"This is a one-sitting read, a welcome addition to the Black Knights, Inc. series, and a must for military romance fans."—Booklist
They may get a second chance—if they can make it out of the jungle alive.
Carlos "Steady" Soto's nerves of steel have served him well at the covert government defense firm Black Knights Inc. But nothing has prepared him for the emotional roller coaster of guarding the woman he once loved and lost.
Abby Thomson is content to leave politics and international intrigue to her father—the President of the United States—until she's taken hostage half a world away, and she fears her father's policy of not negotiating with terrorists will be her death sentence. There's one glimmer of hope: the man whose heart she broke, but she can ever tell him why.
Black Knights Inc. Series
Hell on Wheels (Book 1)
In Rides Trouble (Book 2)
Rev It Up (Book 3)
Thrill Ride (Book 4)
Born Wild (Book 5)
Hell for Leather (Book 6)
Full Throttle (Book 7)
Too Hard to Handle (Book 8)
Wild Ride (Book 9 — coming April 2017!)
Praise for Hell for Leather:
"Deft characterization, red-hot chemistry, and a satisfying finish demonstrate Walker's mastery."—Publishers Weekly
About the Author
Julie Ann Walker is the USA Today and New York Times Bestselling Author of the Black Knights Inc. romantic suspense series. She is prone to spouting movie quotes and song lyrics. She'll never say no to sharing a glass of wine or going for a long walk. She prefers impromptu travel over the scheduled kind, and she takes her coffee with milk. You can find her on her bicycle along the lake shore in Chicago or blasting away at her keyboard, trying to wrangle her capricious imagination into submission. For more information, please visit www.julieannwalker.com or follow her on Facebook www.facebook.com/jawalkerauthor and/or Twitter @JAWalkerAuthor.
Read an Excerpt
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Carlos Soto, known to everyone in the spec-ops community as "Steady," lounged at the end of the ritzy hotel bar, casually watching his best friend, Ethan "Ozzie" Sykes, work his masculine wiles on the cute off-duty Secret Service agent seated at a nearby table.
"Ozzie is a serial seducer," Dan Currington observed from the barstool beside him. Dan was the third and final member of Black Knights Inc. to accompany him on this mission. BKI being the covert government defense firm that operated under the guise of a custom motorcycle shop—okay, and sometimes Steady still had trouble believing such an entity actually existed; it was like something out of a bad spy novel.
"Sí," he admitted with an affectionate chuckle, smiling as Ozzie leaned over to whisper something into the shell of the agent's ear. The woman blushed and giggled, and Steady could only shake his head. "But the ladies never seem to mind. I don't know how he pulls it off time after time."
"You don't?" Dan turned to lift a dubious brow as he took a leisurely sip of seltzer water. "I thought you two were neck and neck in that whole notches-on-the-bedpost race."
Steady frowned at the bottle of Tiger beer in his hand. It was true. For a couple of years there, he'd given Ozzie a run for the money in the bedding of bar bunnies. But recently the...er...hunt had lost its allure.
"I think I'm about done with all that, hermano. It just seems so..." He twisted his lips, searching for the word. "Superficial, I guess. Unfulfilling? I don't know." He shrugged. "And besides, I was never as good at it as Ozzie." He tipped his beer toward the table where the unrefuted king of casual relationships was now fiddling with the agent's fingers. Julia Ledbetter. That was her name. And she resembled a Secret Service agent about as much as a Chihuahua resembled a Doberman. But Steady supposed that was part of it. Protection through subterfuge and meek-but-mighty camouflage. Although, if you asked him, there was something to be said for the fierce, bulldog demeanor that good ol' Agent Mitchell had sported.
He wondered what had happened to the guy. Come to think of it, he wondered what had happened to all the agents who'd been assigned to Abby's protection detail back in the day. There wasn't a familiar face among the seven in her current bunch.
Then again, a lot could change in eight years. Just look at him. He'd gone from medical student to soldier to clandestine government operator in the space of that time. Hell, even his name was different...
"Never as good as Ozzie?" Dan's second eyebrow joined his first somewhere near his hairline. "Well, I, uh..." He cleared his throat. "I hafta say, that's the first time I've ever heard a man admit his sexual prowess lacked in comparison to—"
"That's not what I meant, pendejo. And you know it."
Dan tucked his tongue in his cheek, nodding. "The beer bottle incident?"
Steady fingered the small scar cutting through his scalp above his right ear. He'd received it courtesy of a one-night stand whom he'd thought understood the nature of their relationship. But when she caught him locking lips with a curvy little mamacita outside the back door of Red Delilah's Biker Bar—his local watering hole in Chicago where Black Knights Inc. was based—she'd shouted obscenities that questioned his mother's morals before hauling off and smashing a bottle of Bud over his head.
"I told her I wasn't interested in anything serious," he said in his own defense. "I don't know how much more specific I could've been."
"Mmm," Dan answered noncommittally, causing Steady's scowl to deepen. His entire life he'd been accused by family, friends, and teammates of being oblivious when it came to dishing out details, but he disagreed. He said what needed to be said when it needed to be said. He just wasn't all that elaborative, that's all.
"Look," he continued, choosing to ignore Dan's non-answer and getting back to the point. "I'm only saying I might be ready for something...more." He blinked. A little astonished he'd climbed out on this conversational limb. After all, the Knights were a far cry from the touchy-feely sort. In fact, their discussions tended to center more on the latest weapons, motorcycle exhausts, and Chicago Cubs scores than anything that came close to resembling, you know, actual feelings.
He waited for Dan to say something along the lines of whoa there, compadre, what are we? Girlfriends? So he was shocked when instead Dan went with, "Are you telling me you've sowed your last wild oat?"
"I don't know about last." His frown kicked into a grin. "I'm not sure that's even possible. I'm Puerto Rican, man. My oats are endless."
Dan rolled his eyes. "I can't believe that Latin lover shtick actually works."
"What can I say? Chicks dig my Rico Suave."
"Rico Suave?" Dan turned, cocking his head to study him. "Nah. I'd say you're more of a low-budget Enrique Iglesias."
Steady punched him in the arm before quickly reining the conversation back in. Experience had taught him it was either that or devolve into a good, solid hour of swapping insults. Fun? Sure. But not at all productive. "The deal is, I'm thirty-three years old. And I can't help but wonder if it's time to start thinking about"—he made a rolling motion with his hand—"commitment."
And would you look at that? He said the word without choking on it.
Dan turned to face him, the picture of shock and awe. Seriously, George W. Bush would've been proud. "Well, well, well." He shook his sandy blond head. "Will wonders never cease?"
"I know." Steady shrugged. "I'm a bit surprised myself. Or maybe I've been drinking too much of the Kool-Aid being served back home. I mean, you have noticed the rate at which our teammates are taking the plunge into happily-ever-after, haven't you?"
"Staggering, isn't it?"
In the last couple of years, six, count them, six of the BKI boys had strapped on the ol' ball and chain. And talk about wonders never ceasing? They actually made the condition look...well...good. Preferable even. God help me.
"Or maybe this sudden attack of fidelity has something to do with the way you've been staring at"—Dan glanced around to make sure they were out of earshot of anyone who might be listening—"you know who for the last three days."
The blood drained from Steady's head, leaving his face cold and his forehead clammy. "What do you mean?" he asked, shooting his cuffs and tilting his head from side to side in an attempt to loosen the tension that gripped his neck. Suddenly his clothes were too tight. He wanted to chalk it up to the fact that he was accustomed to wearing combat gear or jeans and a biker jacket. But deep down he knew the real reason his suit coat was now a straightjacket, his necktie a silk anaconda, was because Dan's assessment hit far too close to home. "How have I been staring at her?"
"Like Winnie-the-Pooh stares at a pot of honey."
"Pssht. You're imagining things. If I've been watching her, it's only because that's what we're being"—he lowered his voice to a whisper—"paid to do."
"Yeah, but there's watching and then there's watching," Dan insisted.
Steady squeezed the beer bottle so hard it was a wonder the thing didn't shatter. Dan was right. Since President Thompson had tasked him with flying to the other side of the globe to help protect Abby while she attended the New Frontiers in Horticulture Convention—sí, it was a thing. Who knew?—he hadn't been able to take his eyes off her. And although he hadn't seen or heard from her in eight years, she was just as he remembered...
Slim, blond, pretty in an all-American kind of way, which seemed appropriate given she was the youngest daughter of the president of the United States. She still had those arresting green eyes that'd stopped him in his tracks when he met her on the Georgetown campus all those years ago. She still had that same sweet, luminous smile that'd fueled his fantasies back then and most of his daydreams since.
She's too young for you, he remembered the scolding tone in Rosa's voice. And even if she isn't, she's too far out of your league. You think her father wants her dating a maldito bori when he's got a national election to win?
He'd winced at the slur while at the same time knowing his sister was right. The difference between Abby's age and his had seemed insurmountable at the time. A gulf in life experience as wide and impassible as the vastness of space. But she was all grown up now, wasn't she? A woman, as in whoa-man. Everything guaranteed to rev his engine in one fair-haired little package.
Unfortunately, that whole maldito bori thing hadn't changed. Even with his multiple degrees and that Army Ranger pin stuck to the lapel of the uniform hanging in his closet back home, he was still just the son of uneducated immigrants who'd spent their lives slinging cervezas and serving rice in a greasy corner café in Miami. And any illusions he'd had that Abby didn't care about such things was stripped from him the day of Rosa's funeral.
He'd gone to her thinking maybe she would be his hand to hold, his shoulder to cry on. He'd gone to her thinking they were friends...maybe more than friends, though she had still been far too young for him. He'd needed her so badly that day he'd been willing to ignore the gap in their ages, the impropriety of his making a move, because his remorse, his grief, his need to comfort and be comforted had outweighed anything else. But he'd been wrong to think she might consider him worthy of her affection. She'd made it obvious that Rosa, and Rosa's position as her academic mentor, had been the only glue holding the three of them together.
Abby may have exchanged her premed degree for one in botany, she may have traded in her scalpel for a garden spade, but like her appearance, nothing else about her was any different. She was still Abigail Thompson, the first daughter. America's princess. And he was still...well...him.
"So, are you gonna let me in on the history between you two?" Dan asked when Steady had been quiet for too long.
"No history," he quickly replied. At least none worth speaking of.
"Yeah, I call bullshit."
And now it was his turn to pull out the ol' Black Knights' tried-and-truism. "So, what if it is? You think I want to talk about it? What are we? Girlfriends?"
Dan rolled his eyes. "Then you're happy we're headed out tomorrow? Happy to wave your good-byes to her?"
And that thought made Steady's scalp itch. "I know I've said it a hundred times since we took this gig"—he kept his voice barely above a whisper—"but I don't buy that nonsense about Abby's big sister being the likely target of this prospective kidnapping just because she followed in her father's political footsteps to become a congresswoman." He used his thumb to pick at the beer's label, succeeding in peeling the corner away. He attacked the glue left behind with the blunt edge of his nail. "Being a government bigwig doesn't make Caroline any more attractive than Abby to those factions looking for leverage to use against the president."
"Look, man, you read the NSA Intel the president gave us as closely as I did. All signs point to Caroline." Dan loosened his tie. They were here at the hotel under the guise of businessmen. Only the president, his JCs, and the Secret Service knew their real assignment—to provide auxiliary security for Abby when she wasn't safely ensconced in her room for the night. Like she was right now.
And Dan was right, of course. All signs did point to Caroline. And since that was the case, President Thompson, who secretly ran Black Knights Inc. along with the Joint Chiefs, was only requiring Abby be given BKI protection when she was OCONUS—outside the contiguous U.S. Whereas Caroline had had a supplementary BKI force assigned to her every day of the last six weeks. Ever since the first peep of a possible kidnapping came over the wires.
"Chin up." Dan elbowed him. "By oh-seven-hundred tomorrow morning we'll be hopping on a plane. And then none of this will be your problem. It'll be bye-bye bullet-catcher duty and bye-bye you know who."
Bye-bye you know who? After eight long years apart, was he really ready to bid farewell to her again so soon? The answer to that question shouldn't make his heart ache. Mierda.
He took a sip of beer, hoping the pain in his chest was simply indigestion brought on by the nasi kerabu he'd eaten for lunch—I mean, the blue rice should've been your first clue, pendejo. But the minute the suds touched his tongue, he grimaced. Plunking the beer on the bar, he scrubbed the back of his hand over his lips. "Madre de Dios," he grumbled. "Why can't they brew a decent beer on this side of the planet?" Dan's expression hardened when his eyes landed on the abandoned bottle. "Sorry." Steady winced. "I, uh, I guess any beer sounds good right about now, huh?"
Dan "The Man" Currington had crawled into the bottle and stayed there for a full year after his wife was brutally gunned down inside the gates of the Black Knights' compound. It'd taken ninety days of rehab and a dogged mental fortitude Steady couldn't help but admire in order for Dan to pull himself back out.
"It's not the taste that tempts me," Dan admitted, his tone stiff. "It's the oblivion it offers."
Steady motioned for the bartender to come take the beer away. "And speaking of finding oblivion and sowing wild oats"—he tipped his chin toward the tall, lanky woman ordering a drink at the opposite end of the bar, happy to change the subject—"I can't help but notice how you and Agent DePaul have been making googly eyes at each other for the last seventy-two hours. Why don't you take a page from Ozzie's book and use the fact that you're both off the clock tonight to sow your wild oats. Seek oblivion in bed instead of the bottle. You know, get your freaky-deaky on."
"Freaky-deaky?" Dan grunted. "Wow, Steady. Spoken like a true prodigy." But when he glanced toward Penni DePaul, the look he gave her exactly matched the one he'd given the beer only seconds ago. Two words: abject longing.
In true BKI form, Steady called Dan on his bullshit. "It's obvious the woman puts you in a state of forlorn yearning, hermano. Like, seriously, I'm afraid if you don't do something about it soon, I'll find you locked in your room upstairs listening to Air Supply's greatest hits." Dan sent him a look meant to curdle his balls, and Steady shook his head, clapping a hand on the guy's shoulder. "Besides, Patti wouldn't want you to spend the rest of your life as a eunuch. She'd want you to be happy. She'd want—"
"No." Dan shook his head. "It's too soon."
"That's a pile of caca and you know it. It's been almost two years since Patti's accident." Dan opened his mouth, but Steady preempted him. "And don't give me that same old self-recriminating song and dance about it being your fault she's gone. You know as well as I do the only person to blame for what happened to Patti was the guy who pulled the trigger on that sawgun. It's time for you to move on. To start living again." He let his gaze drift over to Agent DePaul. She was staring at Dan, her big brown eyes soft, concerned. Sí, she was exactly what Dan Man needed right now. Something comfortable and caring. Something sweet and willing. Something that wasn't a memory. "And I think you should begin with pretty Agent Penni over there."
Dan shrugged, a muscle in his jaw flexing. "I don't care what you say. Two years is too damn soon. Besides, the similarity of their names is just...it's weird, man. Patti spelled with an ‘I' and Penni spelled with an ‘I.' I'd probably end up calling her by the wrong name in the heat of things, and how awful would that be? For both of us." He feigned a shudder.
There were times, like now, when Dan Man's Michigan accent really showed, adding an "L" to the word both until it sounded more like bolth. Steady sat back, crossing his arms over his chest, sucking in the bar air, which was a combination of Red Bull, whiskey, and high-priced perfume. He tried to decide what to say next. But before he opened his mouth to recite another platitude about it being time to carpe diem and whatnot, Ozzie arrived on the scene.
Throwing an arm around each of their shoulders and flashing that white-toothed grin guaranteed to make panties drop in two seconds flat, Ozzie leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "Guess what's in my pocket, boys?" He wiggled his eyebrows. "Why, it's the room key of a certain delectable little government agent who'll wake up tomorrow morning completely ruined for all other men!"
"For Chrissakes, Ozzie," Dan grumbled, staring at the ice in his glass like he was attempting to melt it with his gaze. "You're an ass. Like, seriously, one or two chromosomes away from a farmhouse donkey."
"Aw, listen to you sweet-talking me," Ozzie quipped right back. "But don't roofie me and call it romance. Besides, it takes one to know one."
Dan turned to glare. "How do you figure?"
"Only an ass would pass on the invitation in the eyes of that tall drink of Secret Service agent over there." Ozzie hooked a thumb toward the table where Penni had joined Julia.
"Dan says it's too soon," Steady informed him.
"Hmm," Ozzie hummed. "Well, one of the things I've learned in life is that bullshit stinks. And, dude, what just came out of your mouth reeks like week-old sushi wrapped in unwashed gym socks."
"That's what I've been saying," Steady agreed.
"Oh, fuck off, you two," Dan harrumphed. "Stop talking about me like I'm not here. And besides, I'm not interested in Penni DePaul."
Steady and Ozzie exchanged a look that called Dan a raging mentiroso—a liar. Dan caught them. "I'm not," he insisted a little too forcefully. And then the truth of the matter came out. "Anyway, I wouldn't have the first clue what to do. I haven't tried to seduce a woman in more than a decade."
"Well, you're lucky the role of wingman is right in my wheelhouse," Ozzie boasted, slapping him on the back before turning toward the women. "Come dance with us, ladies!" he crowed, grabbing Dan's arm and hauling him off the barstool. "We have grind on the mind! And we plan to make good on the impulse until you're forced to head upstairs in an hour to make your curfew."
"It's not a curfew, Ozzie!" Julia Ledbetter called back, laughing and rising from the table. "It's protocol. And that's vastly different!" She rolled her eyes to signify how much she was irked by the new Secret Service code of conduct enacted in response to the group of agents who'd found themselves front-page news after they were caught boozing and carousing with some...erm...questionable female companions down in South America. Uncle Sam, never one to take kindly to that kind of international embarrassment, had tossed off the role of uncle and donned the garb of dad by implementing a new set of guidelines by which off-duty agents had to adhere. And one of them was...wait for it...a frackin' midnight curfew.
Not for the first time, Steady was glad that after his stint with the Army he'd chosen door number two when President Thompson—who for some odd reason had taken an interest in his career—offered him a position either within the Secret Service or as an operator for Black Knights Inc. Of course, at the time his decision had less to do with a lack of regard for the already stringent rules of the Secret Service and more to do with not wanting to run into Thompson's youngest daughter at every turn. Or worse...get himself assigned to her security detail.
Damn, but look at me now! Assigned to her security detail!
And, sí, he totally appreciated the irony.
"Steady? You coming?" Dan asked, dragging him from his thoughts. When he glanced at the guy, it was to find Dan's expression just this side of panic.
Ozzie slung an arm over his shoulder and murmured, "Dude, if you'll just stop dragging your feet and cockblocking yourself, I might be able to get you some squish tonight."
Dan's expression morphed from panic to consternation. "Squish?"
Steady shook his head. "Don't get him started," he advised, well-versed in where this was headed next. Unfortunately, he was too late. Ozzie was already expounding.
"You know," Ozzie said. "Get you back in the V-saddle. Have you re-conquer the V-dragon. Put you back on top of the V-mountain. Now you understand what I'm saying to you?"
"No." Dan shook his head, his expression repulsed. "You were so very subtle. Maybe use sound effects next time."
Ozzie opened his mouth and Dan rolled his eyes, lifting a hand. "That was joke. I get it."
"You do?" Ozzie grinned, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Yeah." Dan nodded. "I totally get that you lower the bar of evolution by at least three rungs."
Impervious to insults, Ozzie grinned and hauled Dan toward the cleared floor space in front of a raised dais where a five-piece band and an exotic singer in a red sequined dress were doing some pretty strange renditions of the current Top 40. When Dan glanced back in his direction, he implored, "Come on, man. Come with us."
"Not me, hermano." Steady threw some colorful Malaysian ringgits atop the bar. "I'm headed up to bed." Where I won't lay tossing and turning, hard and aching because little Abby Thompson is just four doors down.
Sí. Sure. Right. And if anyone believed that, he had a bridge he could sell them...