm…”

Growling, he smacked my pussy with his fingers as he dragged his lips to my other breast, nipping my tender tissue until I cried out.

“When I give you a command, you will follow it. What do you want?”

I thought about his question, my mouth suddenly dry. “Your mouth. Your tongue. Your fingers. Your cock.”

“And where do you want them?” Hawk asked, rubbing more aggressively.

I could feel the heat of his gaze, able to hear the thumping of his heart. “Everywhere.”

He was a man on a mission, easing his hands to my button and zipper as I reached for his. I ran my fingers across his belt, visions of being taken over his knee, the strap brought down time after time creating a rush of desire as well as continued embarrassment.

For a girl who’d never wanted a controlling man, I couldn’t help but be scintillated at the thought. He’d broken through almost every one of my barriers, although the last he would never be able to crack.

Pulling away, he gave me a dangerous smile. “Undress for me, sweetheart. I need to see your hot little body.”

His gaze remained as I struggled to remove my boots before slowly sliding the dense material over my hips. I could tell he was salivating, his hunger only increasing. I allowed my eyes to fall to his beautiful cock, which stood at full attention, pushing hard against his pants. The man would have his fill of me, taking me in every hole.

When I was fully undressed, only then did he do the same, pitching everything to the side before advancing, his growls permeating the space around us. He took a single finger, sliding it over my forehead then down my cheek, moving around my lips in an exaggerated circle.

“Open your mouth for me.”

The husky tone of his voice left me shivering and I obeyed him without question, my eyes never leaving his as he rolled his fingers under my chin then along my jaw. As he slipped his finger inside my mouth, I clamped down, squeezing until he smiled.

“Such a little brat.” He pumped his fingers several times before easing them away, sliding them over my shoulder to the middle of my back. “Imagine the sinful things I can and will do to your body.”

“What?” I dared to ask.

“Maybe I’ll tattoo you, making certain anyone who feasts with their eyes knows you belong to me. After that, I’ll brand your beautiful bottom, a reminder that you will obey my every command. Then I’ll pierce your gorgeous nipples, your luscious clit. Imagine every time I tug on the chain. Yes. I will keep you naked and ready for me at all times. Would you like that?”

He knew exactly how to get to me, leaving me breathless, my heart fluttering. “Uh-huh.”

The single hard smack against my bottom gave me a smile.

“Try that again,” he commanded.

“Yes, sir.” The words slipping out so easily startled me.

As he grabbed my hips, spinning me around, he eased onto the end of the bed, pulling me into his lap.

I straddled him, my knees folded, his cock enticingly close to my swollen pussy. I shifted back and forth, teasing him relentlessly.

“One wicked girl,” he said, chuckling as he tilted his head back and forth. “But you will surrender.” He crushed his mouth over mine, thrusting his tongue inside, his actions becoming forceful and crazed.

The way he sucked on my tongue was enthralling, catching me off guard. I shuddered from his touch, wanting nothing more than for him to slide his cock deep inside.

He had other thoughts in mind. Breaking the kiss, he narrowed his eyes, his nostrils flaring. “Stand on my legs, sweetheart.”

I gave him a shy smile until he growled.

Then I did what he commanded and was immediately rewarded. Hawk gripped my bottom, yanking me forward, his grip firm as he leaned forward, burying his face into my wetness.

“Oh, my…” I was shocked at the difference in sensations, the wetness of his tongue and the angle driving me instantly into a moment of utter nirvana. He licked up and down, taking his time with each pass before swirling the tip around my clit. There was nothing to hold onto. I was free floating, my body swaying forward and backward. I’d never felt such a loss of control even as his tongue pushed me into such bliss. I was lightheaded, forced to blink several times, a nervous laugh pushing past my lips.

I was drawn in by his growls, the way he shook his head. He was a man feasting as if for the last time, his hunger knowing no bounds. With every swipe of his tongue, quivers danced down my arms and legs, until I could no longer feel them. But I knew he was holding me, a part of me hoping that he’d never let go.

Closing my eyes, I fell into a lull as he thrust his tongue inside, pushing past the swollen folds and lapping my cream. I was intoxicated by the combined scent of our desire, my throat burning from the delicious fragrance. I could still taste him from what seemed like hours before, the amazing aftertaste of his cum tangy yet sweet.

I’d been shocked that he’d roped me, dragging me to the very earth, but the rush of adrenaline had been yet another drug my system craved. Even sucking his cock in the middle of a beautiful field had only added to the recklessness, the filthy moment that fantasies were made of.

“Oh, God. Oh…” Stars floated in front of my eyes as he dug his fingers into my bottom. There was no way I could move, no way to escape. For tonight, I belonged to him.

Hawk took his time working my clit until it was swollen, then driving his tongue inside my quivering channel until I was soaking wet. He brought me to the edge of a raging climax then pulled away, rubbing his lips across my tummy. His evil chuckle floated into the air as he darted the tip of his tongue around my belly button.

Every time he brought me close to a mindboggling orgasm, my entire body tensed, my legs shaking involuntarily. I had no idea how much time had gone by, but I was wet and drained, every part of me erupting from the fire that had built to a combustible stage. “Please let me come. Please.” He continued licking for several seconds, enough so I tossed my head back and forth, vibrations coursing through my body.

“Mmm… Are you ready, my sweet? Are you prepared to erupt into my mouth?”

“Yes. Yes. Yes!” My scream was bedraggled, breathless. Stars and vibrant colors of light floated across my eyes, leaving me unable to focus.

Or think.

Or feel my legs.

Or breathe…

I laughed softly as I sagged forward, tottering back and forth. As I placed my hands on his shoulders, my body no longer able to remain upright, he picked up the intensity. With every savage thrust of his tongue, I rushed closer to raw ecstasy.

“Uh. Uh. Uh. Uh.”

Hawk parted my bottom, rubbing several fingers up and down the crack of my ass. I sucked in my breath, the anticipation of both the explosive orgasm and what I knew he was preparing to do electrifying every inch of my skin. He toyed with me, rubbing the tip of a single finger around my darkened hole as he licked furiously.

There was no possibility of thinking clearly, no chance of catching my breath. The climax was close, tickling the very ends of my toes then sweeping up the length of my legs.

I opened my mouth in a silent scream as he plunged a single finger deep into my asshole, instantly creating a wave of pain. There was no denying the moment of bliss, the powerful sensations driving me onto my toes, my fingers digging into his face and neck as I struggled to continue standing.

He refused to let me go, thrusting his tongue in powerful jabs, licking up every drop of my cream.

As one climax crested into two, my body sagged, my feet slipping. I was in a beautiful surreal moment, a gigantic wave of pure pleasure swallowing every bit of tension. What was left was a sated woman.

A series of whispered growls erupted from the depths of his being, the husky vibe slipping over my skin as he pulled me into his lap. Even the way he pulled me down, cradling me against his chest was possessive, forever controlling.

“Perfect,” he huffed as he rubbed strands of damp hair from my face, peppering my neck and jaw with heated open-mouthed kisses.

The way his cock pushed against me was far too enticing. I couldn’t help but shift back and forth until his breathing became ragged.

“You seem to forget what happens when you taunt me,” he half whispered, his voice dipping dangerously low.

“Do you mean like this?” I purred as I repeated the move, giving him a sly smile.

He shook his head, his eyes little more than darkened pools as he twisted me around, forcing us both to face the dresser. “See that girl in the mirror?” he asked, pointing toward the glimmering reflection.

“Uh-huh.” The girl was one I no longer recognized.

“She’s about to get fucked.” He lowered his head, nuzzling against my neck as he rolled his hands around to cup my breasts. The way he stroked his fingers across my skin left me covered in goosebumps. As the pressure built as he squeezed then twisted, I was simply left breathless.

But there was no way I’d stop teasing him, rubbing my aching bottom up and down as I kept my mischievous smile. I was shocked how the sensations increased in volume, my pulse skipping beats. This was provocative and sensual while wicked in nature.

He nipped my earlobe, darting his tongue just inside. “Be careful, little girl, or I’m going to tie you down once again.”

“Mmm… I’ll risk it,” I managed as I brushed my fingers down the sides of his thighs, rolling the tips over his carved muscles. How could any man be this incredibly built? As his cock throbbed under me, I closed my eyes.

“No, you don’t. You’re going to watch.” He pinched both nipples hard enough I yelped, the rush of discomfort forcing me to open my eyes.

“Yes, sir.” I twisted my mouth as he kept his hold, finally lifting me off his lap, his cock easily finding my slickness.

I was shocked at his self-constraint as he rolled his cockhead up and down, tickling my clit and driving me absolutely crazy with longing. By the time he slipped his shaft just past my swollen folds, I was panting, my eyes looking like a wild cougar in the reflection. The man made me hotter than any other, his barbaric need for domination yanking out the primal side of me.

Hawk tilted his head, giving me a practiced look of pure authority before yanking me down, my muscles straining to accept the thick invasion.

“Oh, yes. Oh. Oh…” I tried to obey him, watching our sinful actions as his shaft swelled, filling me completely, but I was foggy from extreme lust.

He didn’t have to command me to ride him. There was no way I could resist as I planted my hands on his thighs, using them for leverage as I pulled up then slammed down over and over again. My legs were tense, my heart racing and the feel of him expanding was yet another yank into ecstasy.

The way he studied me in the mirror only added fuel to the fire, both of us panting as we moved together. I couldn’t believe the way his cock felt buried so deep inside, taking me to new heights of pleasure, the angle adding to the rapture.

When he suddenly took over, using his rugged thighs to power into me, he pushed me forward. I gripped my knees, my entire body trembling as he thrust in a brutal manner, skin slapping against skin.

“So hot,” he murmured, still pinching and twisting my nipples, the pain beautifully blinding.

“So hard,” I retorted, half smiling as I attempted to focus, adoring the way we looked in the mirror.

Chuckling under his breath, he licked the side of my neck, letting out a roar before biting down.

“Oh…” The intense sigh left my mouth as I lolled my head, blinking several times in an effort to maintain focus. My tender tissue remained sensitive, my muscles straining as he pumped harder and faster. I could still feel the way his cock throbbed, smiling as I sensed he was close to coming.

He crawled his fingers up to my neck, squeezing until my eyes flew open, his lips brushing against my ear as he whispered, “All bad girls get fucked in the ass and you are one sinful lady.” He used his hold on my neck to lift me, taking his other hand and nestling the tip of his cock to my dark hole.

I tensed as usual, moaning as I clawed his skin. When he slipped his cockhead just inside, I held my breath.

“Nice and easy, at least at first,” he murmured, pushing an inch inside.

Lights flashed in front of my eyes as the slice of agony drifted down my legs. He stretched me wide open, forcing me to take another inch. I raked my nails down his legs, no doubt leaving marks, a telling of our filthy passion. As the pain washed into dazzling sensations, scalding heat roaring through my muscles, he yanked me all the way down.

“Ah!” I whimpered as the jolt of electricity pushed me into what could only be described as nirvana.

Hawk held me in place for a full minute, grinding against me, peppering wet kisses along my arm and shoulder. “Feel good, baby? Do you like the way I fill you with my cock?”

“God, yes. More.”

“More, huh?” As he released his hold, sliding his hands to my hips, I couldn’t take my eyes off his expression.

Unbridled.

Covetous.

Obsessive.

I was no longer terrified of his desire or of the man behind the mask he continued to wear. However, I knew better than to think I could keep him. He’d never be happy with a quiet life. I shoved the way the thoughts as he drove into me long and hard, his body pitching as it tensed.

With every brutal plunge, I realized I could no longer think. This was as raw as it got, beautiful in the extreme passion.

Exhaustion mixed in with the wondrous sensations, leaving me breathless. I could tell he was close to coming, his growls escalating. Within seconds, his body began to shake, his fingers digging deep into my skin, the heat shared between us exploding.

“Fuck. Fuck!” he roared, jerking me against him as he erupted deep inside.

I eased my head against his shoulder as he held me, savoring the way his cock throbbed as he filled me with his seed. I’d never felt closer or more satisfied than at this moment.

He pressed his face against mine, brushing his fingers up and down my thighs. “I could do this forever.”

I opened my eyes, gazing at our combined reflection. Forever was a word that was difficult for both of us, but for a few beautiful seconds, I imagined what it could be like.

“Yes,” I managed. “Forever.”

The bourbon had been replaced with wine, the bottle remaining on his side of the bed. Candles flickered from their position on the dresser, the dim light still allowing a shadowed view of our naked bodies. I bit back a whimper at the thought as he pulled me closer against his chest. He tugged the sheet further up, covering my breasts as he continued stroking my back. I would have never taken him for one to pillow talk and while there’d been few words said, the comfort of being in his arms was as amazing as it was unexpected.

“I’m going to see Ashley tomorrow. You’re right. She needs to get to know her uncle,” he said before reaching for his wine, swirling the glass.

I studied the way his jaw remained clenched, tense for obvious reasons. “I’m glad. Take my advice, don’t expect her to react at first.”

“I know,” he chuckled. “With my lack of patience, the entire process will be difficult.”

“I have faith in you. You got potential, Sergeant Travers.” The last sentence was said with an accent, a line from one of my favorite movies. Only in real life, rich princes didn’t come along to save damsels in distress.

“Ya think so, huh?” he growled the words and kissed the top of my head. “Don’t take bets on that, sweetheart.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re not a good guy. How could I forget?”

He finally took a sip of his wine, reaching around my head and lifting my chin as he lowered down. The moment he pressed his lips against mine, he pushed them open, allowing the wine to trickle inside. While the action was simple, I couldn’t help but quiver.

“And you’ll always be my brat,” he countered, finally easing the glass onto the nightstand, pulling me close once again.

We remained quiet for a few minutes and I thought he’d fallen asleep. Then he asked a question that I wasn’t certain how to answer.

“Why did you come here?”

“I already told you why,” I whispered.

“Nope. I know when you’re not telling me everything, remember?”

I stiffened, trying to push away but he held me fast. “Let it go, Hawk. Not worth talking about.”

“Maybe it is to me. The past is hurting you, keeping you closed off.”

“You call this closed off?” I teased, shuddering all over when he gave me an authoritative look. “My life was an ugly mess. Okay?”

“Tell me something, sweetheart. Whose life isn’t one fucking bunch of shit?”

Sighing, I rubbed his chest, drawing the tips of my fingers in aimless circles. “I know you’re right. I’m just embarrassed, I think.”

“Trust me, sunshine. I have plenty to be embarrassed about. Why don’t you trust me?” His words weren’t a question but his usual command.

I thought about his request. “The funny thing is that I do more than I have anyone. You are a man of true integrity.” When he bristled, I tweaked his nipple. “You have your own skeletons, Hawk. Why don’t you trust me?”

He peered down at me, making certain I looked directly into his eyes. “I do. There are portions of my life that you can’t fix.”

“But you can fix mine.”

Grinning, he rubbed his index finger around my lips. “Yep. That’s what cowboys do.”

“So, you’re a cowboy now.”

“Looks that way.”

Why did his words make me tingle all over? He was staying. I was flustered, butterflies pooling in my stomach. How could I care so much for a man I barely knew?

But I did.

Maybe I wanted my big, rugged cowboy to fix this for me. After all, he’d kind of swept me off my feet. That is, after I broke into his house. A smile crossed my face, warmth rushing into me. Maybe it was time to put the past in a big black box and toss it into the river. Hmm… “Here goes. On top of the fact my sister is getting that perfect job in the networks, the one I worked so hard to achieve, she also is getting married to my boyfriend of three years. I happened to notice the announcement in the Philadelphia Gazette. And yes, I do follow her career just to continue stabbing myself.”

“Ouch. Shit, woman.” He half laughed, yanking me closer as if expecting I’d pull away.

“She is far prettier, I guess. Maybe she’s worthy of love.”

The growl erupting from his throat was far different than the others, even more possessive as well as ferociously angry. His protective side was showing.

And I loved it.

Hawk’s grip on my chin was almost harsh, his nostrils flaring. “Now, you listen to me, girl, and you hear me good. You are the absolutely the most beautiful woman I’ve ever set my eyes on. You’re spunky and vivacious, one hell of a kisser and damn if you don’t have a pretty good right hook on you for a girl. As far as love, I ain’t no expert. That much you already know, but there isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t feel blessed at having you stand by his side for the rest of his life. As far as your sister goes, there are words I’d like to say, but I won’t in front of a true lady.”

Kisses were made for moments of raw passion or in times of sorrow and need, but this… This was something else entirely. I was jetted to another plane, a surreal place of ultimate beauty as well as unending desire from the way he kissed me.

As if our life depended on it.

As if he wouldn’t be able to breathe without it.

As if we would forever be entwined, our lives becoming as one.

I was breathless, my entire body quivering as he rubbed his fingers across my face, the intimacy raw, a thirst that would never be quenched. When he finally eased away, his breathing remained scattered, his chest heaving.

“Thank you for that,” I struggled to say, my hammering heart echoing into my ears.

“If you ever think otherwise, I will spank that beautiful ass of yours.” He winked, still hissing under his breath.

“Yes. Sir.”

As I nuzzled into the crook of his arm, more of the tension and the self-hatred washed away, leaving me with the sweetest reverence of peace. As I closed my eyes, I could still see his face and that was the very moment I knew that I’d fallen desperately in love with him.

What the hell was I going to do?

Buzz…

I opened my eyes, struggling to make sense of where I was. Had I heard a noise? No, the space was quiet, maybe too much so. Everything was hazy, including the slip of light in front of me. A candle. The flicker was coming from a single candle, the other already out. I couldn’t help but smile, still feeling the warmth of Hawk’s body against mine, the tickle of his breath rolling over my shoulder. I stretched, the shift allowing me to feel his semi-hard cock against my bottom. A part of me wanted to be very naughty, taunting him in his sleep, but I had the distinct feeling that he rarely slept.

Exhaling, I could lie in his arms forever, enjoying his hard body. The thought was scintillating. The second I closed my eyes I heard the same noise again.

A text message.

I was instantly on alert, my body tensing. Lifting my head, I was able to catch a glimpse of the time. Almost three in the morning. Oh, no. No one would text me in the middle of the night.

Unless it was another threat.

The damn phone was still in my jeans on the other side of the room. I held my breath as I slid away from him, taking my time, stiffening when his hand fell to my hip. Glancing over my shoulder, I could tell that he was still asleep, even though his fingers pressed down on my skin. I had to know what I’d been sent. Every move subtle, I finally slipped from under the covers, padding slowly toward my clothes.

The moment I pulled the phone into my hand, it began to shake. The picture was horrific, fire enveloping an entire building. I bit back a moan as I slid my finger across to the screen, fumbling to get to the text screen. The words were just as shocking as the image.

This is what will happen if you don’t shut the fuck up. And that Marine of yours won’t be able to help you.

I was shaking all over as I enlarged the picture. One of the barns at the ranch where I lived. At least that’s what it looked like. I held the phone against my chest, taking gulping breaths. Please God, don’t tell me any animals died because of my stupidity.

My heart racing, I glanced back at the sleeping giant. Whoever the asshole was knew about Hawk. I couldn’t risk his life or Ashley’s. I leaned against the dresser, trying to figure out what to do. My God, I’d sledgehammered both of us into a nightmare. All for a story? Or for a cause? I didn’t know any longer. What I did realize is that Hawk could never see the text or the picture.

There was only one way to ensure that he never would.

And the only choice was going to break my heart.

That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!

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