Declan James lost his last ounce of trust the day his wife walked out the door, leaving him to save the restaurant they built together. Throwing himself into his work, Declan swears off women—or at least, women who expect him to stick around in the morning. But when he discovers a skittish beauty scrounging through the Fireside’s trash to feed her dog, Declan offers her a job and a place to rest her head. There’s just something about her that awakens his protective side. And soon, not even that mangy mutt can stop Declan from caring for her.
After one too many trips to the ER, Trina Wilson finally gathered the courage to leave her husband, taking only her car and hyperactive boxer. Unfortunately, life on the run proves harder than she anticipated—until Declan takes a leap of faith on her. But even as Trina starts to see beyond his gruff exterior, she can’t relax, even for a moment. Not with her husband still tracking her down. What Trina doesn’t know is that in Declan, she has a powerful ally—and, if she would only follow her heart, a devoted lover.
Praise for His to Protect
“Stunning characters and a bright, refreshing voice drew me in on the first page. I didn’t want to put it down!”—New York Times bestselling author Claudia Connor
“There’s just something about a damsel in distress that gets me every time. Add in a strong woman and a dog? I’m done! I loved this book!”—New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker
“His to Protect will have you on the edge of your seat the entire read. I swooned one moment and held my breath the next. Stacey Lynn will leave you wanting more—so much more!”—New York Times bestselling author Kelly Elliott
“If you’re looking for a hero who might be a little rough around the edges but has a heart of gold, then Declan is definitely your guy. His to Protect is a great read!”—USA Today bestselling author Alexis Morgan
The passionate novels in Stacey Lynn’s Fireside series can be read together or separately:
HIS TO LOVE | HIS TO PROTECT | HIS TO CHERISH | HIS TO SEDUCE
And don’t miss her steamy Crazy Love series:
FAKE WIFE | KNOCKED UP
Includes an excerpt from another Loveswept title.
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About the Author
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His to Protect
A Fireside Novel
By Stacey Lynn
Penguin Random HouseCopyright © 2016 Stacey Lynn
All rights reserved.
The air was crisp, the lingering stickiness of summer's humidity changing into the first hints that fall was just around the corner. With one hand on Boomer's leash, I tugged him along the sidewalk, pretending we were out for a late-night stroll through the cobblestone streets of Latham Hills.
I hadn't intended to stop so close to Kentucky. Detroit was only a day's drive from the home I'd fled just last week. But as soon as I arrived there, intent on heading to Canada and leaving my past behind, something about the little area on the north side of Detroit spoke to me.
It was old and beautiful, rich with a history I wanted to understand and explore, and that's what so much of this journey was about for me.
Figuring out who I was and what I loved.
So even though I was close to crossing the border into a new country, I felt drawn to stay awhile.
Wait for the bruises on my cheek to fade, and my ribs to cease aching when I moved too suddenly.
Then I'd move on to Canada, where, hopefully, Kevin wouldn't be able to reach me.
"Come on, Boom." I tugged on his leash again and led my boxer into the alley, where I'd been giving him food from the leftovers of restaurants for the last week. Leaving my old life with a small supply of cash forced me to stretch my budget in ways I never had before. Dog food wasn't expensive in the grand scheme of things, but I only had a few hundred dollars left and I was trying to save every penny I could.
I'd make it up to Boomer with a bag of his favorite gourmet food as soon as we got settled somewhere. Besides, he didn't seem to mind eating leftover burgers from the sports bar that we walked by on our first day.
I won't lie. The delicious aromas that drifted into the air had called to me more than once, too. It'd been ages since I was "allowed" to sink my teeth into a juicy burger, but a good meal was just one more thing I couldn't afford right now.
It had been gas station hot dogs and pizza slices for me, something else I hadn't been allowed to eat. Although now they were something I didn't want to eat again.
With a cautious glance down the sidewalk, I ensured no one was watching before Boomer and I headed into the alley. There were lots of restaurants along this main stretch of road in Latham Hills, but few alleys where I could hide while I let Boomer nosh on grilled beef.
"Come on, pup," I whispered, and gave another quick tug on the leash. He followed me eagerly, already licking his chops while his wild tail flopped back and forth.
My dog could understand basic commands; because of his size, I worked hard to train him properly. But at six years old, he still acted more like a puppy most days.
He began to whine with anticipation as I led him over to the dumpster, where I dropped his leash and told him to sit. He listened immediately, his tail thumping against the pavement, while I pulled myself up to the top of the dumpster.
Dumpster diving. If only my mother or Kevin could see me now. I almost snickered at the idea even as I was grunting.
My required Pilates and cardio routines had done little to build the muscle needed to lift the heavy metal lid.
With a final push, I used all my strength to shove the top open, cringing when the metal banged against the brick wall.
I dropped to my feet, waiting for any sign of life as the sound echoed in the dark, narrow alley.
Next to me, Boomer began to whine, his large, pink tongue drooping from his mouth.
"Hush," I whispered, and gave him a quick, calming rub. "Just another minute, boy. Now, stay."
His face rubbed against my thigh and I quickly pushed him away before I climbed back up on the dumpster and reached in for a bag of garbage.
Shame slithered through me as I grabbed the first black bag I could get my fingers on.
A week ago, I was coming home from a manicure appointment and running twenty minutes late for dinner, and I knew exactly what was in store for me.
Now, my chipped nails were clinging to plastic bags of garbage. I had no idea what the future held.
Even with the shame, this life felt better.
The bag slipped from my grip just as I lifted it over the edge and fell to the ground.
"Crap," I muttered, looking at the mess of spilled garbage at my feet, and felt my cheeks heat with fear at the small infraction.
I was so tired of jumping at every mistake I made, quickly looking over my shoulder to see if anyone noticed. If he noticed.
I also didn't swear. It'd been ingrained in me that a lady cursing was completely unacceptable, even if I used to curse all the time when Kevin and I first began dating.
He quickly cured me of the horrid habit once we married with a backhand to my cheek when I yelled "Shit" one night after dropping a vase.
I only dropped it because he'd yelled at me for not having the dinner table properly set by the time he came home.
It was the first night he hit me.
It most definitely wasn't the last.
Boomer growled and I quickly squatted down to tear open the bag.
Another shiver of shame rippled through me as I realized what I was doing, what I'd become.
Dirt was visible under my chipped fingernails. I tried not to think about it as I dug through the bag until I found a plastic container filled with what I assumed was a patron's forgotten leftovers.
I opened it to find exactly what I was looking for.
I reached out to hand it to Boomer when a bright flash of light caught my attention right before a loud clanging sound reverberated through the alley.
"What in the hell is going on out here?"
I jumped backward, falling to my backside, and quickly scrambled behind Boomer.
In front of me, a monstrous shadow filled the doorway just down from the dumpster.
I couldn't see anything except the black outline of a large figure, but it was clear he had his hands on his hips.
In front of me, Boomer looked up at the stranger and let out a loose growl before he dropped his head and went back to eating.
Some guard dog.
I'd have scolded him for it if I hadn't been so terrified about the stranger, who reached down and picked up something that looked like a brick.
"I'm sorry," I stammered, and began searching for Boomer's leash, but he must have been sitting on it.
Typical dog. He wouldn't leave until he was good and ready.
"I'm so sorry," I said again and scrambled to my feet. At five six, I wasn't exactly short, but I had nothing on the man in front of me. "We'll go ... it's just ... he needs to eat, but that's no excuse, I understand ..."
My voice trailed off as the man dropped the brick in the doorway, propping open the door to the restaurant, and stepped into the alley.
"You're the one who's been digging through the crap in my dumpster?"
He took another step out of the doorway. With the light off to his side, I could just make out his features. Shaved head, tanned skin, sharp jawline. Big as a truck.
Nothing about this said it was safe for me to be here. I wrapped my fingers around Boomer's collar, fruitlessly trying to pull him away from his food.
He whined and jerked forward. I stumbled from his sudden movement and hissed in pain.
My other hand wrapped around my ribs as I flinched.
"You hurt?" the man asked and stepped closer.
"Stop." I thrust out my hand and looked away from him and down at my darn dog who wouldn't stop slurping up french fries. "We'll go, I swear, and we won't come back. I just ..."
Darn it. This was horrifically embarrassing. I never actually planned what I would do or say if I got caught digging through trash.
Tears welled in my eyes and I shook my head.
If I turned now and walked away, I doubted this mountain of a man would follow me. Or he would, but if I let Boomer go, he'd slow the man down.
Not with his teeth and a vicious bite. He'd probably lick the man to death. Or tackle him, wanting to play.
My stomach rumbled, practically vibrating off the brick walls, and I pressed my hand over my stomach to silence it.
"Sounds like you need a meal."
"No, thank you," I said brusquely, and took a step toward the street. "We should be going."
The man took several steps forward before I could blink. He might have been big, but he was darn quick, and he was now directly in front of me with one hand outstretched.
I flinched back immediately, throwing my hand in front of my face before he cursed.
I cringed again and peeked at him, looking with one eye through my separated fingers.
He was standing back with his hands up, palms facing me. Despite his fierce scowl, he hadn't meant his gesture to be threatening.
Unfortunately, for far too long, I'd been around men who thought it was okay to intimidate a woman with their size and their fists. It had become instinct to protect myself, even if it usually ended up getting me in more trouble.
"Sorry," I gasped when I realized what I'd done.
"I won't hurt you," the man said and gestured toward the door. "Let me feed you and your dog. He can't come in, but we can tie him up out here."
I realized my hand was still raised and lowered it to my side, still balled into a fist, as if I could do damage to this guy.
He rubbed his jaw and shrugged. "Because I can't keep cleaning up my alley and you apparently need to eat." Then he nodded and pointed at my dog. "So does he."
"Boomer," I corrected him. It always bugged me that Kevin referred to my dog as a he or an it. I should have known that a man who couldn't love an animal could never love a woman properly.
"Right." I saw a flash of white teeth as he smiled, and then it disappeared. Something about that, the way it seemed he was trying not to laugh at me, had a disarming effect.
My pulse, which had been elevated since he terrified me by appearing in the alley, began to slow and my shoulders dropped.
"You're really just offering a meal?" I asked, sucking my bottom lip in between my teeth. Heat suffused my cheeks when I added "For free?"
My stomach knotted at the thought. I had the money to pay. I just really needed to save it. Taking off with only a few hundred dollars wasn't the smartest decision, but I figured the less that was missing, the less suspicion it would raise, giving me more time to get on the road before Kevin realized I was truly gone.
"What else would I be offering?" he asked, his brow furrowed. He dismissed the question with a swish of his hand. "Forget it. You coming?"
My lips pulled to one side and I looked down at Boomer. The harmless dog. His tongue was hanging out of his mouth and he was panting as if he'd just eaten a feast. A quick glance at the emptied container told me he had. Now he was eyeing this strange brute of a man with excitement. A new friend to jump on.
His eyes were wide and black and his tail thumped against the asphalt. "Can we keep the door propped open so I can keep my eye on him?"
"Yes." He nodded and answered immediately.
It had become instinct in me to cower from men, thanks to hits I'd taken from Kevin. But I had stayed and tolerated it for a purpose, all the while planning to escape when the time was right. I could have been more frightened than I was of this man and his offer, but his apparent desire to make me comfortable made me relax.
"Okay, then," I said and began following him to the door.
One we got there, I let go of Boomer's collar and pointed. "Down." With my palm out, I said, "Stay," and watched as Boomer listened. "He won't go anywhere, no need for a rope," I told the man as he watched from the doorway.
He was so close to the light, I could see him clearly now, and my pulse began increasing all over again. His skin was tan, his shoulders broad, which I already knew, but what I couldn't make out in the shadows outside were the dark-brown eyes and the chiseled jaw and the slight hint of deep-black scruff along his cheeks and chin. With his shaved head and large muscles he appeared to be more akin to a bar bouncer than a restaurant owner. My feet halted.
"You work here?" I asked, looking over his shoulder to see if there was someone else inside. It suddenly hit me that this could be quite possibly the dumbest thing I'd done since saying "I do" to Kevin Morgenson five years ago.
I took a small step back.
The man walked farther into the restaurant, as if to give me space to make my decision. "Name's Declan Moore. The Fireside Grill, which you've been pilfering garbage from for the last week, is mine. I own it myself and there's no one else here but me. Closed it down a few hours ago and have been cleaning and waiting to catch the rug rats who have been messing up my alley."
His lips spread into a smile then. A full one, so wide it stretched his cheeks and a dimple popped in his right one.
My pulse fluttered for an entirely different reason and I swallowed.
I shouldn't have been noticing this man. He was everything I was trying to get away from. Men in general, mostly. But secondly, muscles and anger and scowls and fists that broke bones.
But he seemed to be doing all he could to set me at ease and for that, I decided a meal — one hot meal before I left town — was worth the risk. I'd just get on the road sooner than I'd originally thought, now that someone could recognize me.
"Trina." I shortened my formal name of Katrina on a whim. I'd always been Kat or Katrina, but never just Trina. I never wanted to hear the name Katrina again.
Declan stepped further into the kitchen, giving me plenty of room, so I exhaled a slow breath and stepped forward into the back of what was obviously the kitchen and prep area. Stainless-steel counters shined along the length of one wall and two metal doors were at the far end.
"I'm Trina," I said again when he didn't acknowledge me.
Instead of saying something, his eyes dropped and scanned my body. I waited for him to finish assessing me, which was what he seemed to be doing instead of leering.
I knew what he saw.
Not a woman who looked like she should be digging in dumpsters. More like a woman who belonged at a country club. I was wearing jeans and a short-sleeve shirt and my favorite pair of Pumas, but it didn't take a genius to figure out that I was not wearing thrift-store clothing. Even if I did only pack one bag full of yoga pants and jeans and tee's, leaving behind the dresses and ball gowns, it was still obvious that my clothes were expensive.
His eyes were blank when they met mine again, though. "Nice to meet you. Now what are you hungry for?"
He turned and walked away from me, clearly expecting me to follow.
I shot one last look at Boomer.
He lifted his head and stuck out his tongue, panting sloppily before he yawned and lay back down, closing his eyes.
I shook my head and walked toward the kitchen.CHAPTER 2
I walked away from the woman — Trina — before I did something asinine like demand she tell me who gave her the fading bruise on her cheek. I noticed it and felt the overwhelming urge to pummel someone as soon as she stepped into the light in the doorway of the restaurant.
Figuring she wouldn't like seeing my hands balled into fists, I tamped that anger down with every ounce of self-control I possessed, and scanned the rest of her body.
When I did, I noticed several things all at once.
She wasn't homeless.
My ex-wife, Mara, spent enough hours at the salon getting her hair and nails done, and then bitching about roots showing and chipped polish, for me to instantly see that this woman lived a lifestyle that Mara had craved.
Trina's clothes were high-end. No cheap pair of jeans could hug a woman's hips and thighs, and most likely her ass, as well as the ones this woman wore.
A flash of her throwing her hand up in front of her face when I went to stop her from running pierced my mind, and I fought the urge to growl.
No, she wasn't homeless, as I originally assumed when I saw her crouched over a ripped-up bag of garbage handing scraps to her dog.
She was hiding.
And for some damn reason, I had an overwhelming instinct to take care of her.
For a meal, I reminded myself.
I had enough shit going on in my life that I didn't need to take on this additional cause. Saving my restaurant, which hadn't turned a profitable month all year, was my priority. And while the fall and football season generally meant more business, I still had more problems than solutions. I didn't need any more.
"You decide what you want?" I asked, turning on the grill.
Focus. I needed to focus. Feed her, get her out of there, go home and have a stiff drink, so I could wash away the memory of what I thought when I first saw her.
When she didn't answer, I twisted my neck to see her hovering by the doorway. She was keeping an eye on the door to the alley and her dog, as well as me at the same time.
I didn't blame her for being scared of me. Women either wanted to fuck me or skip to the other side of the street when they saw me coming. I couldn't help it. I'd been addicted to sports since I could walk and throw a ball. Four years of college football only increased my love for being in shape. The few minor bodybuilding competitions I did after I graduated cemented it. Lifting weights and working out relieved my stress. I carried enough on my shoulders on a daily basis that lifting was no longer a hobby, but an obsession.
"I can get you a menu," I told Trina when she didn't answer me, just sucked her lip between her teeth.
Excerpted from His to Protect by Stacey Lynn. Copyright © 2016 Stacey Lynn. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House.
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