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Lay It Down (Desert Dogs Series #1)
     

Lay It Down (Desert Dogs Series #1)

4.0 16
by Cara McKenna
 

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First in the exciting new Desert Dog series, starring hot and sexy bikers in the Southwest...

Backbreaking days, wild nights, and the hard hum of steel between your thighs...

That’s a life well lived, according to the Desert Dogs—four friends who call Fortuity, Nevada, their badlands home.

Vince Grossier is the self-crowned outlaw king

Overview

First in the exciting new Desert Dog series, starring hot and sexy bikers in the Southwest...

Backbreaking days, wild nights, and the hard hum of steel between your thighs...

That’s a life well lived, according to the Desert Dogs—four friends who call Fortuity, Nevada, their badlands home.

Vince Grossier is the self-crowned outlaw king around here. But when Fortuity’s slick new mayor invites a casino development to town, greed isn’t far behind—and it claims Vince’s good friend as its first casualty. With the law turning a blind eye to the mysterious death, Vince must seek his own brand of justice. The pretty photographer hired by the developers might be the key to uncovering the truth. And she’s a temptation too good to pass up.

Finally free of a controlling ex, Kim Paget’s not looking to be taken for a ride—not on the back of some tattooed roughneck’s bike and definitely not in his bed. But when she uncovers evidence supporting Vince’s suspicions of murder, Kim must entrust her safety to a man whose body threatens danger of a whole different kind.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
06/23/2014
McKenna launches the Desert Dogs series with this sexy tale of mayhem and make-outs in small-town Nevada. Sheriff’s deputy Alex learns about bones found at the construction site of the town’s new casino. He tells his best friend, rough-around-the-edges biker Vince Grossier, about them—and dies in a car accident before Vince can find out anything more. Convinced that Alex was murdered by the casino’s developers, Vince begins to investigate. He doesn’t reckon on finding an unlikely sidekick: slick city girl Kim Paget, a freelance photographer who’s been hired to take shots of the work site. McKenna ratchets up sexual chemistry and danger in equal measure, and tension stays high to the end. Readers will eagerly turn pages to learn the outcome of both the mystery and the romance. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
"McKenna's voice is gritty and compelling."
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Maya Banks 

Cara McKenna Delivers

“Sweet, smoking-hot, standout romance.”
—Beth Kery, New York Times Bestselling Author of Because We Belong
 
“A well-done, real-life, gritty erotic romance.”—Smexy Books
 
“Exceptionally evocative writing.”—Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780451471260
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/05/2014
Series:
Desert Dogs Series , #1
Pages:
336
Sales rank:
1,315,431
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

PRAISE FOR CARA MCKENNA

ALSO BY CARA MCKENNA

SIGNET ECLIPSE

Chapter 1

Alex Dunn studied the bottle before him. Hunkered down, chin on crossed arms, he had his eyes level with the label, too close to bring into focus. The whole world was out of focus, frankly.

You’re drunk.

Shocker.

Drunk . . . yet the weird thing was, his head felt like the only place left in this town that made sense.

He couldn’t get the memory of what he’d seen that afternoon out of his head. Vivid, as if he were there now, so much more clear than reality. The brutal August sun baking his neck above the collar of his khaki deputy’s uniform, and that smell—acrid and animal. Smoke and clay. The ground a jumble of displaced red dirt, coyote prints . . . and black, charred bones.

He’d been sent over to the construction site on another matter—a routine permit in need of a department signature—when one of the Mexican workers had run up to him and the foreman, looking shaky and rambling about huesos. The guy said he’d seen something like a shallow grave—sounded like a casualty of the drug trade. After taking a look, Alex had called it in to headquarters, so the matter could be turned over to a detective. He’d tried hard to keep his voice even, not wanting to betray his unease . . . or to undermine his competence any more than he had already, lately. Some people in the department looked at him sideways these days, his off-duty issues with the bottle no secret. In a town as small as Fortuity, Nevada, nobody’s demons stayed private for long.

The foreman had been rip-shit. The construction outfit for the Eclipse resort casino was under the gun with the developers who’d won the bid to design the thing, constantly racing the clock to meet some new deadline, score some juicy early-completion bonus. Alex knew all this well—some deputy or other was forever rushing out to the sites to deal with the latest zoning dispute or sign off on some form, sometimes even the sheriff of Brush County himself. Last thing the foreman wanted was to get shit from his bosses about a criminal investigation that could throw the project into jeopardy and bench a hundred or more workers for who could guess how long. But the law was the law, and bones were bones.

“But money,” Alex told the bottle, tapping it with his knuckle, “is money.” Tap. “Is money.”

Shit. He was so drunk.

But given it was after eight o’clock, and he was through driving anyplace for the evening . . . well, that went without saying. He took another slug.

Jesus, he had to cut back. Before this year, he’d never come to work hungover. He’d known how much he could handle, exactly what time to call it quits, how much water to drink to hit the ground running the next morning. Then his grandfather had passed in January, and he’d begun to make excuses for himself. And he wasn’t dumb. He knew coming to work hungover was just one point on the same slope that ended with drinking on duty, then losing the job entirely. And he loved his job. It was his only reason for staying sober at all now. It was, without hyperbole, his life.

He pushed a button on his phone, lighting up the screen to check the clock. Shit, eleven thirty. God knew sleep wouldn’t be happening tonight, not with the images from this afternoon pacing around and around in his mind. He needed to talk to a friend, not a colleague. Someone discreet, and tough to unsettle. Someone with demons of his own, who’d never made Alex feel judged for his.

On impulse, he opened up his contacts list. Strange, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d actually phoned Vince. Probably Alex’s best friend, even if they’d drifted off on such different tracks—namely, Vince routinely wound up on the wrong side of the bars in the county jail, and Alex was often the one standing on the other, keys in hand. He cracked a smile at that. The man wasn’t harmless, no, but he wasn’t a real worry, either. He picked a lot of fights and never turned any down. He also got up to some unlicensed bookmaking, but if Vince’s crimes had so-called victims, they sure as shit weren’t innocent ones. As consenting as dance partners, in fact. In light of this creepy business with the bones, Vince’s misdemeanors struck Alex as damn near quaint.

He hit CALL, listened to the tone. Had to be at least a year since he’d last phoned Vince. Didn’t need to, normally. Their paths crossed at least twice a week at the bar, as regular as the sun meeting the horizon.

“Yeah?” came a groggy voice.

Shit, it was Monday. Even Vince Grossier had a job to get to, come dawn. “It’s Alex, man. I wake you up?”

“Nah, just beat to shit from work. What’s up?” Alex could hear him moving, hear the creak of a couch or mattress.

“You heading to Benji’s tonight?” Alex asked.

“Sounds like something I’d do. Just gotta take care of a couple things at home first. You?”

“Already been, but . . . This is gonna sound fucking stupid, but I really need to talk to somebody.”

“You drunk?”

“Yeah. You?”

“Not yet,” Vince said, a smile warming his deep voice. “But I could be in an hour, if you wanna meet me. Buy me a beer and a shot, and I’ll listen to whatever you got to say.”

An hour, no problem. The walk into town only took twenty minutes—Alex’s nightly commute. “I’ll be there. I had a weird fucking day, Vince. Saw something I don’t know what to make of, down by one of the development sites this afternoon. These bones . . . Fuck, I’m just rattled, man.”

“Color me intrigued. But do me one favor first, and drink a load of water.” He sounded distracted, like he was looking for something. “I got no plans to drive, and I’m not chauffeuring you home in a wheelbarrow.”

“Yeah. Yeah, good idea.”

“Later.” And Vince was gone.

Alex’s heart felt lighter by a degree, and he swallowed another gulp without meaning to. Damn. He’d slow down, now. Maybe stick to water at the bar—there was a first time for everything, right? He needed to stay coherent. He needed to vent about the gruesome shit he’d seen more than he needed to get numb tonight. Vince Grossier surely had one of the more questionably calibrated moral compasses in Fortuity, but at least an hour from now, Alex would have told somebody. Keeping it to himself felt like having hands hugging his windpipe.

A knock rattled through the room. If he’d been sober, he’d have jumped. Instead, he got unsteadily to his feet, muscles clumsy as he aimed himself toward the door off the kitchen. Maybe it was Vince? No, of course not. They’d hung up two minutes ago. But he couldn’t imagine who else it might be—all the respectable folks would be in bed by this hour. Just so long as it wasn’t an emergency. He wasn’t fit to wear his badge right now.

The knock sounded again. “Coming, coming. Hang on . . .”

The knob was cool in his hand, unyielding. He fumbled with the lock, jerked the thing open. And almost like magic, there on his stoop stood just the man he needed to see.

Chapter 2

Four days later

Vince killed the bike’s throttle and knocked the kickstand down, swung his leg to the ground. The parking lot’s gravel was glowing deep red and shadows fell long, a sure sign sunset was drawing near. With it would come a respite from the summer’s broiling heat.

With a sore back and a dogging thirst, he strolled into the big front room of the old, wood-frame Western bar. Stepping inside Benji’s always felt like tugging on a soft old tee shirt and toeing off your boots, a place where workday stress got shed and forgotten, worries left to drift up among the thick rafters crisscrossing the high ceiling. There was worn honey-colored wood everywhere, and plenty of windows to let in the sun, or act as mirrors after dark. It was quiet for now, just the old-timers off in their corner by the jukebox.

That machine might as well play vinyl, for all the modernity the afternoon crowd craved. As long as the sun was shining, the patrons favored Hank Sr., Waylon Jennings, Johnny, Merle. Maybe the odd Chesney track, but always country between four and eight, for the early-rising cattlemen and the retirees. Once they got their fill of the muted news showing on the bar’s lone TV, they’d shuffle off into the night, and then the hard stuff would reign—bass and drums and screamy cock-rock lyrics arriving with the quarry rats who favored that noise. Quarry rats like Vince, and all the other guys who worked up at Petroch Gravel. It was only dinnertime, though. The acoustic guitar and yodeling laments would hold court for at least another hour.

Whole damn town feels like a tragic country ballad just now, he thought.

It was Friday, and Alex Dunn had been lowered into the ground scarcely twenty-four hours ago—killed in a drunk driving accident, the story went. He’d had his demons, no doubt, but Fortuity was down one of its finer souls with him gone. Angels were in short supply here in purgatory. A sinner like Vince ought to know.

Raina was behind the bar, as always. Too goddamn hot, with her wild, dark hair, wicked smile, and those shirts she wore, trading a peek of lacy bra cup for stellar tips. She offered a nod. “Vince.”

“Raina.” He unsnapped the straps at his wrists and peeled away his gloves, shoving them into his pockets.

“Usual?”

He nodded and gave the place another pan. “Quiet night.”

“Quiet town,” she countered, twisting the cap off his bottle. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Who knows what this place’ll look like in a couple years, once the tourists arrive.”

He made a sour face as he paid for the beer, always a touch bitter on the topic of the casino. The town referendum had been the first thing he’d ever registered to vote on, and he’d cast his ballot against the development. He liked his town the way it was, didn’t want it turned into an amusement park for outsiders, no matter what the new mayor had to say about the economic benefits. Fat lot of good his vote had done, in the end. Kind of wrecked a man’s enthusiasm for the process.

Raina made a face of her own, a thoughtful one, and poured him a shot of whiskey, sliding it over the pockmarked wood.

“What’s this for?”

“I know you’re not pissed just on account of my mentioning the casino. We lost a friend this week, a damn good man.”

Vince bowed his head in a stiff acknowledgment of grief. He didn’t like grief. As a man who made as few attachments as possible, he found the pain of it unpracticed. Cumbersome. Disturbing.

Even more disturbing was that creepy-ass phone call from Alex the night he’d died. It had woken Vince from a nap and had not really registered fully. When Alex hadn’t shown up that night at Benji’s, he just thought he must have passed out and forgotten about the whole thing. Then he’d gotten the news of Alex’s crash first thing Tuesday morning, standing around the coffeemaker in the Petroch Gravel break room . . . Hit him like a truck. It knocked the details of the call right out of his head for a couple days. It wasn’t until the priest had said the bit about ashes to ashes and dust to dust that Vince had remembered. Remembered, and started turning the conversation around in this head.

Bones.

Something about bones had freaked Alex out, the afternoon before he died. Something he’d seen. Something maybe he wasn’t supposed to have seen. It didn’t sit right, not one bit. And Vince had a nasty feeling that explaining his worries to anybody else was going to prove an exercise in frustration.

He downed the shot, feeling beat. Feeling older than he ever had. And he’d never quite noticed until now how old Raina had gotten. Not that she was old—she’d been a couple years behind Vince in school, which made her about thirty-two. But he could still picture her at fourteen, could remember teasing her from the back of the school bus as it bumped thirty long miles up and down the rural routes. Jeremiah had always been beside him even then, telling him to knock it off. Alex, too. Though Alex had stayed on the straight and narrow even after Vince had begun making a sport of misdemeanors. They’d stayed friendly, if not near as tight as Vince and Miah—the two of them were brothers, practically. Though that didn’t make losing Alex any easier.

Raina took away the shot glass. “Where’s your shadow tonight?” She meant Miah.

“On his way.”

“’Course he is.” What was her look saying? Bit cagey, Vince thought, and with good reason—she and Miah were over. Way over, whether Miah was happy about that or not. She still wanted him, though. Vince might be shit at remembering a woman’s birthday or even her last name, but he could read those sexual signals like a second language.

“Got matches?” he asked.

She knew what he was after, and she poked around under the counter until she found a box of the wooden kind.

Vince stole two, sticking one in his breast pocket and the other between his lips. Christ, he missed cigarettes. Three months since he’d broken up with the fuckers, and they still dogged him.

He moved the matchstick to the corner of his lips and took a pull off his bottle. Setting it back down, he met Raina’s eyes. “So. Guess who’s coming back to town.”

“Who?”

He grinned. “Case.”

Raina’s look said it all—Oh Lord, Casey Grossier. “Good God, how long’s he been away? Ten years?”

“Nearly.” If Vince was a junkyard mutt, tethered to his ratty little kingdom, then his brother, Casey, was a stray—restless, a wanderer, perpetually up to no good. A true prodigal son of Fortuity. A true son of their old man, come to that.

“He missed the funeral,” she said.

“Not coming home for that—not exactly. He and Alex were never that close.”

“What do you mean, not exactly? What’s he coming home for?”

Vince stared at the bar, his stomach going sour.

“What? Is it your mom?” Vince didn’t talk about his mother much, but Raina knew the woman wasn’t well—not in the head. That was common knowledge. “Is she ill?”

“Not exactly.”

“Again with the not-exactlys.”

He held Raina’s gaze and got right down to the meat of what really had him torn up. “Do you believe Alex got himself killed, driving drunk?”

She blinked. “’Course I do. He was found dead behind the wheel. His blood alcohol was like, ethanol. I read the report in the paper, same as everybody else.”

Sheriff Tremblay served as the county coroner. Though the blowhard didn’t have a fan in Vince, he had to feel bad for the man, charged with toe-tagging his best deputy.

“Alex never drove drunk a day in his life,” Vince said.

“Maybe not,” Raina allowed. “Not until Monday night. But Vince, I’ve also not seen him sober after ten p.m. since his grandfather passed. Not if he’s off duty. It was only a matter of ti—”

“Watch yourself.” He’d gone cold, and so had his tone. Raina looked spooked, like she was staring down a double barrel, and he softened up quick. “Just . . . watch what you say about the man.”

“It’s fresh, I know. And I’m not being disrespectful—he was my friend, too. I’m just being realistic. Anyhow, what’s that got to do with Casey coming home?”

“Something’s up,” Vince said, narrowed gaze moving around the bar. “Something shady. Maybe to do with the casino.”

Raina’s posture slumped and she sighed, clearly not in the mood for this. He knew she got fed up with spending her workdays listening to the old-timers and their grouchy gossip about the corporate developers who’d been ripping holes all through the foothills in the name of progress. But this shit was dead serious to Vince.

“You think the project has something to do with Alex’s accident?” she asked. “How would that even factor?”

“He called me that night, asked me to meet him down here. Wanted to talk to me about something he’d seen, I think was how he said it. Something around one of the construction sites—bones.”

“Bones? What kind of bones? Not human ones?”

Vince shrugged. “Never had a chance to find out. Next thing I know, I’m watching news footage of Alex’s cruiser getting winched out of a gulley.”

She frowned, thinking it over. “That’s a little creepy, sure. But—but what are you saying, Vince? Are you implying somebody killed him? Faked the accident?”

He hated how crazy the whole thing sounded when she worded it like that. He hadn’t even articulated those thoughts in his own mind. Hearing her say it out loud made him wonder what he was thinking himself. “I’m not saying anything except I don’t think we know the whole story.”

“What, like, somebody cut his brake lines or something, so—”

“I said I don’t know. But I can’t unhear what he told me.” Bones. Goddamn, he couldn’t get that word out of his head. “And it’s funny what the news said, about the recorder in his cruiser being switched off when it happened.”

Raina shot him a leveling look. “Of course he’d turn it off—he knew he was going to drive drunk. The man wasn’t about to document himself breaking the law.”

“He wanted to meet me at the bar. He should’ve walked,” Vince said. “He always walked.”

“Tell me this—did he sound drunk when he called?”

Vince felt a headache brewing, everything about this conversation going badly—and Raina was only the first friend he’d attempted to confide in about it. “Yeah. Pretty drunk.”

She leaned in, looking sad. “Matter of time, him finally making that awful decision.”

“Doesn’t add up. He never would’ve done that. Never. That this happens the same goddamn day he sees something? Something he needs to tell somebody about, bad enough to call close to midnight, and lay something about bones on me?”

“Vince, take a deep breath and listen to what you’re saying. It doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it doesn’t. That’s what got me worried.”

“Look, I get it—you think this is your fault, for agreeing to meet him.”

He sat up straight. “Now wait—”

“But it’s not. Alex was a time bomb. And every last person in Fortuity’s asking themselves those same questions, about what we could’ve done different, if we could’ve prevented this. I mean, look at me—his fucking bartender. But it was self-destruction, plain and simple. Not your fault. And definitely not something to do with the casino or the construction, or any mysterious bones he told you about when he was shitfaced.”

Vince felt his usual above-it-all, smug veneer fall away, features hardening. “You of all people should be worried about that casino.”

Clearly annoyed by his tone, Raina drew herself up tall and crossed her arms. “Should I, then?”

“You should. You think anybody’s gonna bother with Benji’s, once all those fancy joints open?”

“Oh, are we changing the subject again? God, you men—scared shitless of any feelings that don’t come from your pants.”

He rolled his eyes.

“But fine, we can talk about that. This casino’s bringing people, period,” she said. “People drink. I serve alcohol. All that adds up to good news, in my book.”

That was how she’d been playing it, but Vince wasn’t sold. She had to be nervous about what the Eclipse was going to do to their town. The very name sounded ominous, and he knew she’d voted against it, too. Raina and most everybody he’d talked to. The ranchers were worried about the water supply and what the construction might do to the few decent routes they relied on to get stock in and out of town. The religious folks thought it’d turn Fortuity into Sodom—or worse, Reno. Mayor Dooley said the casino would bust open a dam and flood this town with money, but all that sounded like to many of the locals was an invitation to drown. But it had passed, somehow or other.

“Rich tourists won’t be climbing down off their cushy thrones to drink with the likes of us,” Vince countered. “Most of the construction guys don’t even come in here.” The majority were immigrant workers, content to keep to themselves in their little trailer city at the edge of town.

“Maybe not, but the tourists will,” Raina said. “For a chance to tell their buddies they’re in with the local riffraff. Plus all the hospitality and casino workers—they’ll need a place to drink, and they sure as shit won’t feel like sticking around their place of business, paying hotel prices.”

“Once, maybe. Twice, tops. Then your novelty’ll wear off, sweetheart. They’ll get bored, same as you did with Miah.” A mean jab, sure, but she’d broken his best friend’s heart. That was fair game.

“Prick.”

Vince drank to that.

“It’s high time this happened, really,” Raina said lightly. “I voted against it, but hey, beauty of democracy. Maybe we could stand to class ourselves up. Fortuity—what are they calling it? ‘The new desert Aspen,’” she said dreamily. That was the dumbass slogan gracing billboards splashed with slick renderings of the yet-to-be-built Eclipse.

“You’re cute when you’re naïve.” Vince was going for patronizing with the smile he cracked, but Raina didn’t take his bait.

She knew him too well, anyhow. Vince and Raina were two of a handful of Fortuity natives of their generation who’d stuck with the town after the local industries had hit hard times, and it wasn’t from a lack of motivation. He’d stayed out of a sense of family duty, same as her, even as so many of their peers—including Vince’s little brother—had run off in search of greener pastures . . .

Duty, or something else?

“You’ve got that red dust in your lungs,” her late father had always said to them. “The dust’ll call you back.” Raina had tried to fight it—tried to leave Fortuity behind as Casey had, but yeah, she’d been called back. She never talked about what had happened in Vegas to send her running home in her midtwenties. Had to be something nasty, though—the girl was tough as nails.

“So when’s Casey back, then?” she asked.

“Any day now.”

“Where from?”

“Fresno, I think. Maybe. He moves around so much, who the fuck can keep track? I was shocked his number still worked. Vegas area code, and he cleared out of there at least two years ago.”

“What’s he been doing?”

“Counting cards, last I knew, but that was a long while back.”

She shook her head. “Now there’s a perfect waste.”

“Tell me about it.” Vince’s little brother was a world-class dumbass when it came to a lot of things—women, chiefly—but he’d always had a head for math and science. Particularly the areas that involved blowing things up or burning things down.

“Well, well,” Raina said, gathering empties from around the counter. “The original Desert Dogs, back together, all grown up.” Minus one. God rest Alex Dunn. “How ’bout that?”

“You know it,” he said. “We still got your position open, girl. Head bitch.”

“Fuck you, Vince.” Though he knew she’d loved that title, once upon a time. She’d been the only girl in Fortuity deemed tough enough to hang with the Grossiers and Miah and Alex . . . Actually, she’d been more persistent than tough, basically bossing her way into their silly grade-school war games out around the brush and creek and foothills. Then in high school, all those hours lost loitering in the garage, Raina sitting on the workbench, reading sex-advice articles aloud from her stupid chick magazines while the guys dicked around with their two-wheeled toys.

Beyond the front windows, the desert had gone from pink to orange. It did that every evening, a few minutes before the sun sank behind the peak of Lights Out to dunk Fortuity in premature twilight. Hence the Eclipse.

Raina caught somebody’s signal for another round and filled a pitcher, delivering it before shutting the windows and unpropping the front door on her way back. The sun dropped; the temperature dropped. From a hundred-plus in the sun to the midforties under the moon. Summer to winter every damn dusk. Vince watched as she reached up on tiptoe to switch off the AC for the night.

Back behind the bar, she cracked her neck, looking beat. Vince had his arms folded on the wood, and she mirrored him for a second, then stood up perfectly straight, her expression telling Vince precisely who’d just strolled through the front door.

Vince swiveled to raise a hand at his best friend.

Miah must have taken the truck—no helmet tonight. The second that old wool felt Stetson came off, Lights Out swallowed the last of the day’s sun. Vince felt the predictable, angst-filled current that ran between the ex-lovers prickle through the air.

Miah crossed the floor and offered Raina a stiff nod. “Evening.”

“Miah. Usual?”

“Please.”

As she twisted the cap off, she asked, “Did Vince here tell you Casey’s coming back to town?”

“He did. I’ll believe it when I see it.”

She cracked a smile at that. “Two fifty.”

Miah gave her a five, then turned his dark eyes on Vince. They clasped hands in a half-assed ritual of macho acknowledgment. Where Vince’s job dusted him gray with gravel, Miah’s left him red around the seams from the desert, from long hours on horseback, patrolling the scrubby acres of prairie that made up Three C, his family’s cattle ranch.

Raina handed Miah his change and Vince got to his feet.

“Enjoy your beers, boys. Holler when you need a refill.”

Vince grabbed a seat on a bench before a trestle table in the front corner while Miah disappeared to take a leak.

Vince eyed Raina idly. His matchstick had softened and he tongued the pulp.

Funny how Miah had beat him to her, and how many summers ago, now? Two? Yet his best friend still bore the wounds. They’d loved like a bad trip—a writhing, wailing possession of a doomed romance, the kind that left scorch marks. So not Miah’s style, but if she’d managed to drive that steady motherfucker to moonlight yowling, God knew she and Vince would’ve straight-up torn each other to shreds.

What a waste.

Waste or not, once you wet your collar with a buddy’s sloppy tears over a girl, it was nighty-night on that dream.

Miah returned, taking his predictable spot and hauling the window open behind him. Cold night air drifted in—some odd comfort to the man, some psychological promise of an escape route. Keep him outside and he was unflappable as a lead flag. Inside, twitchy as hell. Cattleman thing, maybe. The guy’s old man was just the same.

They tapped bottles and Vince said, “Thanks for coming in.”

“Can’t stay late.”

“It’s Friday.”

Miah took a long drink. “Like that means anything to me. Plus, Dad called just as I parked. Gotta check a length of fence before I turn in.”

Best get down to business, then. “We gotta talk. About Alex.”

Miah crossed himself and sighed, posture drooping. “Not sure I’m ready to. Can it wait till some night I can afford to get drunk? Tomorrow maybe, ride out to Big Rock? Spare these good people the sight of a grown man crying.”

Vince shook his head. “Not about that stuff. Not about the accident that got reported on. I want to talk about what really happened on Monday night. How Alex really died.”

Miah’s eyes narrowed, and it looked to Vince like he was setting his more-difficult feelings aside. He was good at that shit. Like his emotions were bits of hardware, stored in their proper compartments in the toolbox, tidy and separate and easy to lock away. Except maybe the ones Raina stirred up.

“How he really died? Start making sense, Vince. Why’d you call me down here? I’m missing my mom’s rib eye for this.”

And so Vince told Miah what he’d told Raina, about that phone call. About Alex needing to talk about something he’d seen, less than an hour before he was found dead. About the bones. Miah looked skeptical, but no shock. He hadn’t heard the fear and desperation in their friend’s voice.

“Bones, he said? What kind of bones? Where? How old were they?”

That’s the goddamn problem. “All he said was bones.”

And there came that look again—pure doubt.

Vince leaned in close and let his best friend hear how deadly serious he was. “Think what you want about Alex—you two ain’t been close for ten years or more. But I know that man. And I know he’d never drive drunk. And I know he sounded scared.”

Miah shook his head, looking weary. “You think what? He saw something weird down at the development site? That this is some kind of cover-up?”

Vince nodded once.

“Of what?”

“I don’t know what. He never made it to Benji’s to tell me.” The hairs rose along his arms and neck to know now what had detained his friend. “Could be any number of things. Shallow grave, maybe? Native American remains—something historical like that might threaten the casino even getting built on that land. Fuck if I know what they were. What I do know is that he was freaked, and he needed to tell somebody about it, but he never got that chance.”

“Because of his accident,” Miah said.

“Maybe. Or maybe it wasn’t an accident.” And when a maybe-not added up to the difference between a car accident and a cold-blooded murder, Vince wasn’t taking any chances.

Miah’s fingers drummed his bottle. “I’ll humor you for a minute. Yes, Alex never drove drunk a day in his life. Until maybe, I dunno . . . Say he did see some bones. He was out there on county business, sees who knows what—a real brutal scene. Something awful. He’s upset, he gets drunk later, he finally crosses that line he kept drawn in the sand, between him and his vehicle. I could imagine any number of scenarios, Vince . . . but a cover-up for you can’t even say what? Not topping my list.”

“Alex was the most goddamn responsible alcoholic I ever met.” Used to bug the shit out of Vince, in fact, that a man could be so good and so broken at once. How unfair it was that the kindest man among them had been stuck dealing with that, yet a thoroughbred shithead like Vince could take or leave a stiff one. Luck of the genetic draw, he guessed. Plus, while Vince’s parents had both checked out in their own ways, Alex’s folks had done some active damage to him, before he’d come to Fortuity to live with his grandfather when he was in the sixth grade. Precisely what damage, Vince had never come to know—he wasn’t one to pry, and Alex wasn’t normally one to share. But something rough. Something that had demanded numbing, for as long as Alex had been old enough to drink.

“Maybe . . . ,” Miah began, trailing off for a moment. “Maybe it was self-destructive, you know?”

“What, like he’d meant to kill himself?” That was way off the mark. “If that man had wanted to end it all, he’d have done it clean. Hanged himself. Or a gunshot maybe, but in the bathtub, at least. Not in his cruiser—he respected the law too much to go out that way.” And he would’ve left a note, apologizing, absolving everyone who might feel as Vince did, that they could’ve prevented this. An envelope full of cash, maybe, to cover funeral expenses.

It was wrong, the way it had gone down, all wrong. Sadly, with Alex’s grandfather six months gone and no other family to speak of, Vince was probably the only person who could appreciate this. He was the only one who’d stayed close to Alex in recent years, since the drinking had gotten so bad. Convincing anybody else was going to be one steep uphill battle.

Miah sighed. “I got no clue, Vince. We’ll probably never know what was going through his head that night.”

“Just saying . . . Something about this ain’t right.”

“Not right, no. And I’m not downplaying that what he told you’s creepy. I’d love to know exactly what it was he saw, same as you . . .” Miah picked at his bottle’s label. “It’s strange, I’ll give you that much. But it’s not murder.”

Murder was a big leap to make. Even Vince could appreciate that. Still, it didn’t stop him from wondering. “You think I’m paranoid?”

“I think you’re upset, and rightly so,” Miah said carefully. “But far as any logical person can see, the man died in a car crash. I promise you’ll see that when the shock wears off.”

“I’m not in shock. But he was my friend. Sure, we didn’t talk about shit, not the way you and I talk about shit. That’s what makes me think it must have been serious, if he took the time to reach out, to ask to meet me.”

“Serious like maybe he was thinking of taking his own life?” Miah offered quietly, black eyes steady.

“It wasn’t a fucking suicide.”

Miah sat back in his seat, looking beat. “Go see the sheriff tomorrow, if it’s got you this torn up. He was there. Did his coroner duties. He knew Alex as well as anybody, demons and all. And he spent more time with him than anyone else. If anything smelled funny, Tremblay’s the one who’d have noticed. He’s also the one Alex would’ve gone to if he’d seen something upsetting, on the job. Maybe Tremblay sent him out there, after somebody found these bones he told you about. Maybe he’s got the answers you need, to be at peace with this.”

Vince prickled. Fair points, but he and the sheriff weren’t exactly cordial, given how often Vince wound up in county following the odd recreational fistfight. And Tremblay’d love to nail him for worse, though Vince had been careful since he’d last served a real sentence. Fucking parole. No goddamn fun.

Still, he and Tremblay had both loved Alex; both had helped bear the weight of his coffin yesterday. That ought to trump the bad blood. “Fine. I’ll talk to him. It’s as good a lead as any.”

Miah nodded. “Good.”

“And I’ll find out exactly which site Alex was visiting, when he saw whatever got him spooked.”

“Jesus, Vince. This why you called Casey back?”

Yeah, it was. Though between Raina’s and Miah’s reactions, he was starting to feel pretty fucking foolish about it all. “He’s long overdue, no matter the occasion.”

“What makes you so sure he’s actually coming this time?”

“He will.” Vince’s little brother might be pumping a hot gallon of their father’s drifter blood, but even he could be called home. “I can be persuasive when it suits me.” Vince felt a rare pang as those words left his lips. He hadn’t told Case why it was he really wanted him home—his suspicions about Alex’s death wouldn’t have been enough to bring that vagabond back. Instead, Vince had lied. Nasty lie, too, and it didn’t sit well. He couldn’t claim many virtues, but honesty had always come easy to him. The gift of the tactless.

“What bull’d you feed him?” Miah asked. “’Cause I know you weren’t fool enough to lead with this theory you’ve got about Alex.”

You know me way too well. “Nothing I can’t fix. And I’m not being irrational. I’m smelling something rotten, real as if it was under my nose. I need Casey here. I need you, too, for that matter.”

“Listen, Vince . . . Maybe if I’d had the conversation you did with Alex, I’d be mixed up, too.”

“I’m not mixed up.

“Just listen. If this really is something to worry about, I’m right there with you. Promise. But I need more, before I set aside all the shit that’s already on my plate to go chasing after riddles with you. So talk to Tremblay, get yourself some answers. Then if it looks like you’re wrong, let it go. And cut yourself some slack for it, too. Natural you’d be feeling all this, with Alex one day in the ground.”

Vince moved the matchstick around, missing cigarettes like a long-lost lover. Before he could continue the argument, Miah’s eyebrows rose to punctuate the slap of the screen door, his attention nailed to the entrance.

Vince turned in his seat and felt his own brows rise at the sight of the woman standing at the threshold.

“Now that’s different,” he said with a wicked smile. And if ever such a distraction had been welcome, it was now.

Chapter 3

The matchstick shifted between Vince’s lips as he surveyed the stranger.

Young woman—thirty, tops. Dressed to impress, but not in the way that chicks from Fortuity might. She covered the assets those girls flaunted, held them in reserve. The type who’d make a man buy the cow first, as it were.

The bar had filled up around them, tables dwindling and the volume rising, body heat making up for what sunset had stolen.

Miah frowned at the woman. “Sunnysider. Has to be.” Sunnyside Industries was the conglomerate that had won the development bid on the casino, and whose hospitality tentacle would be sweeping in to run the place, once it was built. Miah wasn’t any more a fan of the project than Vince, although in his case it was mostly because the construction had already begun to cause the ranch headaches over road access.

“Well, speak of the devil,” Vince muttered, still eyeing the stranger. “Corporate ambassador.”

There was a small tech company on the more civilized, western side of the tracks, but the outsiders who worked there didn’t look like this girl—they were all doughy, sunburned men in polo shirts and sand-colored slacks. She was too stylish, too pressed and polished—all shined up like a diamond in a place that recognized only coal.

She was here to dazzle.

And sick to death of all the heavy shit running through his head, Vince gave her his full attention.

“Wonder what the angle is this time,” Miah muttered, eyes narrowed in suspicion. The Churches had been deflecting buyout offers on their land and water reserves ever since the casino had been a glimmer in Mayor Dooley’s beady eye.

The girl was a corporate rep, to judge by the getup. Crisp short-sleeved shirt tucked under the shiny belt hugging her waist, tailored gray skirt out of a catalog aimed at millionaire secretaries. Wavy near-blond hair—but not the honest kind of wavy, not like Raina’s. No, this was the kind of wavy that demanded an early wake-up call and at least two plug-in devices. Raina’s hair said, I just got laid. Eat your heart out. This chick’s hair said, Hands off. This took me an hour.

Man, Vince would pay good money to mess that hair up against his pillow. Pretty face, too. The kind of pretty they didn’t make in Fortuity. Too clean, too . . . pedigreed.

“Glasses,” he noted. Stylish, bold ones, very hot librarian. He could roll with that.

The girl gave the entire place a good long study; then Vince—and every other man in attendance—watched as she headed for the bar.

“Chardonnay,” Miah guessed.

“Nah, fruity cocktail. Something with a cherry.”

“Five bucks says it’s white wine.”

Vince murmured, “I’ll take that,” and they shook.

But neither made a dime, as Raina set a double whiskey before the woman.

“Damn.”

Vince shrugged. “Just pandering to the local color. Back home, wherever she came from, that would’ve been a cosmo.”

The woman settled herself at one of the small, high tables in the middle of the barroom, and Miah shifted in his seat to face Vince, scrutiny shelved.

But Vince’s eyes stayed locked right where they were, questions knocking around his head like pool balls—and a different persuasion of curiosity rousing a bit farther south.

“Glasses,” he muttered again. “How come I never noticed how sexy glasses were before?”

“You’re not her type, Vince.”

“Like you’d know—you had her ordering white wine a minute ago.”

“Leave the girl alone.”

The matchstick rolled from one side of Vince’s lips to the other. “Wonder what’s in that bag.” She’d brought a purse, plus another not-quite-purse—a weird shape on a long strap, decked out with zippered pockets like a miniature, misshapen hiking pack.

“That’s no briefcase,” he noted aloud, also thinking that the handbag was too small to be packed with propaganda. Every other Sunnysider who’d breezed into Benji’s had been toting reams of “educational materials” outlining the zillion and one benefits of a casino coming to Fortuity. One asshole had even shown a slideshow on his laptop, right there on the bar. He’d been laughed out of the place. That’d been ages back, though, before the referendum. Now the project had a name, an estimated opening date, logos. Many former skeptics had since adjusted to the idea, grown curious about the construction and hospitality jobs Sunnyside and the mayor promised to bring to the area, all the money that’d supposedly trickle down into the limping local economy and tempt young people back.

“What’s your game?” Vince breathed, eyes on the stylish stranger standing in one of the most familiar corners of his dusty little world. The evening temperature had already taken a dive, but Vince shed his old leather bomber and tossed it on the bench, feeling suddenly stifled. “Think I’ll introduce myself.”

Miah shook his head. “I know that look—leave the poor woman be. A second ago you had her employers tangled up in a murder plot.”

“Never said that.” Not her employers, necessarily. All he knew from Alex was that bones had been found at one of the construction sites. That didn’t mean Sunnyside had anything to do with them. “And putting aside whatever Alex may have seen, I’m anti-Sunnyside as a rule. I like my town the way it is.”

“On that we agree, at least.”

“And if this innocent woman’s gotten herself mixed up with evil corporate monsters,” Vince added, “it’s my moral imperative to seduce her away from the dark side. By any means necessary.”

Miah’s eyes rolled. “Oh yeah, fucking Saint Vincent over here. Anyhow, she’d bore you to tears. Look at her.”

“Even vanilla tastes exotic when you’re only used to rocky road.”

“Whatever she’s here for, it’s not depravity with the locals. I can tell you that for free.”

“City girls got needs, too.” Vince slid out from behind the table and grabbed his jacket. “Plus, I’m an ambassador myself for this town. This is my civic duty—winning hearts and minds. And any other willing parts that might present themselves.”

Miah exhaled in a huff, abandoning the protest. He knew better than anybody, trying to change Vince’s mind was a waste of breath. Particularly with the fairer sex involved. “I’d better head home, check on that fence. Leave you to your lost cause.” He stood, abandoning his half-drained bottle.

“Thanks for coming out. This talk ain’t over, incidentally.”

“It probably is for me, Vince, unless the sheriff gives you some answers worth worrying about. He does, I’m first in line to help. Otherwise, let a good man rest in peace.” With that, they traded grumpy good nights and Miah headed for the door.

Vince didn’t honestly know what he wanted to get out of the mystery woman. But he was curious about her role in the greater development machine. If a bit of reconnaissance flirting happened to lead someplace interesting . . . ? So much the better. His bottle was empty, so he headed for the bar.

As she opened his beer, Raina gave Vince an open scan, taking in the arms that the quarry’s punishing work had given him, and all the black ink that decorated him from the wrists to the shoulders. Not Raina’s work—she’d done the tattoo on his neck, but been away when he’d gotten the sleeves. Still, the way her eyes always narrowed at them, you’d think he’d cheated on her.

“Funny how you lost your jacket the second everybody else zipped theirs up,” she said. “Who’s the striptease for?”

“Just hot, that’s all.”

“Over who?” Like she couldn’t guess.

“You served her. What’s her story?” he demanded.

Raina broke his ten and spoke quietly, a touch of conspiracy in her voice. “She just got in. Something to do with marketing.”

Ah. “Marketing to who?”

He’d leaned in real close, and Raina forced him back by the shoulders. “Find out for yourself.”

“I love when you get handsy. How come we never started something?”

“Because I know you too well. Go prey on the innocent—you’ll stand half a chance.”

Vince snagged his bottle and turned, locking crosshairs on his target. She was checking her phone, that pretty face lit blue-white by the screen. Through the speakers, on came Tammy Wynette and “Run, Woman, Run.” How was that for mood music? Vince closed the distance in a half dozen lazy paces, but she didn’t look up. Not until he set his bottle beside her glass with a clunk.

Her eyes found him first, swiveling up above the frames of her glasses. Her chin followed. “Good evening.” Sexy voice. Confident, unimpressed.

“You’re from Sunnyside, aren’t you?”

He’d expected a little taste of intimidation at his tone, but this girl looked cool and dry as the desert after dark. Fine by Vince—he loved a challenge.

“Not exactly.” She reached for her tumbler and slid it close, away from Vince’s beer, as though her toy poodle had wandered too close to a frothy mongrel.

“Not exactly?” he echoed. “But kind of.”

“They’ve hired me, but I’m a free agent.”

Vince hunkered down with his forearms on her table. He caught her scent, something light. The essence of some rare flower he probably couldn’t spell. He wanted to curl a fist around her collar and bring his face real close to hers, breathe that perfume in so deep he got drunk off it. Goddamn, when was the last time he’d gotten laid? Weeks? A month or more? Maybe Miah was right, thinking he’d grown irrational—maybe he was going crazy from sex deprivation. Maybe a good tumble would clear his head.

“Free agent?” he asked. “Free to do what?”

She leaned over to lift her weird little bag onto her lap and unzip it along three sides. She opened the flap, revealing a camera with a lens about as long as Vince’s foot.

“Don’t tell me they’re printing travel brochures already? Casino ain’t much to look at yet. Bunch of pits and unlaid pipe, far as I’ve seen.”

“No, not yet. They need promotional materials to wow their investors—shots of the progress and the natural beauty of the area and all that. And I need work, so . . .” She tilted the glass to her lips and Vince watched her throat work. Goddamn women had no clue what it did to a man, the way they looked sipping liquor, or sucking a long pull off a bottle. Or maybe they did. Maybe this one could guess exactly how suffocating Vince’s jeans were suddenly feeling.

He focused with some effort. “You’re a city girl, if I’m not mistaken. You travel far?”

“Portland, Oregon.”

He nodded at that, unsurprised. Sunnyside’s parent outfit was California-based. God forbid the hypocrites hire a local, eager as they claimed to be to stimulate the town’s economy.

“You got somebody showing you around while you’re here?”

“No need. Job’s simple—take pretty pictures. I wasn’t told I’d require a tour guide for that.”

“Fortuity’s got its rough areas. Though stick to the daylight hours and you’ll probably be fine.”

“That’s generally good advice for landscape photography.” Her smile was wry, and it made Vince feel funny. Dirty-funny. Made him want to bite her lip, or maybe get bit in return.

He nodded to the camera. “Hell of a weapon you got there.”

She lifted it out of its case with loving care, unscrewed the massive telephoto and replaced it with a stumpier lens from one of the bag’s many pockets. The camera whirred to life with a wink of green, and she held it to her face, aimed at Vince.

“Cheese,” he offered, beaming his best panty-melter at the contraption’s eye.

Nothing seemed to happen, but digital cameras were quiet. Vince dropped the grin, then swore at the sudden flash, then another, and turned away, spots dancing.

She checked her screen, looking pleased. Looking smug, which was Vince’s rightful shtick. “They’ll probably go with the mountains and hot springs, but it’s always nice to showcase the local wildlife. What shall I caption these? What’s your name?”

“Vince. Grossier.”

She stuck out a small hand. “Kim Paget.”

Her skin was just as it should be—all lake-stone smooth in his gravel-roughened mitt. Exactly what he needed to soothe the warm ache she’d stuck him with. “Pleasure,” he said.

“Indeed. What’s with the match?”

Her gaze had moved to his mouth, and he dropped his own to her lap, smiling. “Got an oral fixation.” He hauled his attention up in time to catch her expression of complete and total disinterest. Fine. “So, Kim . . .”

She batted her eyelashes, parroting his coy act. “Yes, Vince?”

“How much would it cost a redneck like me to get you to take nothing but photos of the landfill and the sulfur springs and the trailer park, and scare these greedy motherfuckers out of their plans to wreck my town?”

She flinched at the cuss, but barely. “I’m just here to do a job. And I hate to break it to you, but it’s an easy one. I’m sure Fortuity’s got flaws—every town does. But there’s a reason people would pay good money to visit. I got a hell of a preview on the drive in. It’s gorgeous country.”

“For now, maybe. From down here.” Until they cluttered the mountains up with condos and polluted all the water, then caught sight of the east side of the tracks from their hilltop penthouses and decided the trash needed taking out.

“I’m not interested in getting drawn into the politics,” she said gently, more calm than meek, and drained her shot in two swallows, scarcely wincing. “I just need the payday.”

“What for?”

Another little smirk, straight out of Vince’s own playbook, and she slid from her seat. “I’ll see you around, maybe.”

“Hey, don’t let me run you off, now.”

“You’re not,” she said. “I only came here looking for a quiet drink, and that’s just not going to happen.” She looked around them, seeming to mean the general volume of a Friday night, not Vince specifically.

In a voice that welcomed no protest, he told her, “Follow me.”

Chapter 4

For no good reason, Kim tailed the huge, tattooed roughneck to the edge of the crowd milling before the bar. The guy had a certain momentum, and she was too bushed to argue. Plus, she kind of wanted another drink, after the day she’d had.

The man was beyond big. Six foot three or four, and jacked. Black tee. Black steel-toed boots. Jeans. Old leather jacket draped over his arm, its hide cracked and faded from the sun or the dust. His dark hair was short on top, military style, shaved almost to the skin at the sides to showcase black ink—a crow’s wing, crooked at the joint, its tip tucked behind his ear like a cigarette, etched black feathers caressing his neck. There were two beauty marks on his other cheek, which she’d mistaken for prison teardrops at first glance. Not loving how interested her eyes were getting, she turned to study the busy bar.

Odd place. If not for the twenty-first-century clothes and the wang-rock blasting from the jukebox, she might half expect somebody to pull a six-shooter from his hip and demand satisfaction, illustrate exactly why this place was called Benji’s Saloon. The chaos was getting to her, crowding her.

What she really needed was a quiet drink. A chance to mull and mourn and wallow in her own guilt. Not some impromptu blind date with a thug sporting a neck tattoo. Maybe there was a liquor store close by. She could buy a six-pack and nurse a beer in the privacy of her motel room.

“I think I’ll go,” she shouted over the din.

Vince looked down at her. “Nonsense.”

“I was really hoping to just collapse on a stool and relax. This is a bit too much.” She glanced around demonstrably at the assorted grinding couples, gesticulating arms, the pool game that looked as though it might escalate to a brawl at any moment.

“Here,” he said, and suddenly his big, warm man-paw was cupping her elbow, shooting panicky pleasure up her arm and neck.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret,” he went on, weaving her through the bodies to an open spot at the counter. “Pitcher,” he said to the female bartender.

“Glasses?”

“Two.” Vince dropped some bills on the wood and hefted the pitcher. He nodded to the proffered pint glasses, and Kim grabbed them, too swept up to protest.

“Thanks,” Kim said to the bartender, and got a thin smile in return. She followed Vince to the right, trying not to notice the shape of his shoulders shifting beneath his snug tee. The big room formed a sort of horseshoe around the bar, and they headed to one end. There was a picnic table in the back, and upon its bench a young couple was rounding third base. Considering how short the girl’s skirt was, it wasn’t a difficult feat.

Vince whistled. “Hey, Justin.”

The guy looked barely old enough to drink, and he sobered before Kim’s eyes, registering who was addressing him. “Oh, hey, Vince. What’s up?”

“Looks like somebody keyed your truck, man.”

“The fuck?” The kid was on his feet in half a breath, making a beeline for the door, girlfriend on his heels.

Vince pushed their empty glasses to the side and set the pitcher down. He gestured for Kim to grab the far bench.

She sat, shocked by how quiet this corner was. There weren’t any speakers nearby, and the way the drop ceiling came down above the bar dampened the acoustics. And when Vince took his seat across from her, that big body corralling her view of the crowd . . .

“Wow. This is surprisingly cozy.”

“Everyone calls this table the honeymoon suite,” he said, and filled both glasses. “Hence the consummation we just interrupted.”

“He’ll be pissed when he realizes his truck wasn’t keyed.”

“Funny, I figured he’d be relieved.” Vince’s lack of concern reminded Kim that a stick-thin twentysomething would need to have a death wish if he chose to take issue with this man’s scam.

Shrewd eyes took her in, their color lost in the bar’s low lighting. “This quiet enough for you?” His voice and gaze had grown mild, making her feel oddly calm. It was that, or the scotch she’d just pounded. The scotch, definitely the scotch.

“It’ll do, thank you. But I’ll probably only stay for the one glass. I’m wiped.”

“Beat from a long day documenting our scenic beauty in the name of corporate propaganda?”

“No, not today. You think I went tromping around the desert dressed like this?”

“No, I figured you wore that to look good for me.”

God help me. “Sorry to crush your hopes, but I went straight from the airport to the highway, to this long meeting with the marketing people. That’s why I’m overdressed. And exhausted.” That, plus a two-hour phone call spent dumping my boyfriend.

She hadn’t meant to dump him. Not today, anyhow, not over the frigging phone. After a year and a half, Ryan deserved better. It should have only been a ten-minute chat, the requisite “So, what are you up to?” check-in before she prepped for her meeting. But he’d sensed something in her voice, in her limp, “Love you, too.”

It had unraveled from there, cycling from fearful questions and hollow reassurances to apologies and ambivalence, to mean accusations, to more apologies, to surprise, to anger, to crying—his—and consolation—hers—to the other way around. Two hours. So much for getting her head on straight before that meeting. She’d spent the homestretch camped on the floor by an outlet, toying with the cord of her phone charger. Finally Ryan had sighed and said, “I guess you should just give me the ring back if you’re that unsure.” The ring he’d given her, what? Four days ago? Bended knee and everything. Half a carat, princess cut, platinum band. Princess cut. Beautiful, but that name—gag. She didn’t want to be anyone’s princess. She didn’t even want to be Ryan’s wife, she’d realized after she’d flown out of Portland. She wasn’t done feeling like an individual, stupid as that sounded. As if getting married would weld them together into some bland, homogenized blob . . .

When he’d proposed, she’d gently urged him to stand and told him the truth—she wasn’t sure. Wasn’t ready. Then he’d closed her fingers around the ring like something out of a movie and said, “Just hold on to it,” all dramatic and earnest. And she had, willing herself to feel . . . more. But she never had.

“I guess you should just give me the ring back,” he’d said.

And scarcely three hours ago she’d said, “Yeah. I guess I should.” And in that instant, as she imagined handing over the tiny token, the relief had felt like a cement truck rolling off her ribs.

After a minute’s silent sipping, Vince hauled her back into his orbit. “You taken any pictures yet? Apart from those glamor shots of me.”

“Just a couple panoramas of the mountain range, on my way into town. By the old mines.”

He cracked a smile, one that gave him a dimple, rounded his cheeks, and softened his hard features. Softened Kim’s spine and left her slumped comfortably on the bench. Just the scotch. Keep your legs together and ignore the rebound bait.

“I used to mess around down there with my friends, when we were kids,” Vince said. “We’d pry the boards off the mine shafts and play like we were cavemen.”

How apropos. “Isn’t that incredibly dangerous?”

He smirked and held up his glass as though saluting her fretfulness. “Spoken like a true city girl. Anyhow, once they realized that either dumbshit kids or transients were camping out in there, they filled them in with rocks and cement. Ruined all our fun.”

“It’s a wonder you lived to adulthood.”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"McKenna's voice is gritty and compelling."
—#1 New York Times bestselling author Maya Banks 

Cara McKenna Delivers

“Sweet, smoking-hot, standout romance.”
—Beth Kery, New York Times Bestselling Author of Because We Belong
 
“A well-done, real-life, gritty erotic romance.”—Smexy Books
 
“Exceptionally evocative writing.”—Smart Bitches Trashy Books

Meet the Author

Since she began writing in 2008, Cara McKenna has published more than thirty romances and erotic novels with a variety of publishers, sometimes under the pen name Meg Maguire. Her stories have been acclaimed for their smart, modern voice and defiance of convention. She was a 2010 Golden Heart Award finalist and a 2012 Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee. She lives with her husband, with their feet in New England but their hearts in the Pacific Northwest.

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Lay It Down (Desert Dogs Series #1) 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Lauren2LC More than 1 year ago
I don't think you can go wrong when you have the combination of Cara McKenna and a biker. Vince Grossier is a bit of a bad boy but so loyal to his home town. Kim Paget wants free of people telling her what to do and finds a bit of freedom in a town called Fortuity. For Vince and the locals they are mad when big developers are coming in and trying to take over their small town. After Vince loses one of his best friends he starts to become suspicious of his untimely death. "Alex was the most goddamn responsible alcoholic I ever met." No one but Vince believes his unfound suspicions but he won't let it go. The moment Kim strolls into town he instantly wants to find out more about her since she doesn't fit in to their ways but he sure wants her too. Through Vince and his psychic mother they convince Kim to stay and help with what he suspects really happened to Alex. The more they dig the more they find causing others to start to believe that Vince is on to something. "Used to be I was the shadiest person in Fortuity. I'm really starting to miss those days." I truly loved this book. I am such a huge fan of Cara McKenna and she so did NOT disappoint with this little gem. The more crap was getting stirred in Fortuity the deeper Kim and Vince were connecting. This book had so many elements and kept me hanging on for the whole ride. All the mysteries weren't solved and now I can't wait to find out more about these desert dogs. I loved the format about this book and all the things that were in it. So many details and layers to this story and the series has so much potential.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Another good bad boy book from Cara! Love her books and her style - good stories, witty, lots of humor, some angst and steamy romance.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Go to the next res
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cleared his throat. "Uh, hey." He looked around. "You called?"
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So not worth the time or money. It does not keep your attention nor does it make you want to buy more in the series.
Maria-Rose More than 1 year ago
This romantic suspense story is a bit of a departure for the author from her norm of erotic and contemporary romance. On first reading of the plot synopsis and from the look of the cover, one might expect a motorcycle club romance but that's not what this is. Instead it's the story of a man, Vince, who lives in the small town of Fortuity and believes that his friend's accidental death is really a murder. He meets Kim, there on a work assignment, at a local bar and desires her company, preferably in bed. It's also the story of a group of friends and the intertwining of their lives as they go about finding the truth behind their friend's death. Though in a way more formulaic than her other books, the author never-the-less manages to create a story full of intrigue, hot sex and the bonds of friendship. I was quite struck by the setting of the story. Fortuity is a dry, dusty, hot town and with these impressions one immediately thinks of how one would feel in those conditions. Thirsty, tired, angry, perhaps bitter - a place of strong emotions. Vince is such a man - big, strong, rough, tough, perfect for the bar setting where he meets Kim, the photographer for the casino project that Vince is trying to deter in fears that it will ruin his town. He desires Kim for sex and for the "in" she can get for him into the casino development. He is blunt with Kim - he wants her for sex, not love. He has nothing else to offer a woman in this town, and he knows she's not going to stick around long enough to have a relationship. Kim is feisty, determined, her own woman. Hours after breaking off her engagement to a man who never appreciated her, Vince's attraction to her is soul soothing and her feelings for him surprise her - sex with him won't be gentle and tender and she realizes (albeit not right away) that she wants what Vince is offering. Cara McKenna knows her way around a sex scene and these are no exception - well written, steamy, full of lust and passion. Yet as the two indulge in their affair, tenderness leaks out of both of them as their hearts become as entangled as their bodies. I enjoyed watching this change in their relationship over the course of the story. Besides the background romance, there are two other equal partners to the plot. Firstly is the murder mystery that is slowly unraveled. This creates several scenes of action and suspense. Secondly is the group of friends, the "Desert Dogs" and the dynamics of the interactions between them. New characters in the town spice things up as well and I quite enjoyed the group as a whole. They are true friends that can be counted on in any situation. What didn't I like? There was a small paranormal aspect to the story that I didn't' feel had much purpose other than to keep Kim in the town, which could have been accomplished without introducing it. Also as mentioned, the synopsis and cover gave a different impression of what the book would be about than it actually was and I felt that was misleading. However that being said my overall impression was that it was quite an enjoyable read, with interesting characters, a good plot, steamy sex and a love story to boot. I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to reading more books in the series and discovering more about this group of friends. 4 stars!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sandy-thereadingcafe More than 1 year ago
4.5 stars--LAY IT DOWN is the first instalment in Cara McKenna’s new contemporary, adult Desert Dogs romantic suspense series focusing on a close-knit group of friends and family from Fortuity, Nevada who call themselves the ‘Desert Dogs’.   Eclipse Resort and Casinos has made more enemies than friends with their local construction and plans for the future in Fortuity, Nevada. As the casino development proceeds, local police officer Alex Dunn makes an ominous drunk call to his best friend Vince Grossier rambling about bones at the local construction site. When Alex is killed in a drunk driving accident, Vince isn’t convinced about the circumstances surrounding his best friend’s death and begins to investigate the possibility that Alex’s discovery is tied to his untimely demise-Alex would never drive drunk. The storyline follows Vince, his brother Casey, friend Miah and professional photographer Kim Paget as they begin to uncover the truth and potential murder of Alex Dunn. Kim is a woman who was hired by Eclipse to take pictures of the local scenery but finds herself front and center when she mistakenly overhears what could very well be an admittance of murder and misdeeds.  The relationship between Vince and Kim is one of sensuality, sex and exploration.  Vince’s motorcycle riding, hard driving alpha personality goes into overdrive when he realizes that Kim could be the next potential victim after she is confronted about what she heard and whom she saw.  To protect Kim, Vince is willing to send Kim away for an extended period of time knowing that the woman who has stolen his heart may never return-like so many people before. We are introduced to several secondary characters who all have a hidden past and a possible future in Fortuity, Nevada. Casey Grossier, Vince’s mysterious and long absent brother whose past is secreted from family and friends; Raina, the local tavern owner whose sex appeal is greatly appreciated by the locals and Vince’s buddy Miah.  Miah and Raina have a history together that has only been glossed over but Miah’s attraction to Raina is evident and obvious to everyone concerned.  We are also introduced to Duncan Welch-a solicitor for Eclipse Resorts and a man who will be pulled into Vince’s circle of friends as they endeavor to uncover the truth. Duncan’s role was questionable in the beginning but he is a man who is worthy of a second chance. The world building brings the reader up close and personal to a small town’s struggle to survive in the wake of a new resort and casino that promises wealth, riches and local jobs.  What the resort brings is controversy, heartache, death and dissolution. Cara McKenna pulls the reader into a suspense filled and romantic storyline that investigates the death of friend who was loved by the people of Fortuity, Nevada. LAY IT DOWN is a story about friendship and loss; romance and love; passion and pain. Cara McKenna combines mystery, suspense, romance and a HEA into an emotional storyline about family and friendships that crosses miles and years, and the people pulled together by the murder of someone they know. 
SezjbSB More than 1 year ago
3.5 Stars. Lay It Down by Cara McKenna is the debut novel in an all new series about a group of friends who form a bikie gang called the Desert Dogs lead by bad boy Vince Grossier. In Fortuity Nevada, the town is soon to be home to an all new casino which has most of the residents up in arms, when Vince's friend Alex the towns Deputy contacts him one night spooked about something involving bones that he saw at the dig sight of the future casino he becomes concerned, especially when Alex is killed in a car accident that night and alcohol is blamed, Vince knowing that his friend would never drive drunk becomes suspicious, but nobody is willing to listen to him. When Kim a photographer is sent to Fortuity to take site photos to promote the area and upcoming casino she runs into Vince, fresh from a break-up she's not looking for any kind of a relationship, but neither is Vince, as they start to spend more and more time together they'll discover that between the attraction and the chemistry something more may be developing. When Kim is unintentionally drawn into Vince's investigation of Alex's death will she find herself in danger, or will Vince keep her safe at all costs? Having never read a book featuring bikie gangs or especially one as a main character, I was a bit hesitant, but the synopsis drew me in and I can say that I found this to be quite an enjoyable contemporary romance filled with action, suspense, mystery and some steamy red hot sex scenes, that will leave you hot under the collar. I look forward to the next book and the rest of the series.
Under_The_Covers_BookBlog More than 1 year ago
~Reviewed by ANN & posted at Under the Covers Book Blog In the first instalment of the Desert Dogs series, Cara McKenna takes the biker craze but spins it towards a murder mystery reader’s dream. To be honest, I was expecting an erotic biker romance from McKenna, but LAY IT DOWN is so much more than that. In addition to the sizzling sexual tension, this book is wrought with suspense about the death of one of Vince’s best friends, Alex. Vince receives a drunken call from Alex one night in which Alex tells him about the presence of these bones he has discovered. Chalking it up to the alcohol, Vince doesn’t pay much attention to Alex’s talk until he ends up dead the next morning. Suspicions rise when the threat of a big-time casino upsets the people of Fortuity, Nevada and Vince considers the timely death of his friend before calling his brother, Casey home. While I loved that McKenna added in the mystery plot, there was one thing that I wished wasn’t included. Vince and Casey’s mother is old and slightly senile. She speaks prophecies and tells Kim Paget that she will see something that will help Vince. I wished that bit of foreshadowing wasn’t included simply because now everything Kim did, I zoned into it, knowing it was important due to the prophecy. It drew the mystery out of the story a little bit. However, there are so many fabulous things about this story and much of it revolves around the characters. I found all of them amazing, from the main couple of Vince and Kim, to the secondary characters, Raina and Casey. With such an interesting cast, McKenna will no doubt hook readers in with this story. The magic occurs in the dialogue. Upbeat and free-flowing, the vernacular that these bikers have give them character and life. The brotherly teasing between Casey and Vince had me laughing out loud. A similar thing happened whenever Raina has her moments. I’m definitely looking forward to their books. If you’re a fan of Lorelei James’s Rough Riders series, I think you can appreciate McKenna’s character dynamics. With sexy heroes and tough as nails heroines, I feel a resemblance between the two series. However, I will point out that LAY IT DOWN is more of a suspense novel as opposed to an erotic romance. Wrought with high-octane suspense and sizzling sexual tension, Cara McKenna gears it up with a powerful presence in the first of a promising series. *ARC provided by publisher
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First of all, I am a McKenna fan and I have pre-ordered most of her books since I read After Hours.  I was so ready to get into another meaty, fulfilling McKenna book, and it is good and substantial (over 300 pages on my Nook), but it just didn't grab me like most of her other novels.  Admittedly, Mystery is not my favorite genre, so that may have something to do with it.  I think, also, the characters weren't as interestingly messed-up and flawed as in some of her earlier books.  Maybe I was just expecting too much because I always look forward to reading her stories.  Whatever it is, even a just okay  McKenna novel is better that 99% of everything else out there, so I'm giving it 3.5 stars rounded up to 4.  Better than good, but not my favorite of her books. 
Andreat78 More than 1 year ago
No one will be more surprised than me that I did not love Lay It Down. It's possible that my expectations were too high, but I honestly don't think that's it. As much as I wanted to love this book, I didn't. Here's why... Cara McKenna is a master at writing stories with a bit of quirk. It can be that the character has an unexpected kink, personality or occupation. Or they story might revolve around an unusual circumstance. Whatever it is, I go into a McKenna book just knowing there will be some sort of hook that will have me dying of giddy as I read. Lay It Down didn't have that. It was mainstream, which is fine. I'm sure that this novel will find a huge audience for that very reason. But for some reason, deserved or not, I just felt somewhat let down. Lay It Down is not an MC book. And fine, that doesn't really bother me, and it's not promised in the book description, but.... it's kind of implied. A lot of readers are going to look at that cover and assume. Vince Grossier is a dude who just happens to ride a bike while trying to solve a murder mystery and get into his favorite gal's pants. Lay It Down read like a cross between a modern-day western and romantic suspense. The story is set in northern Nevada, with the townspeople, led by Vince, dismayed over a casino development. There's a lot of talk about the red dirt and quarries and shafts (not the fun kind). Though it's actually fit the story, it didn't turn my crank. The same for the romantic suspense element. There's an old murder, a new possible murder and bad guys who'll stop at nothing to get their way. The story does not end on a true cliffhanger, but there seems to be a big series arc. I just don't have a lot of luck with the sub-genre. Something I love about McKenna's other work is her ability to make me believe in a couple, despite impossibilities. I've believed in a hermit alcoholic with a penchant for ropes and his sweet lady love. I've believed in a Parisian male prostitute and his virgin lover. I've always felt that connection. With Kim and Vince, I totally bought the physical, but didn't really understand why exactly they fell in love. There's an element of magical realism in Lay It Down, and it just didn't work for me. Vince's mom and his brother both have "the sight". They're able to predict the future and it does play an important role in the story, at least on the mom's end. I don't know, it felt unnecessary, to me. As long as I'm wearing my tightest pair of rantypants, let me just add one more issue. I love the swears. But geez, it felt like every other sentence started with the word "Goddamn..." I mean, I get it, it's a great swear word but what about the other greats? They were vastly underused. I got so annoyed that my eye started twitching every time another sentence started with that word. Okay. I know this review is coming off as pretty negative, but I did like Lay It Down well enough. The main characters were fairly engaging, as were the secondary characters. I'm hoping future books will focus on different leads, particularly Rayna and Vince's brother Case. The story was interesting, it just didn't pull me in. My favorite part, to no one's surprise, was the sex. McKenna is always stellar at the physical interactions between her characters, and Lay It Down was no exception. So. Do I recommend Lay It Down? I do, but long-time McKenna fans should be prepared for something completely different.
Justpeachy1 More than 1 year ago
Cara McKenna brings readers the first book in the new Desert Dogs series, Lay It Down. Murder and mayhem abound in this romantic suspense tale set in the small Nevada town of Fortuity. McKenna cashes in on the latest romantic craze featuring motorcycle clubs, but her take on it is not what readers might expect. With a strong focus on the suspense, the antics sometimes associated with these bad boys takes a backseat. Readers looking for something more than the average story will find this one gritty, emotional and full of possibilities for the series! What I liked: My first thought when I say this one and read the blurb was that McKenna must be a Son's of Anarachy fan, which I am myself. I was expecting a lot of motorcycle club drama, involving everyone's 'old ladies' and criminal activity. Though there was a little of that here, the focus of this book was totally on the suspense. The murder of the main characters best friend takes precedence over everything else, even the romance. That can be good and bad, but in this case it was amazing! I love romance and there is certainly a strong connection between main characters Vince and Kim. Their relationship is dynamic and passionate, which is what readers would expect from a bad boy, like Vince. But there is a lot more to it than that. Their scenes in the bedroom are pretty steamy but it's the way they interact on a regular basis and how they try to help each other and those around them that will endear them to readers. Vince wants to protect his hometown, take care of his family and find out who killed his friend, Alex. The casino operation has threatened just about everything he loves and he is determined to see justice, in his own way. I loved that this story had a few elements of the paranormal in it and the way it was used. A good suspense tale is often a real page turner and Lay It Down was fast paced and hard nosed. It was certainly not at all what I expected. McKenna uses this book as a lead in to the series and she accomplishes that well by making the secondary characters a big part in solving the mystery in Lay It Down. Readers get to meet a lot of characters that I hope get their own books. The town of Fortuity will also get under the readers skin, as well as, the Desert Dogs themselves. I look forward to reading more in this series. What I didn't like: I liked just about everything with this book. There weren't any elements that I felt were out of place. The pacing was good, the characters were memorable. I love a good romance and this one has that too. Bottom Line: This is a great start to a new romantic suspense series. It may have nods to shows like Sons of Anarchy being set in a small town and having a motorcycle club, but that's where the similarities end. McKenna takes this series in her own direction and readers will follow!
krissysbookshelf More than 1 year ago
Okay, I have to admit this was a book I judged by the cover. What can I say? Its hot. Next thing is, I am a little confused because I assumed when I saw the series "Desert Dog" / (guy on bike) and the "fast, loud, and rough - on a bike or in a bed. its the only way to ride" slogan, I assumed I was going to read an MC romance. I was thrilled because Cara McKenna is a fab writer, so right away I was ecstatic. Except that its not an MC book. Although depicted as an outlaw king and is implied to be connected to such elements you don't really get any of those. So I was a tad disappointed. However, you get a decent murder mystery romance with lots of good heat, great characters, thrill and plot twists to keep you more than entertained. Cara is a great author that creates an exciting story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
McKenna's usual great alpha!  Great unfinished mystery - I will read the rest of the series to find out "who done it"   However, like another reviewer pointed out, the use of the word "goddamn" was so prolific it was taxing. As was an apparent anti-christianity sub-theme.  If you are like me and have to look past these things in order to read the story, you will find yourself exhausted at the end of this book, thus the three stars instead of the five it would have otherwise warranted.  Pity.  Profane language in context is one thing.  McKenna is talented enough to bring her characters to life without the unimaginative over-use of a single word!