Burn It Up (Desert Dogs Series #3)

Burn It Up (Desert Dogs Series #3)

by Cara McKenna

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Overview

Burn It Up (Desert Dogs Series #3) by Cara McKenna

In the latest from the acclaimed author of Give It All, mount up and ride a roaring motorcycle to Fortuity, Nevada, where the heat is rising…

After a decade spent chasing shadier pursuits, Casey Grossier has come home to the badlands to settle down in Fortuity. Vowing to put his days of dirty money behind him, he’s cleaned up his act and become co-owner of Benji’s Saloon. But despite his efforts to be a better man, he can’t shake his crush on his sweet-faced bartender, even though the woman screams trouble.

Abilene Price hopes she can outrun her mistakes and build a safe, respectable life for herself and her baby. So she’d be wise to keep her distance from her boss, Casey, and the rest of his roughneck motorcycle club, the Desert Dogs. But she just might need their help. The return of a violent figure from Abilene’s past ignites a powder keg—and it’s only the beginning…

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698405615
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/03/2015
Series: Desert Dogs Series , #3
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 118,543
File size: 1 MB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Cara McKenna is the author of Hard Time, Unbound, and After Hours, as well as the Desert Dogs series, including the novels Give it All and Lay it Down, and the novella “Drive It Deep.”  She 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 is a 2015 RITA Award finalist, a 2014 Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award winner, a 2013 and 2011 Romantic Times Reviewers' Choice Award nominee, and a 2010 Golden Heart finalist. She lives with her husband in the Pacific Northwest, though she’ll always be a Boston girl at heart.


From the Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

Praise

Also by Cara McKenna

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Excerpt from Lay It Down

Chapter 1

James Ware strolled into the prison yard alongside a couple hundred fellow inmates, welcoming the weak February sunshine on his shoulders and scalp. Normally the sensation would amount to a tease, a mere hour’s escape from the cinder block and noise of the inside, but this afternoon it felt different. Felt manageable.

“Two days,” came a voice from behind him. It was the young guy everybody called Tugs, for reasons James didn’t care to know. He was skinny, hyper, a little too wide-eyed and loudmouthed for this place where bluster required muscle to command any respect. James didn’t mind him, though. They worked in the kitchen together, and the kid was all right.

“Two fucking days,” James agreed, slowing until Tugs was at his side, the both of them heading to the far corner of the yard.

“Lookit that wall, man.” Tugs pointed to the fourteen feet of concertina-capped brick that penned them. “Two days from right now, you’ll be on the other side. That’s gotta feel good.”

“No doubt.” They reached the corner known as the gym—though a couple weight benches and a rusty collection of barbells weren’t exactly worth a membership. James snagged a bench and Tugs stood by, always eager to spot. Kid was like one of those little fish that stuck close by a shark, grateful for scraps and a taste of protection.

“What’ll you do, first thing after they let you out?” he asked James.

“Pray to God my sister remembers to pick my ass up.” James hefted a thirty-pound dumbbell and began to curl. “Then eat a hot meal off an actual plate and get a decent cup of coffee.” No more plastic trays, no more brown sludge-water.

“Bet you’re gonna get so shitfaced on Tuesday,” Tugs said wistfully.

“Sure.” James didn’t drink, but neither did he go into details about his personal life. He didn’t need to drink, he thought, feeling the chemicals moving through his blood as his muscles woke up. His temper was a thrashing, snapping dog while he was stone-cold sober, and he kept it on a short leash. Get him drunk and that tether got real slippery, real quick. He hadn’t had so much as a beer in two years or more. And he hadn’t been as pissed as he was now in almost too long to remember.

“Bet you got a girl waiting for you,” Tugs said. “Get wasted, get laid—that’s what I’m gonna do the second I get out of here.”

James didn’t reply.

Yeah, he had a girl waiting for him. Two of them. An ex and a daughter. A four-month-old daughter he’d never met, and hadn’t even known about until recently. He aimed to see her, as soon as he could track her down. And his ex . . . well, time would tell how difficult she might decide to make that for him. If the girl knew one thing, it was how to run.

The last time he’d seen her . . .

The last time, things had gotten out of control.

The two of them had always been out of control, but that afternoon it had all boiled over. Their relationship had only ever been a messy, staggered succession of fucking and fighting. Normally James prided himself on resisting other people’s bait, but that girl could tempt his anger like nobody he’d ever known. She could rouse his softer side, too, and they’d had some good times. But that last blowout had rasped all the shine right off what they’d briefly had together in a roof-rattler of a fight that must’ve left them sounding like a pair of feral rednecks to the neighbors.

She’d wanted that fight, too. She’d goaded him until he’d lost control enough to clasp her shoulders and shake her. She had poison inside her. Other people had put it there, but she knew just how to strike out and weaponize that shit. She’d also had their baby inside her, during that fight. Neither of them had known it then, but it had already been growing. Just a tiny little speck, invisible to the eye, yet since James had found out about it, it had grown big enough to eclipse the whole of his world.

He’d never known a woman like Abilene. A seeming kitten, except catch her on a bad day, pet her wrong—she’d scratch and bite you like a fucking wolverine. She’d been all claws when they’d met, all claws when they’d parted less than three months later. In between there’d been good times, but stress had never brought out the best in her, and if a baby was one thing, it was stressful. If there were claws drawn now, he needed to know. Needed to see for himself that his kid was in safe hands.

As his muscles worked and his blood thundered in his temples, anger flared with every pulse. He wasn’t a good man—there was no doubting that—but she was no saint herself. And if she decided he needed to be blocked out of his own daughter’s life, that he was the one that child needed protecting from . . .

You’ve got a fucking nerve, you little bitch.

And in two days’ time, he’d find her. In two days’ time he’d see his kid, come hell or high water, and he’d decide precisely what needed to be done about it all.

Chapter 2

“Motherfuck—”

Casey froze, eyeing the baby asleep in his lap.

“You didn’t hear that. Just keep sleeping. Sleeee-pinnng,” he pleaded, rising gingerly from the couch to reach for his ringing phone. He shifted Mercy’s weight to one arm and checked his screen.

Unlisted—no shock there. He hit TALK. “Hello?”

“Grossier?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s Emily. Why are you whispering?”

“It’s three a.m., man.”

“And this has been a problematic hour for talking business since when, exactly? Oh, wait.” He could hear a smile in her voice now. “You got a girl next to you?”

Casey glanced down. “Sort of.”

“I’ll keep it quick, but you’ll want to hear this—I’ve got the perfect job for you.”

“I’m not taking any more contracts, Em. I told you that in October.”

“There’s some policy bullshit on this one,” she went on, ignoring him. “Has to go down by March fifteenth.”

“Em—”

“Which is soon, I know, but it’s so fucking easy. Commercial, super remote, no neighbors for half a mile. You’re in and out and it’s all over before the good guys even get the call. You could do this in your sleep.”

“No, I can’t—”

“Your slice would be twenty, minimum.”

Twenty thousand bucks? Casey wasn’t broke, but a payday like that would certainly make his life a hell of a lot easier . . . He felt sweat break out under his arms and at the small of his back. He eyed the mounted antelope head on the wall above the fireplace, feeling as frozen as that poor bastard.

“Mi-ni-mum,” Emily repeated.

Casey took a deep breath, glanced at Mercy, and screwed his head on straight. “I can’t. I’m in Nevada, for one.”

“Vegas? That’s not far.”

“No, fu—frigging way up near Idaho.”

“Okay, so what? Get in your car and drive. You’re the best, but four weeks is tight, even for a cake job like this.”

“Shit’s changed.” He eyed the baby again. Not shit—crap. Crap’s changed. “I have responsibilities now.”

A pause. “You? Have responsibilities? What kind of responsibilities?”

“I own a bar, for one.”

“A bar? Do tell.”

“Don’t even think about it. I’m not laundering a penny for you.”

“Spoilsport.”

The baby began to fuss. “No, no, no . . .”

“Are you talking to someone else?”

“No, I— Listen, I can’t. We had a great run, but I’m out. I can’t be doing that shit anymore. I’ve got a business partner to think about. I go down and it’s not just my ass on the line now.”

“This doesn’t sound like the Casey Grossier I know. Plus you won’t go down—you’re too good.”

“You’ve got other guys.”

“None like you. Bunch of dumb-ass punks. But you—you’re a fucking artist, Case. Just this one job. Come on, please? For old times’ sake?”

“I’m telling you,” he said, gently bouncing the now-pissed-off-looking baby, “I can’t.” Even as he said it, he pictured that money. Pictured the scene—smelled it, felt it . . .

No. No fucking way.

A sigh came through the line. “You’re breaking my heart, mister.”

“I have to get out of that line of work sometime, Em. So do you, for that matter.”

“Twenty grand says I can put off retirement for a few more weeks. And you—the Casey I know would have taken a job ten times trickier than this and for half the payout, just for the fun of it.”

“Well, I guess I’m just not the—”

Mercy woke, squawking and angry.

“Is that a baby?”

“It’s not mine. It’s complicated. Anyhow, I have to go. Nice working with you, Em.”

“I’m keeping you in my Rolodex. I know you—you can’t quit that easy.”

“Watch me.” Casey hit END and tossed his phone on the couch.

“Shush,” he told the baby. “Shush your beautiful face, please. Your mom hasn’t slept in, like, three days . . .”

At four months, the infant book had said, both Abilene and her daughter might soon be getting eight hours a night, but this baby clearly had no designs on higher achievement. Casey had spent a lot of time in Vegas, and he’d known alcoholic insomniac gamblers who were more lovable at three a.m. than this baby was.

Above him, footsteps.

“Shit. Please be Christine, please be Christine.”

There was a chance it was—he was in Christine Church’s home, after all, and she often rose at ungodly hours. Christine and her husband, Don, and their son, Casey’s good friend Miah, lived in this big old farmhouse at the western edge of their cattle ranch. Casey was here about every other night, checking in on Abilene, helping with the baby as best he could, when he really ought to be home, in bed, asleep.

Hell, I shouldn’t be in Fortuity at all.

Or anyplace in Nevada, for that matter—not when he could be back in Texas, saying yes to that contract, looking forward to meeting Emily for a drink to go over the logistics, salivating to get the project going. He shouldn’t be co-owner of a bar. In the light of day, he was glad he was, but just now, when he was sleep deprived and missing his old paydays, his old freedom . . .

Above, on the landing to the second-floor rooms, a door opened, spilling soft light. Shit, Abilene.

“What’s the matter?”

“We’re fine.”

She padded down the steps and into the den in her sleep clothes—pajama pants with a pattern of stars and moons, an oversized and faded Dolly Parton concert tee. Her long, dark ponytail was all cockeyed, her normally wide eyes squinty and bleary. Cute as fuck, really.

“Sorry,” Casey said, bouncing the angry baby. “I’ve got her. My phone rang. She’ll be back to sleep in no time,” he lied. He didn’t know much about babies, but he was steadily coming to understand this one, and when Mercy was pissed, she stayed pissed.

“Give her here.”

“No, go back upstairs.”

“Try giving birth to a baby and then ignoring the sound of her crying,” Abilene countered. “Sit.”

He dropped back on the couch and Abilene sat beside him. He passed the squirming bundle into her arms.

Casey stretched his neck from side to side, feeling the hour. Feeling, as he often did these days, half-incompetent at most everything he was attempting to do—run a bar, help out with his family’s issues, care for an infant. The one thing he was truly exceptional at was off the table. He’d grown used to feeling capable, used to knowing without a doubt that he was the only man for the job. But with that job shelved, and maybe for good, he couldn’t say he much enjoyed the alternative. It roused an old, familiar restlessness in him, the same one that had driven him out of this town to begin with. His self-serving side wanted to run straight back to Texas, except he was all in now. For the first time in his life, he was neck-deep in responsibilities, with others seriously depending on him. Running wasn’t an option . . .

Not unless he felt like turning into his old man, that was, which was about the only thing that scared him worse than commitment.

Warmth broke through his worries—the warmth of Abilene’s thigh through his jeans, and her upper arm against his bare elbow. She was short, maybe five-two, small framed but . . . plump? Casey didn’t know what the acceptable term was to use in front of a girl, but you could say she was a little chubby, and had been even before her pregnancy had begun to show. It didn’t bother him one bit. Her skin looked crazy-soft. Soft like her heavy Texas accent. When his dick got the better of him, he’d imagine how his hands would look on that skin, how she’d feel like heaven under his palms. Casey didn’t discriminate when it came to women’s bodies, and Abilene’s was everything essentially feminine to him. Petite and . . . and lush.

It did things to him, even now. Always had. Probably always would.

Though it really shouldn’t. She was too young, for one, and she was his employee to boot—she tended bar at Benji’s three afternoons a week. And on top of all that, she’d gone into labor nearly two weeks early, while they’d been closing up together, and had given birth in the back of Casey’s car, halfway to the nearest decent hospital in Elko, in the dead of night.

He’d had a crush from the second he’d laid eyes on her and hit on her and asked her out a hundred times—fruitlessly—before he’d found out she was pregnant, but he’d never so much as kissed her. Never really even touched her in any meaningful way before he’d found himself kneeling between her legs, getting screamed at, trying not to hyperventilate as a squalling baby had been born into his shaking hands.

Still, that had been four months ago, give or take, and since then his old desire had crept back in—and worse than ever, if he wasn’t mistaken. No matter that he knew Abilene was over whatever she’d once felt for him. Motherhood ate up all her energy, and it really ought to have desexualized her in Casey’s eyes as well . . . but in truth, he was straight up in awe of her now. And protective, as well, a sensation that always wired straight between a man’s legs, it seemed.

So for a half dozen excellent reasons, Casey pretended he felt for Abilene what she now did for him—a brother-sister-type affection, nothing more.

He’d always been a goddamned good liar.

“Sorry,” he said again. “I was really hoping to give you a decent night’s sleep for a change.”

“Don’t be sorry,” Abilene murmured, soothing Mercy. “Phones ring. Babies cry. I got four whole hours in. That’s more than I would have if I was on my own tonight.”

“You’re not on your own—you’ve got Christine, too.”

Abilene and the baby had moved here to Three C a week ago. Trouble was on its way, in the form of Mercy’s father getting paroled. Guy was a gunrunner with a quick temper, the story went, and their breakup hadn’t been pretty.

“Yeah, Christine’s great for a couple hours’ babysitting in the afternoon, but that’s all I can bear to ask of her.”

True. Miah’s mom put in sixteen-hour days around the ranch, same as the men. “She frigging loves Mercy, though,” Casey said.

Abilene smirked. “Miah better get busy and make her some grandbabies before she steals one . . . Oh, I shouldn’t have said that. That was mean.”

“No, that’s true. She’s broody as fuck. Oh, shit—shoot. Sorry.”

Abilene shook her head. “You and that mouth . . . Would you fix me a bottle? That might calm her down.”

“Sure.”

Casey went to the kitchen and turned on a burner under a pot of water. He mixed the formula with a few good shakes of the bottle, switched off the stove, set the bottle in the pot to heat. Mercy preferred it warm, especially at night. So weird that she could have preferences, and a personality, when at four months old she was still little more than a good-smelling fat loaf—alternately angelic and livid. So weird that he even had this skill set, when four months ago he’d never so much as held an infant. Not that he was much of a natural. He still wound up putting on her diapers backward half the time.

When the bottle’s temp seemed about right, he emptied the pot down the sink and swirled the formula as he headed back into the den.

Abilene accepted it, giving it a feel. “Perfect, as always.”

“I’m like a human thermometer.”

“Between you and the human poop machine,” she said, nodding to the baby, “I’m starting to feel left out of the superpowers club.” The baby took the nipple and Abilene broke into a smile that Casey knew way too well—a quick grin, stifled by a shy bite of her lip. Relief.

“Tell me about the house,” he whispered.

Abilene’s dream house, that was, an ever-evolving vision of the kind of home she’d like to move into with Mercy someday, if she could ever afford it.

“Nothing fancy,” she murmured. That was how it always started. “One story is fine. With a little yard, at least, big enough to run around in. And a white fence.”

“What color’s the house?”

“Also white. With red shutters and a red mailbox. And a red door.”

“How many bedrooms?” he asked, and absently reached out to squeeze Mercy’s tiny foot in its yellow sock.

“Just two. Plus a living room, and a kitchen big enough to eat in. And a washer and dryer—I never want to step inside another Laundromat for the rest of my life.”

Casey laughed, smiled to himself. He’d ask her this question again, the next time they found themselves side by side this way, late at night. Each time, something new—the shutters, the fence, the mailbox, now two rooms and a washer and dryer. Next time, maybe curtains. And someday, he imagined, a Mr. Right to fill out the scene. Something hot squirmed inside him at the thought. Something hot and deeply pointless, as Casey was about as wrong for such a gig as a man could get. Even if some hint of Abilene’s old crush still lived inside her, he couldn’t be what she needed. He had no business promising anything real to anyone, and a kid raised the stakes a hundredfold.

He gave the suckling baby’s wispy hair a faint stroke. “She has my eyes, you know.”

Abilene straightened and rolled her own blue eyes. “Now, that would be a miracle of genetics.”

In more ways than one; Casey didn’t expect he’d ever have kids of his own. He wasn’t cut out for it, for starters, and he also didn’t entirely trust his own DNA. His mother had gone crazy in her early forties, and he had good reason to suspect the same fate might be in store for him. Like her, he suffered from occasional spells, like seizures. What exactly was wrong with him, he wasn’t certain, but he knew for damn sure he had no business making promises he couldn’t keep, not to a woman, and certainly not to a child. It wouldn’t be fair to them, and it wasn’t fair to him, either. Why torture yourself with a taste of that stuff, if it was only going to get ripped away?

Still, there definitely was something to babies. He’d never thought about them much before meeting this one, but they were good. Squishy to hold, infinitely simple in their needs, entertaining, nice to look at.

“You remember when she was born,” Casey asked, “the very first words she ever heard anybody say?”

“‘Bleeping hell, Abilene,’” she quoted, laughing, “‘I’m on a mother-bleeping lease.’”

“In retrospect, ‘Welcome to the world’ might’ve been nicer.”

“At least your insurance covered new seats.”

Casey nodded. “Good to know emergency birth counts as an act of God.”

“It ought to, considering all the blasphemy involved.”

They fell quiet, and Casey studied her once her eyes had shut. He’d known her since the previous summer, worked with her on and off at the bar, both before and after he’d become co-owner of the place. Granted, he’d known her mostly while she was pregnant and stressed-out, but he still couldn’t say he’d ever seen her as calm as she’d been since the baby had been born. Exhausted, sure, but at peace, too, he could tell. Like someone who’d found what it was they were supposed to be doing. He knew that sensation himself—missed the shit out of it. But he was happy for her. It was only a shame this peace was about to get disrupted. It was technically Monday now, and that meant her ex was out on parole tomorrow.

Just looking at her, with those worries nagging . . . Goddamn, his body didn’t even know what to do with it all. How did men even survive having wives and children, Casey had to wonder, when he felt this mixed-up and protective over a woman he could only really call a friend, and a child who wasn’t even his? That shit must feel deep enough to drown in some days.

Though to a better man than me, he thought, it might feel like a nice way to go.

Chapter 3

The old farmhouse was chilly, winter finding Abilene’s feet through the broad floorboards and her socks. She shuffled out of the guest bedroom around seven with Mercy strapped to her chest in the baby sling. She may have failed at breastfeeding, but the scoldy-mother brigade couldn’t fault her efforts on the wearing-your-infant front. What the benefits were meant to be, she couldn’t remember. It felt like there were a dozen differing ways to be a good mom, and a million ways to mess it up.

“A woman’s highest calling is to be a good wife and mother,” her father’s cool voice echoed. She shivered. He’d be horrified to see her now, but no matter—she had no wish to see him ever again.

Am I a good mother? I couldn’t breastfeed. But what was that shortcoming, really, compared to getting involved with Mercy’s father to begin with? I was a different person when we met. She’d grown up a lot since finding out she was pregnant. She might not have everything figured out—not remotely—but she had her priorities in order, at least.

And she was a good mother, besides. Maybe she was unmarried, maybe she had no clue what she was doing half the time, but she loved her daughter, and she showed that love. It was more than her father could claim to have done for her. And I’m protecting her. Abilene’s mama had never protected her—not from her father’s judgment and suffocating beliefs, and not from the perils and temptations of the larger world, after she’d run away from home.

The guest bathroom was cold, the lightbulb seeming grumpy as it flickered to life. She brushed her teeth, eyeing herself in the mirror. Eyeing Mercy, and only half comprehending how it was she was here.

Same as how everything happens to me—I screwed up.

At least this time, there was a gem to be found in the rubble of the fallout. She smoothed her baby’s soft hair and watched her tiny lashes flutter. It seemed unreal that someone as messed up as Abilene could have created something so perfect.

It hadn’t even been Abilene who’d told her ex about Mercy—it had been Casey’s older brother, Vince. Vince had done time with James, a year before Abilene had moved to Nevada.

Well, not moved to. Not exactly. Abilene tended more often to simply find herself in new places, more a matter of mishap than intention.

That was the story of her life, right there, she thought as she headed downstairs. Flight following mistake, following flight, following mistake, again and again and again. She’d screwed up, getting involved with her ex, and been swept here to the Churches’ ranch for her own safety. She entered the empty kitchen, finding coffee warming in the pot and a plate of muffins on the oversized trestle table. She helped herself to both, settling on the long wooden bench.

She wanted better for her daughter than all that aimless wandering. She wanted her to have dreams and to make plans, and to move through the world with intentional steps that led her toward her goals. To carry herself to the destinations she chose. She didn’t want her to be a brittle, helpless leaf, blown from place to place, propelled only by a need to escape, and never by desire.

Freedom—that was what she wanted for her daughter. Freedom of choice, and freedom from the guilt and shame and repression Abilene had grown up shackled by, and from the oppressive environment that had driven her to such extremes in the name of rebellion.

She glanced down and found muffin crumbs on Mercy’s head. Catching footsteps creaking from the direction of the den, she brushed them away.

“Casey?” She’d left him sleeping upright on the couch and found him in the exact same position when she’d crept through the den this morning.

He strolled in, rubbing his face. “Morning. Again. When did you two ditch me?”

“A few minutes before four, I think. You passed out. So did Mercy.”

“And you?” Casey asked, pulling a bowl from a cabinet. “You get any more sleep?”

“An hour or so.”

“I don’t know how you do it, man. I get less than six and I might as well be drunk.”

Abilene checked him out while he was distracted, fixing himself a bowl of cornflakes. Her libido had begun to return, if tentatively, and she was starting to take note of certain things for the first time in months.

Case in point, she was discovering all over again how much she loved Casey’s arms . . . and probably because that was the most of his skin she ever got to see. He wore button-ups and T-shirts, and while they fit nicely, they didn’t give much away. A fine pair of normal-guy biceps—lean and muscular, but not beefy like his brother’s or her ex’s. His forearms were just as nice, with blond hair and about half as many freckles as he’d had back in the summer. The hair on his head was a bit darker than when they’d met, more strawberry than blond now, but his beard had stayed the same—a brazen shade of red. Where he got that from, she couldn’t guess, nor those bright blue eyes. He looked nothing like his black-haired, hazel-eyed tower of an older brother. And that suited Abilene just fine.

Casey was a nice, normal-sized man, with better things to do, she imagined, than spend his spare time lifting weights.

What those things might be, however, she couldn’t guess. He was awfully cagey about what he’d done for a living before he’d returned to his hometown last August. But she could handle that. She had plenty of secrets of her own she didn’t plan on sharing.

Heck, Casey didn’t even know her real name.

There was something about him, though . . . something that set him apart from all her exes. It was in the way he stood and the way he talked. It was in the easy way he held himself, and in the old Chuck Taylors he wore when he wasn’t in motorcycle boots. He’d be thirty-four on April fifth, more than a decade her senior . . . though he believed she was a couple years older than she was.

He had more than ten years on her, yet in some ways Casey seemed like a teenager. Normally that wasn’t a plus for a woman, but Abilene’s own teenage years had been forfeited. She’d never experienced young love as she should have, never been with a guy and had it be about fun, about exploring like dumb, eager kids. She was always the student, with men. An innocent in need of teaching, or saving, or corrupting. She’d fantasized a thousand times about how sex with Casey would be, and not even in a horny way—not since her hormones had banished her sex drive, at least.

He’d be eager, she bet. Silly, and energetic, and shameless. Up for anything, and every emotion he felt would be right there on his face. She loved his voice, too—not deep like his brother’s, but soft, and sexy when he spoke low, late at night. What would he say, in bed? She swallowed, unable to guess but knowing it’d be brash. His ears and throat and cheeks would be bright pink, like they got when he was embarrassed. No guile, just proof that he wanted her. Lust bloomed at the thought, chased by a different heat—shame. The two were as married inside her as bees and their stingers, a product of the strict breed of Christianity she’d been raised in and formed by. The lust, she knew now, was wholly natural, a force from deep in her body. The shame was all in her head. Though knowing that didn’t keep her from feeling it.

Where Casey was concerned, though, fantasies were all she got. Good as he’d been to her, as both a boss and a friend, she knew it shouldn’t ever be more than that. She knew he’d been to prison, but for what crime, she wasn’t sure and frankly didn’t want to know. For her, it was enough to know that he’d done time. Enough to tell her that letting this crush grow any deeper would just be history repeating itself yet again. For her daughter’s sake, she had to pick with her head the next time she fell hard for somebody.

And though she and Casey weren’t meant to be, she welcomed the what-if daydreams. She’d missed being sexual these past months, and feeling the surge of power that came with it.

She might not be the most obvious sex object, but the whole petite-girl-with-big-eyes thing worked on some guys, and she’d always gotten a rush from seeing that glint in a man’s eye. The power she felt, feeling wanted like that . . .

Sure, she’d been led astray, but never all that unwillingly, she could admit.

“Refill?” Casey asked, tipping the coffeepot to his own mug.

“No, thanks. One’s probably plenty. Hoping I might steal a nap, if Mercy goes down at ten like she has been.”

“Good thinking.” He took a seat across from her, eyeing the baby. “You spill anything on her?”

“Not yet,” she fibbed, spreading butter on the second half of her muffin. You didn’t spill crumbs, she reasoned. You dropped them. No one told you crap like that about motherhood—how you’d accidentally drip oatmeal on your poor baby’s head, or sneeze on her, or otherwise undermine your dignity on an hourly basis.

“What are you up to today?” she asked.

“Meeting my brother and Duncan, before Benji’s opens,” Casey said. Duncan was his co-owner at the bar, her other boss. “To finalize plans.”

She knew what he meant—plans to do with what might happen once her ex was released tomorrow morning. After her shift tonight, Abilene would be hanging up her bar towel until further notice, and Vince would probably be arranging to meet with James, to take the temperature of the situation. She was afraid of the details. As long as Casey or Miah was nearby, she felt safe.

Though what am I really afraid of? she had to wonder. James’s anger, or everyone finding out the truth about me?

False names aside, she’d been two very different girls in her short life. One sweet and lost, one thoroughly ugly. Neither quite what they seemed to be.

If the truth came out, everything was at risk.

Duncan might want to fire her. The Churches might not be so keen to have Abilene staying under their roof. Casey might quit seeing her as a scared young mother in need of protection, and people could start wondering if maybe she shouldn’t be trusted with Mercy.

Because Abilene wasn’t what she appeared to be. She wasn’t even Abilene, technically. She wasn’t twenty-four, and while she might be in danger, she wasn’t a complete victim in any of this.

She wasn’t anywhere near as innocent as she seemed.

•   •   •

Casey got to Benji’s at eleven and let himself in through the front door.

He and Duncan were having a kitchen installed, its space cannibalized from the former stockroom and an adjoining corner of the bar. It was going to be a boon to the business, and hopefully keep the drinkers from vanishing each night at dinnertime, keep the place relevant once the Eclipse—the massive and controversial resort casino just resuming construction in the foothills—arrived, along with its attendant competition. Casey had waged an epic battle with his new partner over the future menu, and won—they’d be specializing in roadside-style barbecue. Nice and simple, tough to fuck up. Duncan probably wished they could serve kale and quinoa and artisanal mulch or whatever he’d eat if given his snooty druthers, but Casey had stood firm. Ribs, chops, steak. That was the recipe for success, fitting their existing clientele and the vibe of the joint.

“I want to choose the sides, then,” Duncan had insisted, cowing to the greater logic. “You can cook more than just meat on a grill. Even bikers and ranch hands eat vegetables, surely.”

“Course. Corn on the cob and, um . . . Are baked beans a vegetable?”

“I’m not rebranding this place ‘Benji’s Coronary Artery Disease Depot.’”

“We can argue about this later, darling.” And no doubt they would. They were mismatched, as partners—and indeed friends—went, but it worked, somehow. Casey and commitments were mismatched as well, but this place meant a lot to him. It was his own first watering hole, and a business that embodied the soul of Fortuity in every floorboard, every beam. If nobody stepped in, invested their money and time and energy in keeping it viable, it’d go the way of the local mining industry in no time, a quaint footnote in a struggling town’s bleak history.

Kitchen construction had kicked off a little more than a week ago, with a three-man crew working daily before the bar opened, six a.m. to two. The project was due to wrap in early March, just a few weeks away.

To judge by the racket, the contractors were busy sanding something this morning. As if to confirm, Duncan strode out from behind the temporary partition covered in dust. He spotted Casey and raised a hand.

Casey waited until Duncan took his ear protectors off, then called out, “No doubt you’ll be changing before you open this afternoon.”

“No doubt at all.” Duncan moved his safety goggles to the top of his head and glanced down at his beige-dusted clothes—jeans and a T-shirt, not his typical style. He looked naked in anything less than a suit. He was a British expat, a disillusioned former lawyer for the casino’s development company, and pretty much nothing about him made any sense whatsoever in Fortuity. Casey supposed love did that to people. Changed their priorities, changed their assumptions about who they were and what they wanted.

“You look like a normal person, man. What’re you doing back there anyhow, aside from getting in the way?”

“Micromanaging. It’s been my experience that people work quicker and do a better job with some annoying prick hovering over their every move. When’s your brother due?”

“Any minute. We should probably talk upstairs, away from the noise. Raina home?”

“Yes, but she’s with a client.” Duncan was dating the bar’s former owner, and Casey’s good friend, Raina. Her dad had been Benji Harper, the bar’s namesake. She made no more sense paired with Duncan than Fortuity itself did, but the sex had to be off the fucking wall, because the two of them seemed to be as tangled up as ever, five months in. They lived together in the apartment above the bar, where Raina also did tattooing.

Out front, the rumble of Vince’s arrival cut through the contractors’ din, then died as he killed his bike’s engine. Casey met him at the door.

Vince gave him a half hug around the neck with his beefy arm. “What’s up, motherfucker?”

“Nothing good,” Casey said, and locked up behind him.

Vince had inherited their dad’s enviable height and build along with his black hair, while Casey was five-eleven, much leaner, with their mom’s fair skin and hair. The latter was overdue for a trim. Any stranger seeing Casey standing beside Vince, with his clean shave and military-style haircut, would be surprised to learn that Casey and he were brothers. Hell, even Casey had his doubts about whether or not they shared a father. Unlike Vince, he didn’t look a thing like the shit who’d run out on them when they were little, and if that doubt ever got corroborated, he’d throw himself a fucking party. He didn’t want that deadbeat’s blood in his veins, didn’t want a thing to do with him. The feeling had been mutual, after all.

“Upstairs,” he said, nodding to the rear of the bar, where Duncan was waiting.

Vince nodded at Duncan. “Welch.”

“Grossier.”

The two were perfectly civil, maybe even secretly fond of each other, but aside from being tall and owning old BMW motorcycles, they had nothing in common. Duncan was fair, fussy, and high-strung and appreciated opera, while Vince was more into tattoos and fistfights. The three of them headed through the back and up the stairwell, into Raina and Duncan’s kitchen. A buzzing was coming from the adjoining room, telling them Raina was hard at work.

“So when’d you talk to him?” Casey asked his brother.

“Just this morning.”

“And?”

Vince pulled out a chair and sat, planting his forearms on the dining table. “And he’s a man of few words. And none of them were very encouraging.”

Casey swore and sat.

Duncan filled a teakettle, looking grave. “What precisely did he say?”

“He said that nothing I could say was going to stop him from seeing his kid. I mean, I doubt he’d hurt the baby. But his ex . . . ? I dunno. I’ve only ever known the guy in the company of men, and he was no teddy bear.”

“Violent?” Duncan asked.

“Fights, yeah. Which is just what you do on the inside, but he enjoyed ’em, same as me.”

“You’d never hurt Kim, though,” Casey said, meaning Vince’s girlfriend. “Or any woman. Or a kid.”

“Course not. And maybe Ware wouldn’t, either—prison’s not exactly the best place to get a handle on a guy. But we’re not taking any chances. Can’t discount female intuition, and the girl’s fucking terrified.”

“Did you tell him where Abilene’s staying?”

Vince shook his head. “But I had to say how I knew her—that she came to me after he’d given her my name, and that I’d helped her get a job here at the bar.”

“You tell him she doesn’t work here anymore? Last thing I need is him showing up and getting pushy.”

“I did, but I have no doubt he’ll come by, demanding to know where she’s at.”

“And what’s our answer to that question?” Duncan asked.

“None of his fucking business,” Casey said.

Vince shook his head. “We tell him she’s someplace safe, that the baby’s fine, and they’ve got support. But we don’t say where. Not until he proves he’s willing to approach the situation calmly. And Case, you’ve got to convince her to talk to him.”

“Personally I don’t want him anywhere near her. But I see what you mean.”

“Keeping her in hiding’s not exactly sustainable,” Duncan agreed. “Plus the longer we put off brokering some sort of meeting, the more upset he could get. We don’t need a frustrated ex-convict roughing up the customers.”

“Unless it’s me,” Vince said, smirking. He got excited about fights like a kid gunning for a trip to the waterpark.

Casey knew they were both right—Abilene had to face the guy sometime. “I’ll talk to her, but don’t hold your breath.” She’d been putting up a brave front as her ex’s release loomed closer, but he could sense the fear behind it.

“Has to happen. Even assholes deserve to meet their children,” Vince said, “until they prove otherwise.”

Casey felt his insides sour, thinking of their own dad. It burned him something nasty to know Mercy might have that kind of disappointment in store for her—a deadbeat, or maybe even worse, if Ware was the hothead Vince and Abilene had both made him out to be.

Duncan’s striped cat came strolling through, bashing itself bodily into Casey’s shins. He nudged it away. “Back off. I’m allergic to you.”

“Talk to her,” Duncan said, pouring steaming water into a cup and bobbing a tea bag. “It would be helpful for us to be able to tell this man that she’s willing to talk, in time, if that’s true.”

“Yeah, fine.”

“And I’ll make it a point to be a regular downstairs until he shows up,” Vince said.

Duncan nodded. “That sounds wise. I can’t imagine anyone would take me seriously as a bouncer.” He turned to Casey. “Is Abilene on tonight?”

“Yeah, her last shift. I told her I could handle it by myself, but she’s desperate for the money.”

Vince rubbed his chin like he wasn’t happy about this plan, but held his tongue.

“You can try to talk her out of it, but I don’t recommend it,” Casey said. “Plus the poor girl’s basically in witness protection as of tomorrow morning. Three C’s roomy but it’d still feel like a prison if you weren’t allowed to leave.”

“Make sure Miah talks to all his ranch hands again—they’re in the bar often enough, and we don’t need one of them running into Ware and spilling the beans.”

Casey nodded.

“Right,” Vince said, standing. “I’m supposed to be at Petroch for a half day. See you fuckers later.”

Duncan inclined his head and Casey said, “Bye.” As Vince thumped down the steps, he asked Duncan, “What are you up to now?”

“I’m trying to have a late lunch with Raina before I open, so I thought I might get the delights of sweeping and mopping and toilet scrubbing out of the way now.”

“Glamorous. Guess I’ll be on my way, then.”

They headed downstairs together and Casey snagged Raina’s motorcycle helmet off the coatrack. “Tell your better half I’m stealing this. Just for the night.”

“I doubt she’ll notice. She’s got two more appointments after lunch. I daresay no joyriding will be happening today.”

Not for you, Casey thought. But he intended to give Abilene everything she had coming to her, on her final night of freedom.

Chapter 4

From down in the Churches’ den came Casey’s shout. “You about ready?”

Abilene checked the clock—twenty minutes of seven. Oops.

“Almost!”

Mercy was already fed and dozing in her car seat in the office where Christine was working, but Abilene herself was a mess. She dashed into the guest bathroom and dried her hair, hunted down two shoes that matched, and realized too late she hadn’t shaved her legs. So much for the skirt she’d pulled on, and too bad—she always made better tips when she showed her legs. Men really didn’t care if your legs were all tanned and svelte like a gazelle’s, or plump and pale like her own, as long as they were bare. Oh well. She dug out some jeans and named herself presentable. She didn’t much care what she wore, only where she’d be spending her night. Behind the bar, with Casey, for the last time until she didn’t know when. It took her back to a simpler time—before he’d known she was pregnant, before he’d been her boss or watched her become a mother. Back when he’d still hit on her, and still looked at her with fire in those blue eyes.

“Ready,” she called as she shut her door and shouldered her purse. The second-floor landing on this side of the house overlooked the big den, and she could see Casey leaning on the back of the couch, checking his phone.

He glanced up as she hurried down the steps. “Grab your coat, why don’t you?”

“I’ll be okay. Your car warms up quick.” She didn’t have a ride of her own just now, which sucked. Her little crapbox ’94 Colt was in the shop, needing a whole new engine. She couldn’t really afford the repair, but as it was Vince who’d gotten it towed into town for her last week, she had a sneaking suspicion the bill would never arrive.

The Grossiers and Raina, and even Miah to a lesser extent—he was by far the most upstanding of their tight little group—had all made her nervous, once upon a time. She was no stranger to shady company, but the lot of them were all so much more . . . something, than she was used to. Like they knew and trusted their own places in their dusty, scrappy hometown.

Abilene, on the other hand, felt lost most of the time, and more insecure than ever now, with Mercy to worry about.

“We’re not taking my car,” Casey said as she met him downstairs.

“Whose, then?”

“It’s your last night of freedom until this all blows over. Thought we might brave the cold and ride into town in style.”

“What, on your bike?” Jeez, she’d never ridden on a motorcycle before. “I dunno.”

“Bundle up. Bring gloves, too—it’ll be real cold by the time we close up.”

She weighed her anxiety against Casey’s confidence. Maybe he was right. Maybe she ought to relish the wind in her hair one more time, icy though it undoubtedly would be.

“Fine.” She grabbed her winter coat off its hook in the front hall and pulled on her mittens. “What about a helmet?”

“Got you covered.” Casey led the way outside, down the porch steps to the big front lot. As she eyed his Harley, the last of her hesitance waned. This machine no longer looked like a frigid threat to her life, but rather a perfect excuse to wrap her arms around the man she was otherwise in no position to embrace. Twenty socially acceptable minutes, each way, to spend with her body hugged close to his . . .

Sign me up.

Casey handed her a black helmet and clipped his own silver one on.

“I’ve never seen you bother with one of these before,” she said, fiddling with the strap.

He helped her tighten it, seeming tall and exciting. “Got to start setting a better example, if you’re gonna keep letting me hang around your kid.”

Her goofy smile went blessedly unseen as he swung his leg over the seat.

“Thank goodness I didn’t wear a skirt.” And thank goodness Casey was busy digging in his pockets for his keys and didn’t see her graceless first attempt at getting her leg up and over the back.

“Little help?”

Without a word, he hooked out his arm and she used it to haul herself into position.

“Thanks.”

“Hold on tight.”

She did, looping her arms around him. He was wearing a hoodie, and a sweater underneath, she could tell. And under that, she could just make out the shapes of his trunk. Man, you smell nice. Probably just his soap, she guessed, but sexy all the same.

The engine rumbled to life, puttering loudly as he cruised them toward the road.

“I’ve never done this before,” she shouted.

“Bit more fun in the summer,” he called back, once they were on the pavement.

“I’ll bet.” And would she still be in Fortuity come the summer, she wondered? She hoped so. It was tough, though. Once everything calmed down, she’d have to find her own place and pay for some kind of childcare so she could work more hours. In all honesty, the math just didn’t add up, not without any family nearby to lean on . . .

I won’t go back to Bloomville. Even if her pride somehow let her, even if things got that desperate, there was absolutely no guarantee her parents would talk to her, baby or no baby. She felt tears well as she imagined the worst—what they might say about Mercy, if they found out who her father was. You haven’t changed a bit, have you, Allison? You and these older men. When are you going to learn to keep your goddamned legs closed? That’s what they’d say—what her father would say—and her mother would flinch at the cuss and start praying. Crying and praying.

So, no. No way in the darkest, hottest corner of heck was she ever going back.

She locked her arms up tight around Casey, shut her eyes, and tried to forget.

•   •   •

It wound up being a busy night at Benji’s, and Abilene counted up two hundred and eleven dollars in the tip jar. “Wow, good haul for a Monday.”

Casey was loading the washer with the final few last-call glasses and tumblers, and he shot a smile over his shoulder. “How much?”

“Over two hundred.”

“Shit, that is a good haul. And it’s all yours.”

She frowned, clutching the bills in a fat, messy stack to her middle. “No way.”

“Fuck yes way.” He straightened and switched the washer on. “You think I earned even a quarter of those tips, anyhow? You’re actually polite to people. Plus you’re a girl. You keep it all. I’m your boss; I’m telling you to.”

“Gosh. If you insist.” She could certainly use it. “Thanks.”

She eyed Casey as he went around the now-empty barroom, wiping tables down with a wet towel. They’d been busy, and the place had grown warm. He was down to his T-shirt, and she bit her lip as she watched his circling arm.

It wasn’t merely a blush of lust she was feeling for her boss. There was that, but also more, something almost fiercer than sex—appreciation. He signed her paychecks and babysat for her, had been giving her rides for the past week, and got creepy customers to back off when necessary. He did so much, and she took so much.

Not forever. Someday she’d know security. Someday she’d be with a man who treated her as good as Casey did, for all the right reasons—go to bed with him for all the right reasons—and be the one contributing now and then, instead of the one always in need of bailing out.

She followed in his wake, stacking barstools on the wiped tables, trying not to look at his butt. Failing. She could have had him, last summer. He’d wanted her, and she’d wanted him right back. But she’d been so mixed-up from the pregnancy and all the ugliness that had preceded it, she’d kept him at a distance. Now, though, a selfish bit of her wished she’d gone there. To know what he’d have been like in bed, if nothing else. For the memories.

All that left her with were theories. She watched his arm again, letting one hatch, feeling a flush creeping up her neck.

“Deposit ready?” he asked.

“Locked in the register.” Duncan liked to review each night’s receipts, then go to the bank himself. How had Casey put it? The man had a hard-on for accounting.

“Then let’s get you home.”

She pulled her jacket from the cubby under the counter. “Seems silly that you’re bothering to crash at the ranch—you’ll only be there for, like, four hours by the time the sun’s up.”

“Probably.” He pulled his sweater over his head. “But tomorrow’s a big deal. You think I’m leaving your side the first day your ex is loose?”

“He can’t know I’m staying at the ranch yet.”

“But why take chances?” Casey zipped his hoodie.

“Duncan’s not working three to two all by himself tomorrow, is he?”

“No, Raina agreed to come down and close—almost every night this week, in fact.”

Abilene’s neck warmed at that, some weird mix of shame and gratitude. Her former boss was more than happy to have retired from bartending. “That’s awful good of her.”

“I bet part of her secretly misses it. Must get boring, busting only Duncan’s balls all the time.”

She laughed. “Still, it’s insane how nice you’ve all been, bending over backwards to look after me and Mercy.”

Casey shrugged as he headed for the fuse box, then switched all but the security lights off. “That’s what you get for ever going to my brother for help in the first place, honey. Now you’re stuck with the whole goddamn bunch of us . . . Though the irony of it is, he helped you to begin with because you were carrying his old prison buddy’s baby. Now he’s trying to help protect you from the guy. Kind of fucked-up, but hey, it’s Fortuity.”

“Effed up or not, I’m really grateful for everything. And I hope it doesn’t go on for too long.”

“Me neither. For your sake, that is.” He headed for the back and she followed. They grabbed their helmets by the door.

The temperature had dropped, way down to freezing to judge by how their breath fogged the night air.

Having already survived one trip on the bike, Abilene clambered aboard behind Casey with passable confidence. She was pooped, looking forward to bed, and hoping the baby was having what Christine called a “merciful night.” But the moment the engine started up between her legs, all that fatigue rattled away in the brisk February breeze. She squeezed Casey tight and had to remind herself not to confuse vibration with arousal.

It didn’t help. The noise and the wind swallowed her, left her feeling alive and awake in a way unique to being on a motorcycle. Suddenly it made sense, why people would want to live their waking lives on these things. So much freedom, without any windows standing between you and the world. All those stars overhead, no roof to hide a single one.

And a warm, strong man in your arms, she thought, hugging Casey’s middle. Did he get pleasure from feeling her at his back, as anything more than a reprieve from the winter air? She hoped so. She was a mom now, and his employee—thoroughly unsexy roles, but she hoped some shadow of his old crush had lingered.

Yeah, right. Not after he’d seen her give birth, seen her grouchy and frustrated at two a.m. She knew, from hearing Miah and Christine talk about him, Casey wasn’t historically a guy who stuck around and did the right thing. He was kind of like Abilene in that way—always adrift—except it sounded like he’d been in control of where he wound up. In addition to his record, he’d been a card counter in Las Vegas for a while, which struck her as the shadiest thing you could probably do for a living without actually breaking the law.

The wind found her hands through her knitted mittens, and she inched them into the pockets of his hoodie. He felt good against her. Warm, strong, and big. Big enough to make a girl feel feminine and protected, but not so big that it was intimidating.

As she held on to him, she wondered how it’d feel, being in his lap. Her thighs around his hips, his excitement right there, against hers. His hands on her waist. Just to feel a man like that again, right there against her . . .

Not just any man. Your boss.

What had James said to her, back when they’d been together? If you’d ever gone to college, you’d have lost a good professor his tenure. He’d been teasing, and at the time she’d laughed. She knew she had a type—you could only make the same mistake so many times before you had to admit it was more than a coincidence. But it wasn’t funny anymore. Not now that she had Mercy to think about.

The scattered lights of Fortuity fell away behind them, the bike’s headlamp the only glow to be seen until the lit gate of Three C appeared as the highway curved. This was her last night like this—closing up late, riding home out in the open, be it in a car or on this motorcycle. Tomorrow, she had to start watching her back. She tried to soak up every second that was left, but in a blink, Casey was parking by the fence.

He helped her down after he cut the engine. “Not so bad, right?”

“It was fun. Worth the frostbite.” The automatic porch light came on when they neared. Abilene dug her keys out of her purse as they mounted the steps and let them both inside.

“Man, we missed some good dinner,” Casey said, shutting the door behind them. “What do you think? Meat loaf? Pot roast?” The house was warm and smelled impossibly good, like gravy and rosemary. Someday Abilene would have a little home that offered Mercy this experience—comfort and hot meals and nice smells. A fireplace, holiday traditions.

“Bet you there’s leftovers,” she said, hanging up her coat.

“Bet you they’ll taste real good around four o’clock, when your daughter decides to wake us up.”

They walked to the den, where Casey would be making his bed once more. It was a comfy enough couch—a big old tan leather behemoth, probably as old as Abilene—but he had to be missing his apartment. And his freedom. And his privacy.

“I better head up and check on Mercy,” she said.

He nodded as he sat and unlaced his boots. “See you in the morning, hopefully. Though if you need any help, you know how to wake me.”

She smiled. “One good poke to the forehead. Night.”

“Night, Abilene.”

“Thanks again for the ride,” she said, and her smile felt shy when she offered it. She headed for the steps.

The door to her room was open, and she found Mercy sleeping peacefully in the crib. She switched off the baby monitor, officially relieving Christine of her duties. She changed into her pajamas and scrubbed her face in the guest bathroom, shut the door, climbed into bed.

Sleep while you can, she ordered herself. The peace could be over at any moment, shattered by that noise that filled her so wholly with both dread and maternal urgency—the first tentative coo that inevitably snowballed into a squall.

But sleep wasn’t coming. She lay in the darkness, trying to deep breathe, trying to think relaxing thoughts. But with the chaos of the bar gone and the distraction of the ride over, all that passed through her head were the what-ifs that surrounded tomorrow.

Today, she corrected. James would be released around ten in the morning.

The prison was ninety miles away. He could be in Fortuity by noon if he wanted to be. If he had his truck waiting for him and enough money for gas. How long would he need to find her? How long would it take to run into somebody who said, yeah, they’d seen a young brunette around, didn’t she just have a baby? Heard she was staying up at the ranch out east, they might say, and just like that . . .

Poof. Poof went her security. Poof went her secrets, if James saw fit to tell Vince or the Churches or Casey or anybody else about the way they’d met. Poof went custody of her child, maybe.

Maybe. Only maybe. She wasn’t that girl James had first met. She was good now. Wasn’t she? Better, at least. She was trying to be good. She worked hard, hadn’t had so much as a sip of beer since the moment she’d found out she was pregnant. It was almost impossible for a mother to lose custody to a father.

He couldn’t get her child taken away.

Could he?

Chapter 5

With sleep eluding her and lying in the dark producing nothing but waking nightmares, after twenty minutes, Abilene abandoned the covers and poked her head out the door.

A lamp was on in the den, and she crept onto the landing. Casey was lounging on the couch, tapping on his lit-up phone. He never failed to make her feel competent and secure when she needed those sensations most, and right now she craved reassurance like a fish craved water. She went back into her room and put on a bra and socks, left the door open in case Mercy woke, and padded to the steps.

Casey sat up as she reached his periphery. He glanced at his phone, then switched it off, screen going dark. “Thought you’d be out like a light in five minutes flat.”

He spoke softly, as all the Churches were sleeping. She loved when he did that. Normally he was a loud, brash man, not strong on the volume control, but she adored how his voice sounded in late-night moments like these. So close to a whisper. Soft in every way.

She shook her head. “Can’t sleep. Too much on my mind. Were you about to turn in?”

“Don’t have to. Hey, how about I start a fire? It’s kinda chilly down here.”

A fire did sound nice. She got settled on one end of the couch and pulled an afghan over her lap, watching Casey assembling wood and balled-up newspaper pages in the big stone hearth. His back flexed where his sweater pulled tight across his shoulders, leaving her warmer by a degree.

His lighter snicked, and as yellow flames licked at the wood, he joined her, peeling off his sweater and tossing it over the couch arm.

“How you feeling about tomorrow?” He kept the lighter in hand, running his thumb along its smooth silver corners, worrying the lid. He toyed with the thing on boring nights at the bar, too, and when he was trapped with the sleeping baby on his lap.

“A little scared,” she said. “To be honest, I’m trying not to think about it.”

Studying this man’s handsome face was certainly a welcome diversion. It was more than mere gratitude drawing her to him, she realized. There was a very real chance that once James was out, her past would follow suit. Everyone believed they were protecting her welfare—and they were. But James could hurt her worse by talking than by hitting her, and she bet he knew it.

Depending on how pissed James was, in a week or a month or who knew how long, Casey might know the truth about Abilene, and that would just about destroy her.

She knew she couldn’t ever be with this man. But she still felt for him—worse than ever, in fact. Going forward, she’d make better choices. Find herself a man as sweet as this one, minus the criminal record and all the secrets. But she couldn’t deny she still wanted him.

She eyed his mouth. And I don’t want much. Just a taste. Just a kiss. A farewell kiss, to say good-bye to her old habits, once and for all.

He smirked, seeming to realize she was staring. “What?”

“Nothing. Just in my head.”

“If we weren’t on baby patrol, I’d take you out back and make you smoke a joint.”

She smiled and shook her head. “I’m not much for drugs.”

“Pot doesn’t count.”

“Pot also never solved anybody’s problems.”

“Nah, but it’ll shut your brain up real good.” He pocketed his lighter. “Damn, that sounds perfect, actually. Smoke a bowl, stare at the fireplace . . . Hardly anything better in the world than that. Not with your clothes on, anyhow.”

She laughed. “Sounds fun, I’ll admit.” The exact kind of fun she’d missed out on in her teenage years.

“Being a grown-up is such a drag sometimes.” Casey sighed.

“Tell me about it.” Again, she couldn’t help but imagine some different world, one in which she and Casey were the same age and had met in high school. Some world in which he’d maybe taken her virginity, been her date to prom, horrified her parents in ways that looked downright innocent, compared to reality . . .

Would he stop me, if I tried? Tried to kiss him? Tried to touch him? This felt like her last chance. Her last reckless mistake . . . Did that old crush still live inside him someplace, strong enough for him to maybe forget the baby and the danger and the fact that she was his employee, just for a little while? Make her feel like a sexual person again, remind her how good wanting someone could feel, and being wanted right back?

Heart pounding, she turned, bending her legs so her knees rested atop his thigh. She laid her arm along the couch, and her cheek on her shoulder, leaning a bit closer.

Casey seemed to take the move for exhaustion or vulnerability, and wrapped his own arm around her shoulders, giving her a little squeeze. It had been a long time since he’d touched her with this kind of casual ease. It reminded her of her final weeks of pregnancy, the nights they’d closed the bar together and he’d sometimes rub her aching back when there was a lull in orders. Not sexual, but friendly and familiar. Comforting.

Though tonight she wanted something more than comfort.

“Everything’s going to turn out okay,” he told her in that soft, fascinating, un-Casey-like voice. “Right now, this will probably be the worst of it. The waiting.”

“I wasn’t even thinking about tomorrow.”

“No?”

“I was thinking about how much things have changed, since last summer. Since I first met you.”

“No fucking kidding, huh?”

“You used to flirt with me,” she said, making sure he’d hear the smile in her tone, and know it wasn’t a complaint. “Shamelessly.”

“And you must have turned me down, like, eighty times.”

“I miss those days, sometimes.”

He sat up straighter, took his arm back, and met her eyes. “I still think you’re real pretty, you know. If things weren’t so different, I’d still be hitting on you, every chance I got. Wait—did that count as hitting on you? Don’t sue me for sexual harassment.”

She poked him in the side and let her hand linger there. A tiny but bold move, and something spiked in her blood, something hot and nearly forgotten. Nostalgic, a touch dark. Innately natural.

Do what you always did best, a mischievous voice whispered. And to heck with tomorrow.

•   •   •

Casey swallowed and glanced at the fire, trying to blame it for how hot the room seemed to have grown. It couldn’t be the contact, right? This was just friendly, innocent touching. Like friends might do, if they got along real good.

Like, real good, he thought, feeling the heat of Abilene’s palm through his tee, warming his ribs. He couldn’t seem to make sense of that hand.

“What do you want most, Casey?” She asked it quietly, but there was a strength in those words—a fierce and curious charge.

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Burn It Up (Desert Dogs Series #3) 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Just read it. Read the whole series so the larger story makes sense. This is not a MC book, so don't let that put you off.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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