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Chapter 1



Rolling into the parking lot of The Jaded Bull Bar and Grill, I eased my not-so-faithful Jetta into the first available spot and listened to her splutter with deep unhappiness. Before I’d even reached for the key to switch off the ignition, she coughed one last time and cut it herself.

“Fucking piece of shit,” I snarled, snatching the keys out of the ignition. Glaring up at the sagging roof lining, I growled. “One more year. That’s all I fucking ask. Just let me find a better job than this shithole and I’ll happily send you to the scrap yard to die. Deal?”

Staring out at the seedy building before me, I tried to breathe myself into a calmer state, but it was just becoming harder to make myself go inside each time I came here lately. I’d tried to tell myself it was a job, and I was lucky to have one, but it didn’t help. Not even a bit. I may have felt differently if the ‘grill’ part of the establishment was still operational, but the kitchen hadn’t been open for years.

Steeling myself, I shoved the door open with my shoulder and stepped out into the balmy night. At least my craptastic car put me in the right mood to deal with the shit that was most likely waiting for me. There was no room for weakness in a place like this. The regulars would eat you alive.

Like straight out of a textbook, the first greeting came as a wolf whistle let loose the instant I pushed through the doors. I rolled my eyes. “Original, Wayne,” I deadpanned without breaking my stride.

Mike laughed from his perch at the bar. “Look out. We’ve got feisty Piper tonight.”

A low groan rumbled in my throat. Of course they wanted to poke the bear. Tonight was going to be hell. Frank, the owner of the shithole establishment, grunted at me as I tossed my bag under the bar and grabbed my apron. “You’re late.”

I glanced at the clock before levelling him with a hard stare. “Yeah, I don’t think so, Frank. I’m right on time. I’ve told you before, I don’t do freebies.”

One of the older patrons, Scott, snickered. “That’s right, Frank. She’s a professional, just like her momma was.”

Fire instantly burned from my soul at the sly reference to my prostitute of a mother, and a few of the regulars let out a chorus of Oohs. They knew it wasn’t a topic I was okay with.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t pissy over some honorable feeling of protecting my mother’s name. She was a prostitute. And my father was her pimp. Everybody knew it, so there was no point arguing it. I was just mad as hell anyone dared liken me to her. Ever.

My hand clenched around a pepper shaker, my muscles coiled, ready to pitch the small ceramic container directly at Scott’s head. If he thought for even a second that I’d let that kind of shit slide, he was going to be severely sorry.

Jack, one of the younger patrons, placed his empty glass on the bar and gestured for another. “Nothing wrong with the professionals, Scotty,” he said with a slight smirk on his face. “How else are you going to get laid? God knows no woman’s going to touch that pickle of a cock of yours without some form of compensation.”

Scott’s eyes narrowed on Jack, and my hand relaxed around the pepper shaker. Frank grumbled a little more before walking out of the bar and into the back office, the pictures on the wall shaking as he slammed the door behind him.

Taking a clean glass from the fridge, I narrowed my gaze at Jack before starting to fix his whiskey and cola. I knew he’d baited Scott intentionally to get the attention off me, and while I was grateful for that, it still irritated me. I didn’t need a protector. I could take care of myself.

Scott wasn’t ready to let it go, though. Not by a long shot. “I’ve had more women sit on this pickle cock than you’ve even dreamt of, boy. And ain’t none of them asked for anything in return ’cept for my load to be buried deep in their pussy.”

Placing Jack’s drink on the bar in front of him, I turned to Scott. “Well, damn. Were they disappointed when you couldn’t deliver? I mean, Tina did say your two inches was enough for her, but not getting anywhere near the G-spot must’ve been frustrating nonetheless.”

Scott abruptly stood, his chair sliding back a few feet. “I’ll show you two inches, girl,” he spat, his fingers already working his belt undone.

Charlie, another old-timer, sauntered over to the bar, empty glass in hand. “Put that damned thing away, Scotty. No one wants to see it. And learn to stop slinging insults if you can’t handle getting insults back, dumbass.”

One corner of my mouth curled upward as I scooped up Jack’s money and turned for the register.

Scott scowled, but he buckled his belt and sat his ass back down again, saving us all from the nightmares that would’ve come from seeing his prized cock.

Taking Charlie’s dirty glass and propping it in the wash tray, I grabbed a clean glass and started pouring him a beer.

“How’s the job hunting going, Pip?” Mike asked from his little spot at the end of the bar.

I rolled my eyes, flicking the tap off and placing the beer in front of Charlie. “Terrible. I’m fucking cursed. I think I’m the only graduate of the year who hasn’t found a job of some kind.”

Scott scoffed. “I told you that you were wasting your time. No big fancy corporation wants to hire the likes of us. You’d have better luck learning how to cut hair.”

Normally, those kinds of words flew past me like the wind, but my strength was starting to wane with every job rejection I received. I was beginning to think he might be right. The thought of not being able to secure a job was stressing me the fuck out. The last thing I wanted was to be stuck here for the next year or more.

“Now that’s not true, Scott, and you know it,” Charlie chastised. “There’s been plenty of people from this side of the tracks who’ve done well for themselves.”

Scotty turned in his chair to pin Charlie with an intense stare. “Like who?”

Charlie pursed his lips. “Well now, let me think. There was that young man, Darby, I think his name was. Got a job as a banker or something like that.”

“You mean Darcy? The guy who went door to door selling insurance while his so-called boss cased the place to rob later?” Scott asked, large amounts of incredulity in his voice.

Charlie frowned. “Okay, bad example.” Tapping his fingers on the bar, his eyes brightened. “What about that boy who left to make music in that group? The fate boys. He’s done well for himself.”

My gaze sharpened on Charlie. He was talking about Matt Hennessey from Fighting Fate. And he was 100% correct. He had done well for himself. Exceptionally well. Even if he had to leave me to do it.

I busied myself with cleaning as they carried on their conversation about the success of Fighting Fate. The fact that I’d grown up with Matt—or ‘Marty’ as I used to call him when I was little—wasn’t a piece of information I ever shared with anyone. Our relationship had been one I wasn’t able to explain. It grew from a need to survive—a need to look out for one another. The guy might’ve been a hot playboy, womanizing musician now, but he did more for me growing up than even I would ever know. I was positive that if it wasn’t for Matt, I probably would’ve starved to death by the time I was nine.

Mike swatted a hand through the air in front of his face. “Don’t pay attention to them, Pip. I’m sure you’ll find something.”

Forcing myself to leave the memory of Matt where it belonged, I inhaled and opened a box of beer, Mike’s words echoing in my head. I fucking hoped he was right. I didn’t know what I’d do if he wasn’t. Ever since I was old enough to understand what my parents were, I’d only ever had one goal, and that was to be the furthest fucking thing from them I could be.

Chapter 2



The perks of being in a rock band were many. Admittedly, a lot of them revolved around drugs, partying, and women, but they were perks just the same. Even the drummer got action when a band was successful—especially if he was the last single guy in the band. Which is exactly what led me into the predicament I was in right now.

Like I said, I was a drummer. Beats were, in fact, my life. They were a part of my genetic makeup—my soul, so to speak. Together, we were one. One peaceful entity, the beat of my heart calming the pulse of my life force. Or so I thought.

Groaning, I rolled onto my back, clutching the pillow over my head, trying to stop the intense beat that was currently going to town inside my skull. It didn’t work.

Tossing the pillow to the side, I blinked my eyes open, trying to focus on the dimly lit room around me, but the low-hanging ceiling fan spinning demonically overhead only caused me pain.

With concentrated effort, I rolled into a sitting position and willed my brain to fill in the blank parts of my memory for me. I remembered we were in Seattle—we performed the final show of our tour. It was fucking epic, by the way. We went out with a glorious bang. There’d been celebratory drinks with my band brothers, but, of course, they all had women to go home to, so that just left me and Rhett, the lead singer of our brother band, The Dark Hybrid, to carry the weight of a true rock star celebration for us all.

That was where shit got a little hazy. I remembered going to The Underground—Rhett getting instant recognition before they turned to me. There may have been free drinks, a little ecstasy that led to body shots, but after that? That was anyone’s guess.

The sound of the main hotel door opening slowly seeped into my awareness, the soft whistling tune letting me know it was Ryan, our manager. I felt the crease deepen between my brows, knowing what was coming next.

A breathy laugh interrupted the whistling for a moment and, before I could brace myself, he was throwing the curtains open wide. “Rise and shine, ladies. It’s time to go home. Our scrumptious drummer has work to do.”

I all but hissed at the sudden bright light, my eyes screwing shut, refusing to adjust to the intrusion. Behind me, I heard the distinct sounds of moaning, indicating there was more than one body in the bed with me.


Cracking an eye open at the sound of Ryan’s voice, I found a coffee floating in the air before me. My taste buds perked up, interested, but wary just the same. Taking the cup, I rubbed a hand over my forehead. “Thanks.”

The smell of sweet caffeine wafted into my senses as I took a small taste, trying to gauge how my body was going to react to this new player on the scene.

Ryan began picking up clothes—dresses and high heels—off the floor and tossing them onto the bed. “You’ve got five minutes, girls. There’s a car downstairs, waiting to take you wherever you need to go.”

My taste buds nodded in approval before I took another sip, this one much bigger, and placed the cup on the bedside table. I needed a piss. Stat.

Standing in all my naked glory, I moved toward the bathroom, giving the two girls who were now trying to wriggle into their underwear a quick wink as I went. By the time I reappeared, they were gone.

My head pounded as I pulled on a pair of sweats. I had no idea what I’d drunk last night, but it sure as hell had fucked me over. Picking up my coffee, I wandered into the next room and found Rhett sitting on one of the sofas, his head hung low as he nursed his own coffee in both hands.

He looked up through his lashes as I dropped down on the sofa across from him. “The fuck did you do to me?”

“Me?” I laughed. “You’re the one who was all for the million and one body shots.”

A deeply unhappy groan rumbled in his chest. “Fuck.”

The sound of the main door opening had us turning to see my band brothers casually strolling in. Dean smiled broadly, the action so very typical for a lead singer. “How are the two party animals this morning?”

I growled. Someone was going to end up bound and gagged if they continued with that bright and sparkly shit.

Aiden grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and chugged it down in a few deep gulps. Out of all my band brothers, he was probably the one I was closest to, but I didn’t see too much of him since he’d started dating Emmy.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he winked. “So, this is it, huh?” he said, nodding like he was slightly in awe. “Six months. What’s everyone got planned?”

I refrained from throwing something at him. He was talking about the six months we had off until the next tour. I knew I was the only one not looking forward to it, and that pissed me off.

Dean rubbed his hands together and grinned. “Eden and I are heading back to Australia. She’s got a few photo shoots to do, so we’re going to make the most of it.”

Sounded fair. Dean’s girlfriend—or fiancée now, seeing as they were engaged—was a model. She was also Australian, hence the reason to be heading back there.

Tapping the water bottle on his leg, Aiden leaned back against the kitchen counter. “Emmy and I’ll probably spend most of the time out helping Granny Lynne, I’d say. She’s been having a few issues with her hip.”

Concern flared somewhere under my irritation. Granny Lynne was Emmy’s grandmother and the coolest old chick I’d ever met. She ran a farm out in bum-fuck Texas. I knew she’d be finding it hard not being able to run the place like she was used to.

I glanced at Jace, our lead guitarist. “You heading back to Sac?” I asked, my voice low, wary.

Sacramento was our home. The guys usually tried to head back there as often as they could. I, on the other hand, tried to avoid it.

Jace pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, Mia wants to catch up with the girls and Lillian while she’s got the chance. What about you? You heading back? What’s Pauly doing?”

Pauly was my older brother. He was the only family I had, really. Not that Mom had gone to Hell yet, but I didn’t think it would be long at the rate she consumed drugs and alcohol.

Pushing the bitter taste off my tongue, I ran my teeth over my lower lip. “Yeah, I’ll be heading back. I’ve got some business to take care of. Pauly will track me down like he usually does, no doubt.”

Ryan appeared again, his gaze meeting mine as he held out a large, document-size envelope. “For you, my brother,” he said, dropping it in my lap.

I scowled at the packet, barely refraining from mumbling like a child. This was the main reason I needed to head back to Sacramento. When I said I had business to take care of, I meant it. Almost every cent of the money I earned went into investments and a charity I’d inadvertently started seven years ago, but for reasons I didn’t want to consider, I’d been avoiding it, so it was time I dealt with it.

Snatching up the packet, I tossed it on the coffee table. It could wait until I was on the plane and had a glass of something strong in my hand.


Chapter 3



I was fifteen when my mother died from an overdose. Naively, I’d hoped it’d make my father reevaluate his life and make some vain effort to provide for me. It didn’t. Mom had been his sole way of making any money, and with her gone, he turned to whatever shady deals came his way. The final one—auctioning off my virginity—landed him in jail. I was two months shy of seventeen.

As much as I was glad he was out of my life, I was not ready for the foster system. So, while most girls were catching up with friends after school or watching their boyfriends throw a football on a field, I was working part-time, applying for emancipation, and moving into my own apartment. It wasn’t ideal, but, to me, it was exciting. At least for an hour anyway.

The instant I saw the color of the water coming out of the faucets in my new apartment, was the moment I decided I was never going to put it in my mouth. An hour after that, I realized the water was the least of my concerns. The hot water was tepid at best, heating was something you apparently needed to bribe for, and it was my firm belief that rats had taken full control of the building. But, it was still better than the trailer park I’d come from.

Sighing, I gazed at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Nerves swam around in my stomach. This was it. Graduation. The moment I’d been working toward for the last four years of my life. If I was to be honest, it wasn’t a day I thought I’d ever see. I ruled college out as an option long before my mother passed away. I wasn’t even going to try.

The day I received a letter stating I’d been selected to apply for a full scholarship, was the day my whole world changed. I didn’t dare hope I’d be selected when I’d sent the application in, but the seed had been planted, and I couldn’t help but dream of it. When I found out I’d been successful, I cried. A lot. It was messy.

Drawing in a deep breath, I released it slowly. Today, things were going to change. I was sure of it. This degree was going to finally open up a new road before me. I was done with the days of barely being able to afford food after paying for this cesspit of an apartment and my craptastic car. I was ready for a little luck.

Grabbing my bag, I locked the door to my apartment, my steps surer than they’d ever been as I made my way along the sidewalk. Well, that was until I stuck the key into the ignition of my craptastic car, and all the positivity I’d built up immediately vanished into thin air.

My eyes narrowed as the engine sluggishly failed to turn over. Bitterness simmered inside me. “For fuck’s sake. Not today, you piece of fucking shit,” I murmured through gritted teeth.

The engine whirred pathetically, at least sounding like she was trying to start. Slamming my hand on the wheel, I cursed. “Give me a freaking break. Just start, goddamn it!”

I tried again, this time pumping my foot on the gas for good measure. The engine finally roared to life, relief coursing through me, erasing the embarrassment I usually felt at the loud clunking sound of the exhaust rattling against the manifold.

Throwing it into gear, I hit the road before she could change her mind and die on me, trying to push all the negative thoughts from my mind as I drove. I didn’t think about the fact that I had no family to come to see me graduate. I didn’t think about the fact that by the end of the day I would be a qualified accountant, or the fact that I had no job to walk into. I didn’t think about the fact that the few small clients I occasionally had didn’t pay me anywhere near enough for me to live uncomfortably, let alone comfortably. I didn’t think about the fact that I wasn’t even sure if accounting was what I really wanted to do in life. And I didn’t think about the fact that the hole that resided inside my chest felt just a little bit bigger than I was used to.

Pulling into the parking lot, I drove to my usual spot near the back corner and cut the engine, praying she would be kind to me later and start on the first try. I had no idea where I was going to go, but I knew I had to celebrate my achievement somehow. I’d at least earned that much.

As I finished dressing in my robe and cap, I dropped my hands by my sides, my shoulders slumping forward as I wondered if drinking alone was still classed as celebrating or just outright sad, but then the sound of my cell phone ringing ceased all thoughts of celebration. Closing my eyes, I sighed, knowing exactly who it would be. I didn’t get calls from people who just wanted to check up on me or wish me well. 

Pulling the phone out of my bag, I found Frank’s name staring at me from the screen, knowing there would only one reason he’d be calling me. He needed me to work. I guessed I had my answer.


Chapter 4



Lowering myself down onto a chair, I rested my forearms on the table and glanced at the dark-haired figure sitting across from me. Alex, my business partner and mentor, gazed back at me, his gaze careful and assessing.

Raising my chin a fraction, I tapped the tips of my fingers on the table. “So, where’s everything at?”

Alex tilted his head to the side, one corner of his mouth curling up into a lopsided grin. “So, we’re just getting straight into business?”

Rolling my shoulders, I tried to loosen the tension that had grown inside me since being back in Sacramento. “Sorry, man. You know how it is.”

His expression lightened a little as he assessed me, and slowly, he nodded. The gesture was only small, but I knew he got it.

I’d known Alex for a good ten years, but we’d only gotten close around four years ago, when I’d approached him about helping me invest the money I’d come into through my music career. His sister, Amber, was one of my closest friends from high school, and one of the few people I let into my inner circle.

He cleared his throat before pushing some papers toward me. “Did you read the reports I sent you?”

Guilt lingered low in my gut. “Dude, you know I haven’t.”

Alex sighed, but it was in jest. “Well, if you had read them, you’d know that we currently have a surplus of funds that need to be allocated somewhere. There are multiple areas we could place it. We just need to decide where. There’s a demand for more scholarships. There have also been some calls for programs for the younger teens. Things that might give them something to focus on other than mischief.”

I scratched my chin, my head already in creation mode. “How much are we talking?”

Alex opened a folder in front of him and turned it around for me to see.

My eyes narrowed as I took in the writing. I knew the charity had been doing well, but I was still surprised. “Two hundred fifty thousand?”

“That’s just the beginning, Matt,” Alex said, sitting back in his chair. “Local businesses are getting on board faster than we can even think about approaching them. They’ve seen the benefits coming in, and they’re impressed. Talk is all about the fact that we’re locals helping locals. They love that the money stays here, improving lives, making neighborhoods safer, making their businesses safer. They’re practically throwing money at us, Matt.”

I, too, sat back in my chair, blowing out a shocked breath. Starting a charity hadn’t been something I’d ever considered until I started talking to Alex. When I’d first approached him about giving me some investing advice, he’d asked me exactly what my goals were—what my biggest driving force was. Back then, I’d told him a little about my life growing up and the kids like me who’d been dumped into a life with little to no opportunities. He’d been the one to suggest starting a charity, firstly to help those in need, but also from a tax perspective. He’d been so excited about the idea that he’d offered to do it as a partnership, and now, four years later, it was obviously a thriving entity.

Rubbing my hands over my face, I finally met his gaze. “Okay,” I said, ready to brainstorm. “I like the idea of running some programs for the kids. Have we got any people on the ground to gather some suggestions from the kids themselves—find out exactly what they’d like to do?”

He rubbed a hand over his chin and pursed his lips. “I’ll get Sue and Brian out there to gather some feedback tomorrow.”

Tapping my finger and thumb on my thigh, I nodded mindlessly in time, thoughts spinning through my head at light speed. “How’s the food program going? That’s one area I don’t want to skimp on.”

Alex flicked through the papers and pushed some pictures closer to me. “We have a group of volunteers who prepare breakfasts every morning at the community center downtown. They also have food packs ready for those who might need the extra help. The demand is growing every day, but they assure me they don’t let anyone leave without food in their stomachs.”

The beat on my thigh grew faster. “What about the scholarships?”

His eyes sparked with happiness. “Now that the word’s out there, the demand is growing. We had over a hundred applicants this year. Kids that had previously given up on the idea of college are now reinvesting in themselves with hope.” His gaze sharpened on mine. “And, of course, Piper just graduated.”

My thoughts instantly stopped, and I blinked stupidly. “Fuck, really?” Had the time seriously gone that fast?

I looked at Alex and shook my head. He knew Piper had been the biggest reason for me wanting the charity to succeed. Her shitty upbringing was something that had always pissed me off. Even when I was little, I’d wanted to help her. She was just an innocent kid thrown into an unfair world. She deserved something good. Scholarship included.

“Really,” Alex said softly, pride for what we’d achieved shining in his eyes.

“How are the investment houses going?” I asked, knowing very well that Piper had benefited from that for a short period as well.

Alex tilted his head from side to side. “Mostly good. Apparently, there were issues with one of the tenants, and they had to be evicted, but we have a foster family with good references moving in this weekend.”

I nodded slowly. We only had four houses on the books, mainly bought to provide housing to low-income people who could potentially foster kids like Piper. It wasn’t something we wanted to invest heavily in at this stage, but it didn’t hurt to keep our fingers on the pulse.

Alex pushed a folder across the table just as a knock echoed on the meeting room door. A second later, it opened a crack, and a sheepish face popped in. “Sorry to interrupt, Alex, but Megan needs your signature on the Wason document before it can go out.”

Alex sighed, hanging his head a fraction. “Okay, thanks, Prue. Just give me five minutes.”

Picking up the folder, I gave him an amused smirk and pushed away from the table. “Go do what you’ve gotta do, man. I need to go see Pauly anyway. When do you want to catch up again?”

Standing, he extended his hand toward me. “How about Monday morning? We should have some information from Sue and Brian by then.”

Taking his hand, I gave it a firm pump. “Sounds good. How’s ten? I’m not much of a morning person these days,” I said, moving toward the door.

A deep laugh rumbled in his throat. “Some people have all the luck.”


Chapter 5



Lining up the cue with the white ball, I slowly drew it back, before smoothly pushing it forward, keeping the momentum going in the follow-through. The ball moved across the pool table with ease, tapping the solid orange on the side and sending it into the middle pocket. The white continued down the table, bouncing off the bumper and stopping right in line with the black.

Pleased, I straightened, walking a few steps to check out my handiwork.

Laughter erupted from the other side of the table, before a dull voice said, “So, you’re a shark, then.”

My gaze narrowed as I glanced up at the voice. He was somewhat tall—about six-one, with dirty blond hair, brown eyes, and an ego bigger than this establishment. Placing my cue so it was resting on the floor in front of me, I tilted my head to the side as I assessed him. “You think I’m a shark?”

He scoffed. “Well, obviously.”

Leaning over the table, I lined up my shot before looking back up at him. Without breaking his gaze, I drew the cue back. “Not once did I say or act like I didn’t know how to play,” I said, sliding the cue forward. My gaze still hadn’t left his as the cue hit its mark. “That was your assumption and your mistake.”

Blondie’s gaze swung down to see if my shot had been a success, but my stare didn’t leave his face. The cheers and laughter of the guys around told me I’d aced it.

Smugly, I straightened, watching him come closer, his hand outstretched toward me. I kept my expression closed. This guy was a massive player, and I wanted nothing to do with it. When I wanted sex, it was on my terms. I chose who the participant was and where we went. This guy was not getting anywhere near my vagina.

Keeping his hand outstretched, he smirked. “I can admit when I’ve been bested. You definitely know your way around a pool table. Good game.”

I glanced down at his hand for a moment before taking it and giving it a small pump. He tried to hold on longer, but I pulled it away and rolled my eyes.

Kenny started racking up the balls, getting ready for the next game, so I moved over to the table where my beer was waiting for me. Blondie followed.

“Let me buy you drink,” he said, a cocky twinkle in his eyes.

Picking my beer up off the table, I held it up in front of me. “No need,” I said, jiggling it a little. “I’ve already got one.”

His smirk grew wider. “Can I join you, then?”

Looking him dead in the eye, I held my drink to my lips. “I’d rather you didn’t,” I said before taking a swig.

“Come on, I’m not that bad.” He laughed, raising an eyebrow.

Clearly, he wasn’t going to give up. I took another drink and shrugged. “You’re free to do whatever you want. But the answer is no. It’s no now, and it will be no later, so if you’re thinking I’m a challenge you can win, think again. You’d be better off choosing another target.”

Liam, one of the regulars who was within earshot, hooted with laughter. “Listen to her, man. She ain’t lying.”

Blondie assessed me for a while before lowering his head in submission. “Fair point. Thank you for your honesty.”

I held my beer up to him in a silent ‘you’re welcome’ before turning back to Kenny. “Count me out, Ken. I’m going to go use the bathroom and talk to Stell.”

He gave me a salute before I walked away, heading straight to the bathrooms. Doing my business, I quickly washed up and found a seat at the bar. Stella rolled her eyes at me as she brought me another beer. “Don’t tell me you turned down that sexy piece of man meat, Pip,” she said. “What in the devil is wrong with you? You haven’t picked up in months.”

Unlike Stella, I had standards, but I’d never say that to her face. Shrugging, I took a sip. “No one’s really doing it for me.”

Hitting me with a sardonic look, she tossed her rag on the bar. “Newsflash, you have to pick up before anyone can ‘do it for you,’ girl.”

“He’s all yours, Stell,” I said, waving my hand out with a flourish. “Go for it.”

She huffed before retrieving the rag and proceeding to wipe the tops down. Swallowing a mouthful of beer, I watched her work. Stella was almost ten years older than I was, but she looked a lot younger than her thirty years. I would’ve said she was closer to twenty-five if I didn’t already know. She’d been in the business long enough now to have flirting down to a fine art. The perks she seduced out of men were better than any tip I’d ever received.

According to Stella, she was just practicing until she found the one, and by one, she meant her financial ticket to freedom. Stella had no ambition to be anything other than arm candy for some rich schmuck. How she thought she’d find the rich schmuck in a shithole like The Jaded Bull Bar and Grill was beyond me, though.

I looked out at her choice of men for the night, withering slightly in my chair. No doubt she’d find someone who would at least pay her rent for the month. She had a way of working that kind of magic.

Sighing, I leaned forward and put my elbows on the bar. That kind of life was not one I wanted for myself. I didn’t want to be a kept woman. I didn’t want to rely on a man to pay for the things I wanted or needed. I wanted to be in a position where I could look after myself—buy my own goddamned shit. And until I was at that point, no man was getting that close to me. Period.

As Blondie moved toward the bar, I raised the beer to my lips, and I wiggled my eyebrows. Stella sighed, but the challenge was now set. With a twinkle in her eyes, she set to work.

Chapter 6



Pulling up in front of Pauly’s tattoo shop, The Reaper’s Closet, I grinned. The new premises was a massive change from the dark little back-alley shop the guys had previously occupied downtown. The fact that I owned the new building was irrelevant. I’d told them to have at it, and they’d done exactly that. It looked fucking amazing.

Pressing the fob to lock my no-frills Mazda 6, I strode to the door and pushed inside. Dan, one of Pauly’s business partners, hooted the second he saw me. “Well, look what the cat dragged in. Fucking hell, man. I thought you’d ditched us.”

Clasping his hand, I let him bring me in for a quick hug, slapping him on the back as I moved. “The place looks great. How’s your reception been?”

One side of his mouth curled up with mischief. “The antiques ladies aren’t too fond of us just yet, but the hairdressers fucking love us.” He let out a full belly laugh before sobering a little. “Ah, but seriously, business is fucking great. You’d be surprised how many of those snotty white-collar guys and girls are inked under their expensive suits and dresses. And the best part about that? They don’t even blink twice at the prices—which we’ve bumped, by the way.”

I nodded a silent beat. “Nice. Where’s everyone?”

“Ben and Lachlan are just cleaning up. Pauly’s out back,” he said before a shadow appeared down the hallway.

“Well, well, if it isn’t the little shithead,” Pauly said, striding forward.

“Nice to see you too, dipshit,” I returned, pulling him in for a hug.

Dan laughed before slipping out the back, his booming voice ringing out as he chatted with the guys.

“How have you been?” I said, watching Pauly as he moved behind the front counter and started shifting papers.

He shrugged. “Yeah, all right.” Then he met my gaze. “Mom’s been sniffing about.”

My vision was suddenly hazed with red. “What the fuck does she want now? Money, I’m guessing.”

He shrugged. “She looked jittery. It was hard to see.”

I growled. “Don’t you start feeling fucking sorry for her, Pauly,” I spat, a little more forcefully than I intended. “You didn’t give her any money, did you?”

“Of course I didn’t,” he said, his irritation at the whole situation oozing out. “She didn’t even come inside.”

Letting out a heavy breath, I allowed the weight of it to touch me for a few heartbeats before pushing it deep inside me. “If she knows what’s good for her, she won’t come looking for anything off me. She won’t like what she finds.”

Understanding flickered in Pauly’s eyes. He knew I wasn’t fucking around. I would burn that bitch and all the money I had before I even thought about giving her a single cent.

“Yeah,” was all he said, shrugging a shoulder before his lips curled up into a massive smirk. “Come have a beer. The guys are just finishing up.”

I shook my head as he started walking toward the back. That was always Pauly. The king of avoidance. Deciding to let it go too, I followed him out the back and took the beer Dan offered me.

 “You coming out with us?” Dan asked, tossing the bottle top in the trash.

Chewing on the inside of my lip, I considered the possibility. I didn’t usually get recognized when I was out in public. Not like the other guys did anyway. But being back in my hometown was a little different. It only took one to draw attention to me, and that was the end of a good time.

“Where are you going?” I asked cautiously.

Dan looked over at Lachlan, the shop’s newest artist. “It’s the rookie’s choice tonight.”

Lachlan nodded like he’d been waiting for this moment all his life, then he rubbed his chin. “There’s a bar a few blocks over that’s pretty cool?”

Pauly gave him an intimidating look. “You know what’s going to happen if it’s lame, right?”

Lachlan shrugged, but I could see a hint of worry in his expression. “It’s cool. Trust me. You’re going to love it.”

Dan knocked back his drink and jumped to his feet. “Let’s do it, then. I need to get me some soft curves to press up against. I feel like I haven’t been laid in ages.”

Pauly smirked but stayed quiet. He didn’t need to worry about those kinds of things. He had his own soft curves at home. He and Joni had been together since their senior year of high school and were married, with a mini Pauly on the way by the time she finished college. They had two kids now and, as far as I knew, were as happy as the day they got together.

Ben was already shucking his jacket on. “I’m down. Let’s go.” He gave me a pointed look that translated to, You’re coming. Don’t argue.

Tipping my beer up, I finished it off and pushed to my feet. “Looks like I’m going out.”

Dan reached out for a fist bump, excitement glinting in his eyes. “Old times, bro. Old times.”

If I was smart, I would’ve been scared, but Dan was right. It had been too long since we’d all hung out. It needed to happen.

After Ben locked up the shop, we all piled into my Mazda and drove the four blocks over to The Jaded Bull Bar and Grill.

My first impression was not brilliant if I was honest with Lachlan. The place hinted at seediness with a dash of sleaze. But I wasn’t a quitter. I was willing to try. Two drinks and I’d make up my mind.

Following the guys over to a vacant pool table, I edged my way to the corner and claimed a chair. Pauly racked up the balls while Lachlan headed to the bar. Apparently, that was a part of the rookie initiation process as well. First shout.

While I waited, I took a moment to try to find any redeeming qualities for the place. The first tick was the music. It was just a juke box, but it was currently belting out a Linkin Park song, so obviously there was a good selection of music, and people with good taste in music. I nodded, feeling a little better already.

Glancing around the place, I took in the people. Rough, but seemingly well behaved. The bar was busy, and everyone hanging around the area had a drink in their hand except for Lachlan, who was watching someone behind the bar with a slight smile on his face. I scoffed, now understanding why this was his bar of choice. One of the barmaids must be hot.

I searched the workspace, immediately understanding Lachlan’s attraction when I found a tall, gorgeous redhead and a dark-haired girl with some wicked curves. From what I could see, both girls were attractive, but my gaze was definitely drawn to the dark-haired one. She had long, dark-brown hair that fell down over her chest in soft, loose waves, milky-white skin, and what looked like a full-sleeve tattoo covering her right arm.

She placed the drink she’d been pouring on a tray with a few others and flicked her hair back over her shoulders, revealing the soft swell of breast spilling out above the neckline of her black tank top. I hummed in appreciation.

“You’re up, little brother,” Pauly said, thrusting a cue into my hand, ultimately drawing my attention back to the impending game. “We’re a team, so don’t fuck up.”

I raised an eyebrow. He was asking me to not fuck up? Had he forgotten who used to beat whose ass each and every time we played?

Taking the cue, I smirked, just as Lachlan appeared with a tray of shots.

Pauly groaned. “What the fuck, Lachlan. This better not be tequila.”

Lachlan picked one up and raised the little glass toast-like and grinned. “Every good time out includes tequila.”

Dan grabbed a glass and rolled his eyes. “It’s, ‘every good night ends in tequila,’ dumbass. Because once tequila gets included, you may as well say goodnight. And where the fuck are our chasers?”

I watched them both knock their shots back and sighed internally. Amateurs.

“I’ll grab the beers.” Throwing the shooter down, I dumped it on the tray and took my turn, breaking to start the game. Before anyone could protest, I started moving toward the bar.

Sliding into an empty spot, I took the chance to check out both barmaids up close, but my gaze immediately swung back to the brunette. She moved around the area like she’d done it a million times before, stacking dirty glasses and piling them into the washer, bumping the door closed with her hip before punching the button to start it up.

Her curves were mouthwatering. The apron she wore covered them up a little, but you would have to be a moron to not see they were there.

I watched her toss the rag she’d been using to wipe the bar down into the sink, before moving my way. When she was almost in front of me, her gaze locked on mine and she paused, one hand resting on the counter, the other on her hip. She looked over my features and softly sighed. “Well, here’s someone I never thought I’d see again.”

I felt my brow crease with confusion. Again? Did I know her?

My thoughts raced as I tried to make sense of what was happening. Something was stirring in my memories.

The corner of her mouth crooked upward. “Hi, Marty.”

I felt my eyes widen the same time the breath stuck in my throat. “Pipsqueak?”



Chapter 7



For some stupid-assed reason, I felt like a dozen butterflies had just apparated in my stomach. How the hell was Matt Hennessey standing in my bar, staring at me like he’d just seen a freaking ghost? After the conversation the guys had about him the other day, it felt too fucking weird.

I’d tried to keep my cool, forcing a casual stance, but I was anything but cool. This man had always been my undoing. The one person my walls could never keep out.

The sound of Matt’s silky voice saying the childhood nickname he’d had for me brought forward the memories of the ridiculous infatuation I’d had with him all those years ago. I shook my head, trying to clear the haze. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time,” I said softly.

Matt tilted his head, his gaze raking over my features. “You look so different,” he said, his voice almost a growl. The sound of it created a warmth low in my stomach. His head cocked to the side a little more. “No, not different. Not really.”

He was speaking as though he was talking to himself so I chose to remain quiet, afraid my voice would betray me if I tried to say anything in return.

“You’re all grown up, Pip,” he said reverently.

I laughed, trying to shake myself out of this ridiculous dreamy state of mind. “That kinda happens, unfortunately.”

He remained quiet for a while, just watching me, then he sighed again. “I heard you graduated college. That’s pretty fucking awesome, Pip.”

I blinked stupidly. “You did?”

One side of his mouth crooked up, reminding me exactly why he was considered one of the rock industry’s sexiest men. “You seem surprised.”

Surprised was mild compared to what I was feeling. Shocked would be a closer term. “Who told you?”

“A man can’t give away all his secrets,” he said cryptically.

I scowled at him for a moment before exhaling sharply. “Well, I heard you’ve had a little bit of success too, so congratulations, I guess.” I added a slight shrug to give my words more of a nonchalant feel.

Matt burst out laughing, shaking his head slightly. “You haven’t changed at all, have you?”

“I’d like to think I’ve grown a little taller,” I said, scratching my chin with mock contemplation. “I’ve also been working hard to get my booty to pop a little, so I hope that’s noticeable.”

The lopsided smile returned, his eyes twinkling with laughter. I watched his sexy mouth open to say something, but a sharp whistle from the other side of the room had us both turning to see what was happening. I saw his brother, Paul, raise his arms in a what-the-fuck kind of way before Matt sighed. “Apparently, they’re thirsty.”

A surge of disappointment flushed through me, but I also knew I’d probably say something I’d later regret if I didn’t get away from him soon, so I stood up straight and drew in a deep breath. “What can I get you?”

He sighed softly, the teasing smile softening. “Beer. Five of them. Whatever you have. I don’t mind.”

Normally I would argue and ask him to choose, but I needed to wrap this up. Moving toward the fridge, I pulled out five bottles of Bud and proceeded to pop the tops. Placing them on the bar in front of him, I gave him my best barmaid smile. “You gonna be all right with those?”

Dropping some notes on the bar, he gave me a wink. “Yup.” Then he picked up the bottles and turned. “Keep the change.”

I scoffed, scooping up the money. I heard that phrase used almost every shift I worked, and the tip was rarely enough to buy myself a loaf of bread. Thumbing through the pile, I frowned at the four extra fifty-dollar notes. Now, how the fuck was I supposed to stamp out the lingering infatuation I felt when he did shit like that?

The next few hours were torturous. I hadn’t seen this many people in the bar in a very long time. Lena and I were rushed off our feet. Between the two of us, we had to change over three kegs, restock the mixers more times than I cared to count, and run out to the back stock room for some spirit or another every hour.

But even though I was busy, I was still hyperaware of the sexy-assed drummer in the far corner of the room. I swear the man couldn’t even go to the bathroom without me watching his fine ass disappearing through the door. It was actually a little embarrassing.

It wasn’t until it started getting closer to my shift ending that I found myself growing a little restless. Matt had only been back to the bar once since I’d spoken to him, and Lena had been the one to serve him, so I was starting to feel as though I might’ve lost any opportunity to talk to him again.

Stella arrived to relieve me ten minutes before my shift ended. She gave me a withering look as she tied her apron around her waist. “Has it been like this all day?”

Shoving the tray into the washer, I bumped the door closed with my hip and nodded. “Yep.”

“Any good tippers?” she asked, scanning the crowd.

I tried to keep my expression even as I rinsed out a container, demanding my gaze not to travel to the back corner of the room. “A few. Flirting helps,” I added with a crooked smile.

Stella waggled her eyebrows. “Oh, I can do that.”

Yeah, she was definitely the better flirter out of the two of us. She’d make a killing tonight. Squeezing the water out of a cloth, I grabbed a bottle of cleaning spray and drew in a deep breath. “I’ll go wipe the tables down.”

Before I’d even finished wiping down the first table, I knew I was going to talk to Matt again. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t take the opportunity while it was there. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for exactly, but if I could end the night making more memories of Matt, I’d be a happy gal.



Chapter 8



Subtlety had never been my strong suit, but as Piper made her way around the room, wiping down tables, I did my best to watch her without drawing attention to the fact that I was being a creepy stalker.

When she eventually reached our table, I shifted in my seat and gave her my full attention. “So, when can you clear your busy schedule to pencil in a catchup with an old friend?”

She paused her cleaning and cocked her head to the side, her soft, teasing expression doing something strange to my stomach. “Well, you’re in luck, drummer boy. I just so happen to be finishing my shift right now.”

I wanted to ask her how it was possible she didn’t have dates lined up for the next six months, but I wasn’t going to argue with the opportunity. “That is lucky.”

Tossing the cloth on the table, she dropped down on the seat across from me, her eyes bright with child-like enthusiasm. “So, what’s new? How was the tour? How long before you’re back at it?”

Everything about her made me excited. I had no idea why that was, but it was the most alive I’d felt off stage in a long while. “The tour was good. I love being on the road. It’s kind of freeing, you know?” I said, trying to convey what I was feeling.

I knew she’d get it. As a kid, living in the trailer park in a situation that was out of your control felt like a type of prison. Being able to go different places and not be held back was something we’d all dreamed of.

She gave me a soft smile, her eyes filled with understanding. “Yeah, I know.”

“We’ve got a few gigs here in Sac starting in August,” I continued, answering her last question. “But we’ll mostly be recording for now.”

“You guys sound amazing live,” she said, making my eyebrows creep upward.

“You’ve been to see us?” I said, my voice echoing my surprise.

Throwing her head back, she laughed a light tinkering sound. “Only every time you’ve played here or San Fran.”

I stared at her, trying to work out if she was kidding me. “Are you serious?”

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? I’m your biggest fan.”

I could tell she was trying to say it in the creepiest way possible, but I was still reeling from her admission. “Why didn’t you come say hi?”

She gawked at me for a second before bursting out laughing. “You’ve obviously never tried to get backstage to see someone before. Do you have any idea how many girls beg the security guys and say they’re old friends of one of you after every show?”

For the first time in my life, I found groupies annoying. “I’m going to give you my cell number.”

Amusement curled her lips, her eyes shining with mischief. “I’ll spam you. You’ll be getting Snapchats for days. I think I look pretty cute with puppy dog ears. And bunny ears. Oh, and that cute little dancing teddy bear thing. You’ll get it all,” she said enthusiastically. “I’m not joking either. I’m just warning you now in case you want to change your mind.”

Amused, I gave her a side-eye glance before shaking my head. Images of Piper dancing just for me flashed in my head. “No, I think I’ll be okay. I could handle some dancing teddy bears.”

Lifting one slender shoulder, she smirked. “Okay, then. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

Happiness flared inside me as I watched her. My entire being was buzzing, but my head was also in a state of confusion. My mind and soul knew this person sitting across from me better than almost anyone else in the world. She was so very familiar, and I was so incredibly comfortable being myself with her, but to other parts of me, she was new. This older version of her, and what it was doing to certain parts of my body, was messing with my head.

Piper was only fourteen when I’d left the trailer park for good, but she’d looked a lot closer to twelve. Francie, one of the old ladies at the trailer park, had always said it was malnutrition that made it that way and one day it would all work out. As a kid I’d been worried, but looking at her now, I realized it was all for nothing. Francie had been right. She was gorgeous. Perfect. She stood at around five-seven, her hair was long, dark, and shone like she was a model for some fancy-assed shampoo, and her body had curves that would make a man want to take his time to drive.

That was the part I was struggling with. I should not be attracted to Piper in that way. My head told me it was bad. My body told me to ignore my head. “So, what’s happening with you?”

Her entire energy changed with my question, her expression fed up. “I can sum it up with one word: frustration.” She rolled her eyes. “I don’t have a job to walk into like most of the other graduates. I don’t even know if I want to be an accountant. I mean, I like it. I get some kind of weird satisfaction from crunching numbers, but the thought of just doing people’s taxes for the rest of my life doesn’t excite me.”

As I watched her mull over her dilemma, an idea smacked me in the head. It would require me to place all my cards on the table, meaning she’d know I was behind a lot of the financial support she’d been given over the years, but it would help her now.

“What would you say if I had a job for you?” I hedged.

She gave me a deadpan look. “I’d say you were full of shit and just trying to find something for me to do because you can’t help but want to make things right for me.”

She was a little bit right. Alex already had the charity books taken care of, but I really did need someone to go over my personal investments as a whole.

I smirked, but I also gave her a pointed look to let her know I wasn’t fucking her around. “There’s a little bit of truth in that, but I’m serious.”

She sat back in her chair for a while and watched me, her gaze shifting between my eyes as she considered my question. “Okay,” she said slowly. “I’m curious. Let’s hear it.”

I wriggled in my seat, not really wanting to fess up to things just yet. “Well, as you could probably tell from the very fancy clothes I’m wearing, I’ve come into a bit of money over the last six years.”

The corner of Piper’s mouth curled upward. “It is pretty obvious.”

“Yeah, I don’t mean to wave it in everyone’s faces, but it’s hard not to sometimes.” I took a sip of my beer as she tried to hide her giggle. “Anyway, I’ve managed to put some money into some different ventures and, well, it can look pretty messy sometimes—hard to get a clear picture of my financial standing as a whole, if you know what I mean. I’d like you to go over it all and see what you think. You know, put it into some magic order. That kind of thing.”

She studied me for a while, her hand moving the cloth around the table. “Is this a pity offer?”

“Pity? No. The desire to help you? Yes,” I said carefully. Sitting forward, I leaned my forearm on the table. “Piper, I genuinely do need someone to do this for me. The fact that you’re qualified to do it is about ninety percent of the reason I asked. The fact that I know you and I trust you is about eight percent. And my desire to help you is the remaining ninety-nine percent.”

Her expression withered at my awesome math, but it lightened her up. “Would this be a one-off engagement of services or ongoing?”

Picking up my beer again, I grinned. “I think the best way would be for you to spend however long you need going over the last six years of financials, then you can decide if you’d like to continue, but why don’t you come to my place tomorrow and we can talk about it some more?”

Piper took a deep breath, holding it for a few heartbeats, before slowly releasing it again. “I’m not agreeing to anything just yet, but yes, I can come to your place tomorrow.” She paused for a few seconds before her gaze narrowed. “Where exactly is your place?”

Chapter 9



I was nervous as I made my way inside Matt’s apartment complex. The time we’d shared the night before had left me feeling more than a little confused. Of course, I’d been infatuated with Matt up until the day he’d left to go on tour, but last night had been the first time I’d seen even an ounce of interest from him.

I’d spent half the time I was supposed to be sleeping, going over every moment I’d spent with him at the bar, overanalyzing every gesture and word until everything was a blur and I was more unsure about it all than ever.

As I pushed the button to call the elevator, I tried to rationalize what was happening. There was definitely something between us, but whether it was intentional on Matt’s side or not was something I still needed to figure out. Oh, and if the offer was still there, I’d decided I was taking the job, because I would seriously be an idiot to turn down any work at this point in time. The fact that I’d get to spend more time with Matt before he disappeared from my life yet again had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Opening my cell phone, I checked Matt’s message for the hundredth time.

Take the elevator to the twelfth floor and turn right. Apartment number 1201.

Stepping into the elevator, I tried to calm my nerves. I’d deliberately taken a casual approach to the ‘meeting’ with Matt today, choosing to wear a pair of worn denim jeans, a tee, and a pair of chucks. I had my hair up in a pony. Even though I was here for business, I wanted to make it as light as possible, in case he decided it was a bad idea after all. Then I could just play it down and we could just hang out instead.

Following Matt’s instructions, I turned right when I got to the twelfth floor and located apartment 1201 at the end of the hall. Steeling myself, I pushed the buzzer.

Matt answered in about three seconds, grinning from ear to ear. “So punctual.” Then his gaze travelled down my body, taking in my attire. My pulse raced as I watched his eyes darken, but then he was shaking it off, stepping back to allow me inside. “Come in. I’m digging the casual look you’ve got going on. It reminds me more of the old you.”

I cringed a little at that. I wasn’t sure if that was something that would work for me or against me. “Does it make me look hungry?” I teased.

He closed the door and laughed. “No, but it probably makes me look hungry. Beer?”

My head was still trying to make sense of what he’d meant when he set off down the hall. I sped to follow him while glancing at the time. It was only ten in the morning. “Uh, isn’t it a little early for beer?”

He waved me off as he came to a stop in a very light and well-appointed kitchen. “My body clock is all over the place these days. I just do what feels right. How about juice? Does that feel better?”

Dropping my bag to the ground, I ran my hand over the countertop, in awe of the size of it all. “Juice would be perfect.”

As he moved about, grabbing cups and opening fridges, I looked around at the rest of the living space. It was simply gorgeous. It wasn’t huge by any means, but it looked new and expensive. Everything was light, in colors of whites and grays, with soft cushions and flowing curtains. But it was also welcoming. It invited you to sit and relax and to stay a while. It looked like it would suck you in and make you so happy and content that you’d never want to leave. The thought worried me. I didn’t need another excuse to want to stay. This was bad.

“Here you go,” Matt said, holding out the glass of juice. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour.”

He took me through the living area and past a balcony that looked over the east side of the city. Moving to a set of doors that opened to a darkened room, he smiled. “This is the media room. It’s mostly set up to watch movies, but the cable is connected in here too. Oh, and I also use it for practice,” he said, pointing to the electronic drum kit he had set up at the back.

“Nice,” I said, letting my gaze take in the soundproof panels on the walls.

Following him down the hall, he showed me two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a separate laundry room. Both bedrooms were bigger than my entire apartment. One had been decorated in white, grays, and navy, and the other in beige and white.

Quietly, I took it all in, my eyes growing wider the more I saw. It was beautiful. It really was, but it seemed too much for one person.

As we moved back down the hall again, I frowned. I hadn’t noticed even one thing that was personal, belonging to Matt. “Where are all your things?”

Matt grinned, stopping before a set of stairs I hadn’t seen before. “I haven’t finished yet.”

I gawked at him. “You mean there’s more?”

The sound of Matt’s laugh washed over me a second before he took my hand and started towing me up the stairs. My mind emptied of all thoughts except the sensation of his hand around mine. Behind him, I scrambled, trying to get myself to focus on not tripping and falling on my face.

When we emerged at the top, Matt pointed over to a room that looked to be decorated in soft whites with sage green and gray accents, his hand still clasped around mine. “That’s another spare room, and my room is over here.”

He didn’t give me time to process before he was pulling me along again, bringing me into an enormous room with tones of gray and white with black accents. It was stunning. And sure enough, everywhere I looked were signs of Matt’s existence.

Matt let go of my hand and strode over to a chair, picking up a few items of dirty clothing. He looked at me and shrugged. “Sorry, touring taught me bad habits.”

I ignored his humor as I looked around. On the other side of the bed was a doorway that looked to open to an enormous walk-in wardrobe and bathroom. I shook my head. “Why?”

He shrugged again, acknowledging my confusion. “Yeah, I get it. It’s way too big for me, but there’s a reason I bought it.”

My eyes bulged. “You bought this?”

He didn’t look as concerned about my freak out as I thought he should be. Instead, he simply scratched his chin and nodded. “I bought it a while back as an investment. The people who were leasing it left a few months ago. I had people who were wanting to take it, but I knew I was coming back here for a while so figured it was a better place to stay than a hotel.”

I gazed around, this time not bothering to stop my jaw from going slack. This was insane. How the hell could he afford this? I mean, I knew he was making some serious money as a musician, but this was extreme.

“So, what do you think?” Matt asked.

I shook my head at him. “How the hell did you afford this, Matt? How much money are you actually making?”

He smirked. “If you agree to do my finances, you’ll see.”

Oh, I was going to do them all right. Surely, he was stretching the limits. He had to be mortgaged up to his eyeballs. “Jesus, Matt. This might be out of my league. I’m scared.”

The asshole just laughed at me, taking my hand and leading me back down the stairs. The second we got back to the kitchen, I carefully placed my cup on the counter and nervously wiped my hands on my jeans.

Matt rubbed his hands together. “So, when can you start?”

Rubbing my fingers over my forehead, I took a deep breath. “Today.”

“Good to know you’re keen, but not today,” he said, just as the doorbell sounded. “Today, we’re watching the game.”

I frowned as he disappeared toward the front door, appearing a minute later with a massive pizza box in his arms. Finally, I smiled. “Okay, now it’s time for beer.”

Matt hooted and dropped the box onto the counter. “That’s my girl!”


Chapter 10



Dropping the cutting board onto the countertop, I threw the dish towel over my shoulder and grabbed all the ingredients I needed out of the fridge. If there was anything I knew about Piper, it was that food had a way of softening her up, and I had a suspicious feeling she was going to need it.

I’d spent half the night turning one of the downstairs bedrooms into a temporary office so she would have somewhere nice and comfortable to work from while she was here. I’d also had all my files and paperwork delivered to the apartment first thing this morning so it would be here before she arrived at nine.

Leaving her in there to read everything was even harder than I thought it’d be. To say I was nervous was an understatement. All the specific details of the charity wasn’t included in my personal files, but the deposits to the charity itself were listed, and it definitely wouldn’t take a genius to put two and two together.

Don’t ask me how I knew she was going to react badly to finding out I’d been financially helping her all these years. Call it a feeling. I just didn’t know how badly she was going to react. I only hoped it wasn’t going to be so bad that she’d leave and never speak to me again.

Pouring myself a soda, I checked the clock. She’d said to give her three hours. That was four hours ago. Turning on the cooktop, I started to heat the pan. I was done waiting. The longer she took, the more nervous I grew. If she wasn’t out by the time I’d finished cooking, I was going to go get her.

Heating some oil in the pan, I dropped the chicken in and tossed it around. I was just checking on the pasta when I finally heard the door open. She appeared a minute later, her gaze immediately finding mine.

Lowering the knife to the cutting board, I took in her confused expression. I didn’t say anything. I needed to know where her head was at, so I could formulate a defense strategy first.

Her mouth opened, her gaze shifting somewhere behind me before it jumped from one side of the room to the other. Her mouth closed and opened again, but no words came out.

Silently, I watched her, giving her some time to say what she needed to say. She turned, striding a few steps toward the living room before she turned and strode back again.

“Why . . .” she said, her head shaking with the smallest of movements. “How—I didn’t—” Her mouth snapped shut, her gaze flickering back and forth between my eyes. “You left.”

I raised my chin a little. “I made a promise to myself that I’d always look out for you, Pip,” I said softly. “Just because I left, doesn’t mean that I stopped.”

“I—” Her chest rose and fell deeply. “This is too much. I don’t know how I feel,” she said, her hands clenching and unclenching at her sides. “I thought I’d done all this on my own, Matt. I was so proud of myself, but the scholarship—”

My gaze narrowed, my head tilting to the side. “Exactly. That’s exactly what it was, Piper. A scholarship. Regardless of whether that came from my charity or someone else’s, you still did the work. You’re the one who pushed yourself. You’re the one who did the work. You’re the one who graduated. You, Piper. Not me.”

She shook her head. “But even the foster house, Matt.”

Drawing in a deep breath, I focused on keeping my voice calm. “Again, I provided the house, Pip. That’s all. It was the only way I knew to keep you safe.”

Tears shone in her eyes, and her jaw clenched with defiance. She’d always hated crying in front of me.

Sighing, I placed the dish towel on the counter and moved to stand in front of her. “Piper, all I did was arm you with the tools you needed to drag yourself out of that cesspit. You did the rest. You did the work. And you fought the war.”

I watched her exhale before rubbing her hand across her forehead. “Jesus, Matt. A little warning would’ve fucking helped, you know.”

“Would it have, though?” I said, one eyebrow sneaking upward. “Would you have even looked at the books after I told you?”

She huffed, her shoulders finally loosening before she rolled her eyes. “Probably not.”

Stepping a little closer, I gazed into her eyes. “Is the thought of me helping you really that bad, Pip?”

Her gaze never left mine as she considered my question. After a while, she wet her lips and swallowed. “You know help is not something I’m used to, Matt. There’s only ever been you.” She shook her head. “Just you. And I thought you were gone.”

“Pipsqueak,” I said, taking the tips of her fingers in my hand. “I helped you because I care about you, because I believe in you. You fought tooth and nail from the moment you were born. You’ve always been so damned tough. And if anyone deserved a hand to lift them out of the shit, it’s you.” I squeezed her fingers. “Please don’t be upset with me. Please tell me you’ll do this. Yes, I want to help you, but just like you, I don’t trust easily, and I can’t think of anyone else I would be okay with looking over my finances.”

Piper drew in a deep breath, pulling her fingers from my hands and scrubbing them over her face. “Oh my God,” she mumbled behind her hands. “I could punch you.” Dropping her hands to her sides, she leveled me with a hard stare. “Yes, I’ll do your damned books, but you’re going to pay me the proper going rate for it, Matt. No more fucking handouts.”

Relief washed through me with her words, and one side of my mouth crooked up into a satisfied grin. “It’s a Monday to Friday, nine-to-five job, Pip. I’ll definitely pay you the going rate and all the usual benefits.”

I watched her eyes widen slightly, her lips parting with a breath. “But I have the bar job.”

“How long will it take you to do what needs to be done?”

She shifted on her feet. “Well, you’ll need a good accounting software like Xero, and I’ll need to create ledgers and go through and document all your transactions over the last six years, you’ll need balance sheets and income and cashflow statements, I’ll need to check your tax materials, your quarterly reporting, and your yearly statements—”

“How long, Pip?” I said, cutting her off.

She blinked. “I don’t know, maybe a couple months?”

I nodded. “Then quit the bar. Come work for me.”

“I can’t just quit the bar for two months’ work,” she said, her voice laced with exasperation. “What if I don’t find a job before then?”

Giving her a deadpan look, I tilted my head to the side. “Read between the lines, Pip. You’ll find a job. I’ll be the best damned reference you’ve ever had.”

Piper stared at me for a long while, the cogs in her mind turning at full speed. Too many minutes later, she sighed. “Fine. It’s a deal.”

I felt a full smile touch my lips for the first time that day. “Good. Now, let me feed you.”



Chapter 11



It took two days to fully comprehend the opportunity Matt had offered me. I’d been nervous as hell to quit the bar and grill, but he was right. I needed to stop trying to control the outcome of every part of my life and take a leap of faith. It still scared the fuck out of me, but I thought I was ready.

Frank hadn’t taken the news of me quitting very well. Mostly because I’d only given him a few days’ notice. He’d stormed into his office as he did most days, slamming the door and refusing to resurface until everyone had gone. Or maybe he just slept in there. I had no idea, nor did I care. I hadn’t seen him since I told him I was leaving, and I honestly didn’t think I’d see him before I left.

As I poured Charlie a beer, I thought about how my life was slowly changing. After today’s shift, I was definitely finished with hospitality work. Come Monday, my new life would start.

“We sure are going to miss you around here,” Charlie said as I placed his beer in front of him. “Who’s going to put Scotty in his place now? He’ll be throwing that ego around like there’s no tomorrow.”

Smirking, I pinned Scotty with an amused look. He simply shrugged. “It’s true. Stella doesn’t even try to stop me.”

Stella waved her hand in front of her face. Today was her day off, but she wanted to come have a few drinks to celebrate my last shift. “You can dig your own grave, Scotty,” she said, unfazed. “Ain’t no way I’m getting in any conversation about your dick.”

Mike chortled from his perch at the end of the bar. “That’s not what I heard, Stell.”

Stella rolled her eyes. “And they say women are the gossips. You old fairies are the worst I’ve seen.”

Taking Charlie’s money, I grabbed his change out of the register and slapped it on the bar. “There’s not much I’m going to miss about this place, but this is one,” I said, and meaning it.  “You guys definitely make the time go faster.”

Moving over to where Stella sat, I perched my butt on the edge of the counter. She sighed as she looked me over. “I can’t believe you’re leaving me.”

Picking up my soda, I gave her a withering look. “It’s not like it’s a surprise, Stell. I’ve been trying to find a job for months.”

“So, who’s this guy you’re going to be working for?” she said, her tone sulky.

I’d given as little information as possible when I’d told everyone I was leaving. I’d merely said I’d found a short-term contract job as an accounting clerk for someone who ran a small business. In professional terms, it was true, but it was nowhere near as glamorous as it sounded.

Lifting a shoulder, I quickly dropped it again. “Just some guy who runs a small business. It’s mostly investing, but he’s also involved in a charity.”

Stella’s eyes glazed over. “He sounds delicious. How old is he? Never mind, age is irrelevant. When can I meet him?”

“You’re not fucking my boss, Stell,” I said, the words coming out a little more forceful than I intended. As she raised one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, I huffed. “This is my big break, Stell. I’m not jeopardizing it for anything. Even your sugar daddy goals.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously, but I knew it was in jest. “Fine,” she said, pushing her now-empty glass toward me. “Just tell me how the hell you can afford to quit, Pip. Didn’t you say it was only two months of work?”

I shifted a little, uncomfortable with her question, mainly because it was the one thing that I was still nervous about. “He said it would lead to more work,” I offered feebly.

Stella looked at me like I’d grown two heads. We both knew that kind of statement was something she would say. Me, on the other hand, not so much. “You’re going off someone’s word?”

Feigning nonchalance, I lifted my soda. “Sure, why not?”

With watchful eyes, Stella studied my face, but whatever she was going to say died on her lips as I scooped up her glass and made my way to the sink. Fixing her a new drink, I placed it in front of her. “It’s on the house,” I said, knowing full well Frank would pop a vein in his temple if he heard me.

Stella’s smile lit up the entire room. “I can’t wait to do that,” she said, taking a sip. “Except I’m going to say it to the entire bar.” Holding the glass to her lips, her eyes twinkled. “When it’s packed to the rafters.”

“Make sure you invite me then,” I said. “I want to be in on that.”

Holding up her glass, she gazed at me and winked. “Well, here’s to your new job leading you to find some hot, rich guy who wants to pay for everything you want and fucks like a demon.”

“Oh, no,” I said, already shaking my head. “I have no desire to find a man right now, Stell.”

Rolling her eyes, she hung her head. “Come on, Pip. Blow the cobwebs off your vajayjay and start living. Use it while it’s young and fresh.”

“I have no problem using it. I just don’t want anything to attach itself to me because of it,” I said dourly. “I have no desire to be a kept woman, Stell—if anything, I’ll have a kept man.”

Stella waved me off. “You’re so weird, Pip. You’re the only person I know who wants to work as bad as you do.”

Releasing a laugh, I let her comment slide. Life according to Stella was simple, but she didn’t have a childhood like I did. It wasn’t fantastic by any means, but it didn’t leave her with an inability to put her life in the hands of another person. My goals in life were different because I’d grown up at the mercy of people who couldn’t provide for me, so I was very determined to get myself into a position where I would never have to rely on another person for my well-being ever again. My sights were set on the end goal, and no man was going to get in the way of me reaching it.



Chapter 12



Punching the button in the elevator for the tenth floor, I stepped back and leaned against the wall. As the doors slowly closed, I let my mind wander back to Piper’s freakout earlier in the week.

Admittedly, it wasn’t as bad as I’d been dreading, but it did give me a clearer understanding of who she was now. I knew she had a lot to prove. Not only to herself, but to the world as well. But that wasn’t new. She’d been like that since the day she understood judgment.

As the elevator came to a stop, the doors silently sliding open, I pushed off the wall and strode into the reception area of Crawford Enterprises. Bonnie, a silver-haired lady in her late sixties, smiled at me from behind the counter, her hazel eyes sparkling with devious excitement.

“Good morning, Bonnie. How are you this morning?” I said, leaning my forearm on the counter in front of her.

“Why, Matt, I’m just perfect now,” she gushed, not even attempting to hide the flirty flutter of her eyelashes.

Letting out a breathy chuckle, I slowly shook my head. “What do you mean now? You’re perfect all the time.”

Bonnie let out a soft, tinkling laugh. “Alex is waiting for you in the conference room.”

Giving her a quick wink, I straightened before tapping the countertop. “Thanks, Bonnie.”

I could still hear her light giggle as I walked away. Every time I came here, she shamelessly flirted. I wasn’t sure what she would’ve been like back in her prime, but I was fairly confident she probably would’ve given our groupies a good run for their money.

Striding into the conference room, I found Alex with his laptop opened before him, fingers flying over the keyboard. “Good morning, Sunshine.”

Alex stopped what he was doing and sat back in his chair, one side of his mouth curling upward. “Remind me to hold our meetings at this time more often.”

Sliding into a chair across from him, I simply smirked. “It’s all about timing.”

Resting his elbows on the chair arms, Alex tapped his fingertips together. “Have you eaten? I got Bonnie to order something for us from Shelby’s café downstairs.”

I’d already eaten, but Shelby’s was amazing. I definitely wouldn’t be saying no. “There’s always room for Shelby’s.”

Alex chuckled. He knew what Shelby’s was to me. I’d never hidden my infatuation with her food. He sat forward, pushing his laptop to the side. “All right, we may as well jump right in while we wait then.” Grabbing a few sheets of paper off the table, he slid them over the table in front of me. “Brian and Sue’s report. Biggest feedback was sports and music.”

My interest was immediately piqued. “I could definitely throw some ideas in for a music program,” I said, my fingers tapping out a fast beat on my thigh. “We could do a big brother-sister tuition thing—teach the kids an instrument or something. Dean and Jax have their old studio just sitting there now. I could talk to them and work out a way we could use it. That would be fucking perfect.”

Alex smirked, but I could see his brain ticking over. “You might actually be onto something there.”

I nodded, my excitement quickly growing. “I can also put it out there for musos big in the industry to make an appearance every now and again, like a mentor thing—have someone different pop in every month or something. We could even do an old-school battle of the bands.”

“I like it,” Alex said, his head starting to nod as well. “Are you good to talk to Dean and Jax about the studio, or do you want me to?”

“No, I’m good. I’ll sort it out. They’ve been talking about what to do with it, so I think I can get them on board.”

Alex scribbled some notes on a pad in front of him before looking up again. “Okay, what about sports? Something similar would be good. We could start a few different fun games each week—stick to specific days for specific sports, like football on Thursdays, basketball on Tuesdays—that sort of thing.”

The beat on my thigh slowed down as I thought it over. “We’d need volunteers to run them.”

“I’ll get Brian and Sue to visit a few of the sporting clubs, maybe put some ads out, see what we can come up with,” Alex said, resting his chin on his fist. “I’ll be happy to oversee that if you want to take the reins on the music program?”

I had no idea why I was finding this so exciting, but I suddenly felt like a had a purpose or something. It was as though Alex had just lit a match under me and I was now on fire. I was pumped.

A knock on the door dragged me out of the cloud in my head a heartbeat before it opened, revealing a blonde woman carrying a tray of food. “Your Shelby’s order, Mr. Crawford.”

“Thanks, Macy,” Alex said. “Just put it here.”

The woman slid the tray beside Alex and gazed at him hopefully. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Alex waved his hand dismissively. “No, that’s all. Thanks again, Macy.”

I watched her slip from the room and close the door behind her before turning my attention back to Alex. “What was that about?”

A heavy sigh escaped him as he pushed the tray closer to me. “Helen, from my accounting team, is leaving—moving back to Boston to be with family. Macy very much wants her job.”

The mention of accounting immediately grabbed my interest. “And you don’t want to give it to her?”

Alex grabbed a pastry off the tray and studied it. “Oh no, she’s definitely got the job. She’s just laying it on extra thick to make sure.” He took a bite and sighed before swallowing with a moan. “Damn, that’s good.” Looking back at me, he smirked before raising one shoulder. “No, I’m not immune.”

As keen as I was to grab my own pastry, I needed to pry into this sudden accounting predicament. For Piper’s sake. “So, will you be looking to fill Macy’s position?”

“Definitely. I’ve got interviews coming up next month,” he said, barely paying attention to me. “Helen’s not leaving until mid-July, so I’ve got a bit of time up my sleeve.”

I had yet to touch a pastry. My stomach was protesting, but this was more important. “What exactly is Macy’s current role?”

Alex finally stopped his pastry seduction and looked at me, his head cocking to the side a little. “Junior accountant. Why?”

Placing my hands on the table, I carefully watched him. “Piper’s looking for a job.”

Sitting back in his chair, Alex sighed, quietly studying me as he did.

“I’m not asking for any favors here, man,” I said. “I’m just stating a fact. Piper hasn’t been able to find a job yet. She’s literally just got her accounting degree.” I shrugged. “I just thought that if you’re still taking applications, maybe she can apply.”

Alex tapped his fingers on the edge of the table. “Applications are closed, but let me think about it.”

Beaming, I picked up a pastry and took a bite.


Chapter 13



Moving under the florescent lights, I pulled the lip balm out of my bag and smeared it across my lips, quickly smacking them together.

Before finishing up, I took the opportunity to study myself in the large bathroom mirror. Dresses weren’t usually my thing, but this one was my favorite. It was a soft blue color, tightly fitted, and pretty freaking short, but I absolutely rocked it. I’d matched it with my favorite pair of Converse shoes and left my hair down, so I was feeling pretty damned cute.

When Matt had called and asked me to come to the club with him, I almost said no. I wasn’t really into the party scene. Too many things had soured it for me over the years—my parents included. But he’d said it was a celebration of new things to come, and I found myself wanting to please him. I wasn’t sure if that had anything to do with what I’d found out earlier in the week, or if it was the little seed of attraction I’ve always had for him. Either way, I’d agreed, so here I was. Fandom chaos and all.

Don’t get me wrong. I’d anticipated the recognition he’d get, and I’d predicted the fangirls—and boys. But what I hadn’t expected was Rhett McClellan. I mean, I knew Matt had toured with The Dark Hybrid, and I knew the bands had become close, but I didn’t know they’d become so close they visited each other and hung out on a personal level.

Matt and Rhett together was like hot rocker overload. I prided myself on being pretty immune to hot-guy ego, so the fact that I almost melted into a puddle when I came face-to-face with the two of them together had me wondering how all the other girls actually managed to stay on their feet.

Wiping my hands, I pushed through the door and snagged a shooter off the tray of a passing waiter. Tossing it back, I located Matt to one side of the darkened VIP area and made my way toward him, swinging my hips to the music as I moved.

When we’d first arrived and Matt had dragged me up the stairs to the exclusive area, I’d felt nothing but awkward. This was totally not my scene. Being on the upstairs landing was like being on display for everyone below. It was like some kind of social ladder I was definitely not okay with.

But when I saw Rhett and the vast number of people trying to get close to him and Matt, I knew the secure area was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Some of their fans were crazy as fuck.

As usual, Matt was surrounded by both men and women when I approached, but his gaze was only on me. It had been like that all night. Not once had he made me feel like I didn’t belong, and not once did he make me feel as though anyone else was more important.

Rhett, on the other hand, seemed very open to the sexual advances of the few women he’d allowed around him. It made me wonder if that was what Matt was usually like when I wasn’t around. Tonight, though, I didn’t care. I was happy, maybe a little drunk, and most likely fueled by a lot of sexual tension. I didn’t know where that was going to take me, but I was content to go along with it.

Matt grinned at me with his famous crooked smile as I sidled on up to him. “Hey, Pipsqueak. Having fun?”

Taking the drink he’d been minding for me, I took a gulp. “Yep,” I said, making the P really pop at the end.

The corner of his mouth crooked higher. “I’m glad you agreed to come out.”

“Me too,” I said, downing the last of my drink. “Let’s have another shooter.”

Laughter bubbled through his throat, the sound sending warm tingles through my body. He stepped closer to me, practically dismissing the girl to his side. “Whatever you want, Pip. I’m at your mercy.”

“Well, come on then, drummer boy. Let’s see what you’ve got.”

Taking his hand, I pulled him toward the bar. Rhett was already there, leaning one elbow on the bar, legs crossed at the ankles. Girls swarmed around him, but I didn’t care. They were between me and where I wanted to be, so I nudged my way forward, squeezing myself next to Rhett, dragging Matt along with me.

The bartender smiled. “What’ll it be?”

Eyeing the tray of yellowish shooters someone farther down the bar was knocking back, I shrugged. “Give me six of those,” I said, pointing.

Giving me a nod, he set to work. Turning back to Rhett, I smiled, the super dreamy buzz I had going on making me way more sociable than usual. Scanning his face, I pursed my lips. “You’re better-looking in person.”

Rhett’s eyes widened a fraction before he burst out laughing. “Thanks, Pip. I appreciate that.”

I nodded matter-of-factly like I’d just done some amazing deed before turning my attention to Matt. He was smiling down at me like he was amused, but there was also a hint of confusion in his eyes. I shifted on my feet, trying to figure it out, before I realized I’d hooked my fingers into the belt loop of his jeans.

The action seemed to have pulled Matt closer to me, and the sight of him comfortably standing so close was doing something devious to my insides.

Matt leaned closer, his hand sliding over my hip. I looked up at his face, my gaze finding his lips, the soft fullness of them appearing incredibly inviting. His other hand stretched outward, moving past me before I realized he was handing the bartender his card.

I should have been embarrassed, but I wasn’t. I was heavily under the influence of alcohol, and I was ridiculously attracted to him. There was no way I was going to be able to hide the fact. I didn’t take my eyes off him as he took the card back, pocketing it somewhere carefully, and he didn’t move his hand from my hip. Internally, I purred—fucking purred—at the feel of it lingering there.

Matt cocked his head to the side, his lips curled up in a content way, but his eyes were dark, dangerous. “What do you want to do with your shooters, Pipsqueak?”

I released the hold I had of his belt loop, but I not-so-subtlety moved my body closer to his, pushing two of the little glasses in front of Rhett before picking up two more and handing one to Matt. “Bottoms up,” I said, immediately sinking mine down. Then I picked up the last two and did the same.

Matt downed the second one with me, sliding the glass back onto the bar, his hand slowly moving across my hip to that definitively non-friendly place between my lower back and my butt.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Rhett knock his back before loudly clearing his throat. “The fandom’s getting a little hectic in here, bro,” he said, obviously speaking to Matt. “Might be time to disappear, yeah?”

Matt’s gaze never left mine as he slowly nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”

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