The Hotter They Are, the Harder They Fall…
After losing part of a leg in combat, Brandon Theroux has built a new life as a fitness model and confirmed playboy, living every day to the fullest. When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes his way, he bids farewell to his hometown—and to the one woman he’d always wanted but could not have.
Bar owner Harper Johnson has too much self-respect to join the ranks of Brandon’s conquests, but when a health scare catapults her onto a journey of a lifetime, she turns to the one person who knows what it means to seize the day, find your bliss, and never look back. Brandon becomes her rock…until they realize that a bond forged between friends who can’t keep their hands off each other has the potential to be a whole lot hotter than either of them is prepared to handle.
Harper aimed a dart at the stack of bright pink missed message notes tacked to the dartboard, trying—again, for the seemingly billionth time since she’d stolen down to the tavern after closing—to throw a “three in a bed” over her doctor’s phone number. She squinted at her target, her eyes burning around the edges from fatigue. A glance at the clock behind the bar told her it was three forty-five. Damn insomnia.
On most nights, she loved being in the bar after closing time, loving the feel of the place after everyone had left. The atmosphere hummed with the lingering energy of her tavern patrons and, some nights, she could smell the wood of the bar itself over the clinging scent of cleaning products and stale beer. There was a solidness to the exposed brick walls of the building that centered her. This was her domain, her paradise. Wood and brick and tradition.
But tonight, the energy in the bar was all wrong. That group of biker punks had returned, though her bouncer had already asked them on a few occasions to take their business elsewhere, and they’d rattled her cage something fierce. She didn’t like drunks like them. Mean, entitled. Drunks like them didn’t make the women in the bar feel safe, nor did they tip well or leave nicely.
Case in point, one of them had torn the seat back from a bar stool when she’d refused them another round. She’d had her hand on her phone, with 9-1 dialed before they agreed to let the bouncer escort them out.
She probably still should have dialed that last 1. But then they’d left and she’d wanted so badly to feel safe again in her own establishment—in her own house, for Pete’s sake—that she’d decided to forget the unpleasantness altogether. Just like she was allowing herself to forget that her doctor’s office manager had taken to leaving messages at the tavern, exposing a glimpse of her private life to her employees. She’d thought she’d done a bang-up job ignoring both threats to her peace of mind that evening, except that apparently she hadn’t, because here she was, in the middle of the night, taking her anxiety out on a helpless stack of papers.
She drank deeply on her pint of Guinness, then lined up again in front of the dartboard. This was it. She’d throw one last dart, make the three in a bed, and then try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, she’d double up on bouncers and return her doctor’s call. Easy peasy.
A light flashed on the other side of the wooden blinds. Dart in hand, Harper walked to the window and widened the gap between two slats. After closing time, there were always a few vehicles in the lot belonging to bar patrons who weren’t sober enough to drive home, which made them sitting ducks for auto thieves. Sure enough, in the back of the lot, an old silver hatchback idled near a parked sports car. Between the vehicles stood a man wearing a dark hoodie, hunched over the parked car as though picking the lock.
“Son of a bitch.” She slammed the dart onto the nearest table, then jogged to her office.
It would be hell on business for word to get out about more criminal activity at her bar. With the bikers and a stolen vehicle the week before, she couldn’t afford another incident, so she grabbed her .22 from under the desk and a handful of rounds. Enough was enough. It might be a man’s world, but that was only because not enough women were properly armed.
She loaded the rifle as she walked, then unlocked the front door and threw it open. It clanged against the metal stopper as she raised the rifle barrel toward the Erie Canal and fired into the sky. The boom echoed off the tavern’s brick wall and vibrated all the way to Harper’s bones as the recoil jolted her off balance, bumping her backside into the wall.
The man’s arms flew into the air. A cacophony of squeals erupted from the idling car. Women? Seemed unlikely that a gang of car thieves would be comprised mostly of women, but then again, as a bar owner, Harper had seen it all. The man doing the actual stealing was probably the driver’s boyfriend or pimp.
“Get off my property, or next time I aim to kill,” Harper bellowed as she loaded a second round. She aimed her rifle at the man this time, and let him get a real good earful of her cocking the gun.
The driver spilled out of the car, squeaking and tripping all over herself in a pair of turquoise platform heels. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two and wore a daddy issues miniskirt and a barely there halter top that had Harper placing her bet that the man was her pimp, not a boyfriend. Arms spread, legs spread, and mascara running down her cheeks, she threw herself in front of the pimp like a shield. A dumb, blonde ho shield. “Don’t shoot him. He’s a veteran. He fought for this country and almost died. You’d be sorry if you hurt an American hero.”
Harper strode into the parking lot to get a closer look at the situation as the man sidestepped his personal shield and walked into the glow of the idling car’s headlights. “Harper, it’s just me. What the hell are you doing?”
Harper dropped the gun to her side, her finger sliding off the trigger as she walked. There was no mistaking that voice or the perfect cheekbones illuminated in the headlights or the dark eyes that locked onto hers.
Harper shook her head, torn between mortification that she’d had a gun aimed at her . . . well, whatever the heck Brandon Theroux was to her, and irritation at the realization that he’d arrived in her parking lot fresh from a four-way. She sidled closer. “You played the ‘American hero’ card with these girls? And they went for it?”
He had the audacity to shrug, a devilish smile on his lips. Too bad for him that Harper had seen that smile on him a thousand times and knew better than to fall for it. “Cut the charm. What are you doing here? I almost shot you.”
He patted the Shield’s shoulder. “You can get back in your car where it’s warm. Everything’s okay. Annie Oakley, here, is a friend of mine.”
Now that Harper’s pulse had stopped pounding and her adrenaline was regulating, she saw clearly that the car he’d been trying to get into was his own. Nothing said classy like convincing the trio of nubile, barely legal coeds you’re partying with to give you a ride back to your car when you’re done screwing their brains out. Such a gentleman.
She huffed at the thought. “Looks like you had fun tonight. Your mother would be so proud.”
He walked her way and stopped in front of her, too close, the musky scent of sex all over him. “Give it a rest. The guilt trips are getting old.”
The rifle barrel was cool and hard in her grip. She leveled a stubborn, proud gaze at him, because fuck him. Brandon held no sway over her. No man had the power to hurt her like that. “Then why bring them here, to my property, if my opinions of your life choices are so bothersome?”
“Brandon?” Another of the coeds, a brunette with pouty red lips, tipped her head out of the open back-seat window. “Are you sure everything’s okay? She looks mad and she has a gun.”
He turned to them with that awful smile, his demeanor all indulgent charm. “She always looks like that, but she’s harmless.”
Gee, thanks. “How does it work with a four-way? Do the girls entertain one another while you’re busy with one of them, like you see in porn, or do they each wait patiently in a line on the bed for you to get to them? Either way, you must have incredible stamina.”
He reached down and seized hold of the rifle. She allowed him to take it from her and pop out the unspent cartridges.
“Harper,” he breathed, pocketing the ammo. His gaze slid from her hair to her shoulder and chest. “Like I always tell you, you should be the one in my bed.”
Gnashing her teeth, she braced herself against an unwanted shiver at his words, at the thought of being in his bed. “And like I always tell you, you should have more self-control than to screw your way through the University of Buffalo sorority rosters, but I guess we’re at an impasse.”
His jaw rippled as he leaned close, his voice a harsh whisper. “I take that shit from you when we’re around our friends out of respect for you and what you’ve gone through, but right here, right now, it’s just the two of us, and I’m not going to let you pretend that our impasse is because of my issues.”
But it wasn’t just the two of them; there were three coeds watching. Before Harper could verbalize that point, he shoved the unloaded rifle into her arms. Their glares held steady in the weighted silence. He was only half right, but still, his words cut to the bone. It wasn’t entirely his fault that they couldn’t be more than friends, but it wasn’t hers, either. Like so many things in life, Harper and Brandon’s clash of wills just was.
“Brandon? We’re going to take off, okay?” the Shield said. “Ashley has to be at work early tomorrow. You’ll call me, right?”
Brandon didn’t take his eyes off Harper. “Sure, yeah. I’ll be in touch.”
Unbelievable, the lies. “Did you even get their names this time?”
He remained silent, his face as hard as stone. His eyes shifted to the side, tracking the girls’ car as it left the parking lot.
Harper reached into his pocket to retrieve the cartridges. She had them gathered in her fingers when his hand darted out and clamped around her wrist.
“What do you want from me?” His voice was little more than a rumble of sound in the night, so quiet that it took her a moment to realize he’d spoken at all.
What did she want from him? So much that it hurt to think about what could never be.
He tugged her wrist harder. “You’re the one who rejected me, who keeps rejecting me, but yet you don’t want me to be with anyone else? Why that it? Because it’s fucked up, Harper.”
She released the cartridges back into his pocket and jerked her hand away from his hold. The late hour seeped into Harper’s muscles. She didn’t have the energy to fight with him tonight, not after the grind of a day she’d had. Propping the rifle against her shoulder, she took a few swift steps back, then pivoted toward Locks and walked away without a word.
“Hey, wait,” he called from behind her. His footsteps sounded in approach. “What are you doing with the gun? The bar closed more than an hour ago. Why are you still awake?”
He didn’t sound angry anymore, but like a friend, concerned. Even still, she knew better than to tell him the truth about the bikers or the stolen car or the calls from her doctor, because then he’d go all American Hero on her and she didn’t have it in her to be treated like a damsel in distress, especially by him.
She turned around and walked backward. “Like I told you, I saw you through the window and thought you were trying to steal a car from my lot.”
His long strides ate up the ground between them, the artifice gone from his features and replaced by genuine worry. “Why didn’t you call the police?”
“Because I was handling it.”
He scowled at that. “What if I really had been a bad guy and pulled my own gun on you in response? Why would you risk your life like that over a car that doesn’t belong to you?”
“One, it wasn’t about the car. Police activity isn’t good for business. And two, I don’t need you to lecture me.”
“Funny, I was just saying the same thing to you a few minutes ago.”
She sighed and held her hands aloft. “I’m calling a truce for tonight. You can come back later today so we can argue some more, if you want.”
At the bar entrance, she pulled the doorknob, but his hand slammed onto the door, holding it shut and trapping her between the door and his body. “What’s really going on in the bar?”
Flustered by his nearness, she decided to get the truth spilling over with on the off-chance he’d let her go. She turned and faced him. “There were some guys in Locks tonight that were bad news. No big deal.”
His eyes narrowed. “Bad new like how?”
“Bad news like they were drunk and looking for trouble. This is a bar; it happens all the time.”
His frown intensified. “You’re not telling me the whole story.”
“I don’t owe you the whole story.” She turned and tugged on the door, but he held his hand steady on it, barring its movement.
She closed her eyes. Why was he being so intense? Why wouldn’t he take the hint and leave? “Brandon, I’m too tired for this. Why don’t you go home and take a shower? You reek of sex.”
She put her back to him and tugged on the door again.
“Wait. Please.” The tinge of desperation in his voice gave her pause. “I have something to tell you, something I’ve been putting off, but you deserve to know.”
She both hated and loved moments like this with him, when their defenses fell away and the sparring stopped. When his voice turned raw and real. The incorrigible bachelor gone, and in his place, just a man she could imagine herself loving, if only . . .
She turned to face him again, her chest brushing his, and pressed her back to the door, dread making her pulse race and her stomach churn. The tone in his voice told her that, whatever he had to say, it couldn’t be good. Her thoughts flashed to the stack of missed message notes on the dartboard. More bad news, she was sure of it. But she shook the thought away and met Brandon’s hard gaze. Though the eaves shrouded his face in shadow, his nose, cheeks, and lips shone like marble in the floodlights.
She blocked out the stench of sex on him and concentrated instead on the way he felt pressed against her and how close his lips were to hers. When was the last time they’d kissed? Months ago. Longer, maybe. The thought of it, of the realization of how hungry she was for the taste of him on her lips, made her heart ache.
She cleared her throat, forcing her traitorous thoughts away. “Okay, lay it on me. What’s so important that it can’t wait until morning?”