That's what Mason Harding thought until the boss accepted his resignation. After the State releases him on parole, a sexy divorcée behind the wheel of a car almost ends his life quicker than a shank. His chance encounter with Mia Eddison results in a night of passion, but her brother—his parole officer—catches them together and doesn't approve.
Mia falls hard for the cocky ex-con, but not because of his chiseled body. She vows to break through his walls and discover his secrets, but never expects those secrets to threaten her life.
When members of an organized crime ring kidnap Mia to force Mason's return to the gang, he goes up against an old friend to save the woman he loves. Will his sacrifice be enough or will everything fall apart in a blaze of gunfire?
Release date: April 30, 2018
Publisher: The Wild Rose Press, Inc
Print pages: 306
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“Oh, God. Are you okay? I swear I didn’t see you.” Mia Eddison hurried from her car to the stranger on the sidewalk. She’d almost hit him as she turned the corner on the busy inner-city street.
The man swiped his hands over his dark, spiky hair and smudged oil on his forehead.
Even in the midst of her horrible day, which now featured a near accident, the gorgeous man with his oil-stained clothes and skin nearly made her drool like a starstruck fool.
“Are you hurt? Do you need an ambulance?” Her throat constricted as she realized how screwed she really was, and not in the way she wanted. “Damn, I could’ve killed you. Are you gonna sue me? I’ll have to close my business. My brother will freak out.”
“Calm down.” The stranger’s gruff voice tightened her stomach into a bundle of knots. He wiped his hands on his knee-length, cut-off jeans as though he’d just noticed the oil, but he seemed determined to avoid her gaze. “I’m fine, just a little shaken. You didn’t hit me.”
“Are you sure? I forgot to use the turn signal. I think the speedometer read five miles or so an hour as I gunned the engine. I’m so sorry. I don’t mean to make excuses, but I’m late for work and the idiot truck driver behind me kept blowing his horn until I was ready to scream or throw something at him. Let’s go to the emergency room and get you checked out.” She would do anything to avoid a lawsuit. “My insurance should cover it. I just don’t want to go to court.” Mia glanced at the pedestrians on the one-way street, but no one appeared to pay her and the stranger any attention.
“I’m fine, really. Don’t need a hospital. I won’t sue you.” He glanced at his wristwatch and stepped back. “I gotta go.”
Mia frowned, grabbed his arm, and pulled him to a stop. His skin flared hot under her palm and his muscles twitched. Her chest shuddered as strength emanated from him like a cloak. A tribal-design tattoo circled his right wrist, partially hidden beneath his watch, and a second tattoo peeked out beneath his shirtsleeve, but she couldn’t make out the design.
His eyebrow arched as he finally looked at her.
“I’m sorry, but you can’t just leave like nothing happened. You could be dead. I nearly flattened you like a pancake.” Heat crept up her neck and she dropped her hand. She should feel lucky he wanted to walk away—he could change his mind and claim injury, the longer they talked—and her panic ricocheted up another notch. “Why are you smiling? How are you so freakin’ calm? I’m panicking here.”
He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal, sugar. My leg might’ve snapped if you’d hit me, but I wouldn’t have met my maker.”
His nonchalant words floored her. A chill filled her veins and surely blanched her skin. Her stomach cramped tighter.
He grimaced and struck his forehead with his open palm. “Fuck, I shouldn’t have said that. I saw you just in time to throw my hands out. Everything’s fine.”
Air burned through her lungs as the world spun. The ground shifted and her knees weakened. The stranger caught her by the waist before she fell, strong and sturdy like a tree in the whirlwind of her bad memories. She leaned on him as he guided her toward a nearby bench. Several puppies yapped at them from a pet shop window. Mia bent and ducked her head between her knees to catch her breath.
He sat beside her. “You’ve been in a car accident before, haven’t you?”
She forced air into her lungs and breathed through the pain that rushed through her like a tidal wave. Swallowing hard, she straightened and clenched her hands together in her lap. “Yeah, a few years ago. A truck hit my mom’s minivan. My parents and the drunk driver of the truck died. Paramedics rushed my brother and me to the hospital. He’s all I have left.”
“That’s terrible.” He grasped her shaky hands. “But I’m fine. So are you.”
Not sure why she’d shared her sob story, Mia stared up at the sun to fight back her tears. The warm May breeze lifted locks of brown hair from her nape. She tugged her hands free from the stranger and tightened her fallen ponytail. A side glance showed her his green eyes were at half-mast, his lips curved on one side of his chiseled face. Heat filled her cheeks. The hottie could easily grace the cover of one of those hunk-filled nudie magazines she and her friends would sometimes giggle over, but she didn’t gawk or flirt with him as a normal woman would. Instead, she almost sent him to a hospital.
And I freaked out on him. Mia wanted to hide her face in a paper bag. I’m so lame.
Embarrassment squeezed her throat like a vise, but she pushed through it to find her voice. “I’m sorry about all this. I’m usually a good driver, and I’ve never had a panic attack until today. Thanks for calming me down. You aren’t hurt and I’ve acted like a fool.” With every ounce of strength she could muster, she slapped her hands on her knees and stood, and pushed all thoughts of her parents to the farthest corners of her mind.
He stood as well.
“You have someplace to be, right? I’ll drive you and I’ll be very safe. It’s the least I can do.”
“Nah, it’s okay. I have to meet someone at the little diner on the next block, so I can just walk. I’ll definitely watch out for traffic better the next time I cross a street.”
“And I’ll remember the turn signal.” She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears and offered him her hand. “I’m Mia Eddison.”
“Mason Harding. Good to meet ya.” He shook her hand and crowded closer to her. Two women nearly knocked him aside with their shopping bags as they walked by. He scowled at them and cast his gaze back toward Mia. “I moved back to the Denver area not long ago and people aren’t as friendly as I remember.”
“Yeah, not everyone has manners.”
The women paused at the crosswalk and didn’t seem to hear Mia and Mason’s conversation.
Though her stomach still churned in hunger and nerves, her libido flipped back on like a light switch. She stood at five-feet-eight, and he was probably a little more than four inches taller. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to snuggle in his arms.
Be cool, Mia. Act confident. If you screw this up, you can’t smash a rewind button and start over, you know. Not a fine pep talk, but it would have to do. She twirled a lock of hair between her fingers. “How long have you been in town, Mason?” Damn, his name sounded sexy on her tongue.
“Six months now. I’m originally from Aurora. I left about ten years ago but couldn’t return until recently.” Mason glanced at his watch again before he let his gaze travel down her body at a slow pace. “Are you busy Saturday? We could go for dinner.”
Heat bloomed under her skin. She was grateful she wore a low-cut blouse, slinky black slacks, and peek-a-boo heels for a confidence booster, although she’d pulled her frizzy hair back in an unattractive ponytail that morning since her hairdryer had short-circuited. “I’m free.” She dug through her purse, pulled a business card from her wallet, and handed it to him. “Call me and we’ll set up plans.”
His eyes widened as he read the card. “You own a store? That’s awesome.”
“Yep, Shadow Rose Boutique. Everything I sell is new or gently-used. I’m obsessed with books, clothes, and trinkets, so that makes up most of my merchandise. The store is in a renovated building downtown.”
“Cool, I’ll call you tonight.”
“Tonight sounds great.” A flirtatious grin spread across her face as Mason winked and turned away. The swagger in his step could knock a woman flat. Her gaze slid up from his ass to the tattoo on the back of his neck. Two black snakes crisscrossed each other like an X, their scales seeming to shimmer in the sunlight, and a woven black band encircled the wiggling serpents. He walked across the street and down the block as Mia gaped after him like an idiot, but she didn’t feel like an idiot.
Nope, she’d just landed a date with a gorgeous mechanic. With a confident skip in her own step, she hurried back to her car and headed to work.
“You’re four minutes late, Harding.” Parole Officer Jeremiah “Jim” Borden leaned back in a plastic-vinyl booth and drank a cup of steaming coffee. “What happened?”
Mason sat across from him and glanced out the window in the direction where he’d left Mia. “A car nearly hit me on my way here. The driver hyperventilated and I talked with her until she calmed down. I came straight here afterward.”
Borden tapped his fingers on the thick manila folder that rested on the table between them. “I’ve heard a lot of bullshit excuses over the years, including a few like that one, but I won’t document your late arrival since you’ve never been late before.”
“I want this to work out. You seem like a decent guy. I want you to think the same of me. I’m not lying about the woman.” He could prove it by relinquishing Mia’s business card, but the uptight officer would probably call her and verify, and ruin Mason’s chances with her.
Their usual waitress arrived before Borden could respond. Mason ordered coffee, a cheeseburger with everything on it, and French fries—the same thing he always ordered during their mandatory monthly meetings—and Calista jotted everything down.
Borden’s gaze locked onto her swaying ass as she walked away.
Mason rolled his eyes. The beautiful blonde waitress didn’t compare to Mia Eddison. The classy brunette fox deserved something better than slumming with an ex-con, and he had no idea why he asked her out other than the massive hard-on that strained his ragged-ass jeans.
Borden downed the rest of his coffee. “I meet most of my parolees at my office. I come to them if I think they’re likely candidates for rehabilitation and if they’re unable to make it to their meetings by the allotted timeframe. Like this with you.” He held out his arms to encompass Demi’s Diner. “If you’re late again, we’ll convene at my office across town from then on. You’ll have one hell of a time getting there and back to work before your lunch break ends.”
Mason bit his tongue. He could meet his babysitter at the office if the State had assigned him to a parole office closer to home.
“I deal with maybe a dozen or so decent parolees at any given time.” The PO continued his lecture. “Most of them play by the rules for a few months until they sink back into their old lives.”
“I don’t wanna screw up, but you never know. I hate to say never. It always seems to bite me in the ass when I do.”
Borden flipped open the manila folder, shuffled through several papers, and pulled out an evaluation form. He wrote the date on the document. “How are you, Mason? Any contact from old friends back home?”
Mason scratched at the old bullet wound on his right shoulder. “Not yet, but it’s bound to happen since Aurora borders Denver. As you know, Alan said a few of the guys I used to hang out with have cleaned up and moved on with their lives. Not all of them, of course. Even though I don’t plan to visit or travel through Aurora, they could come to Denver.” He worried about that every day. As far as he was concerned, his old life died when the judge at his hearing had sentenced him to fifteen years behind bars. “I want nothing to do with those people, even the ones who cleaned up. I don’t want the memories. Besides, I work and live in clean areas. My old friends preferred slums and drug-infested strip clubs. I should be fine as long as I stay away from those places.”
“How are your brother and his son? Are there any problems with that adjustment?”
“I feel comfortable living with them. I think they feel the same about me.” Mason thanked Calista as she delivered his coffee.
She refilled Borden’s cup, and the officer’s attention shifted again as she walked away.
“Anyway”—Mason cleared his throat—“Alan gives me enough space but demands I adhere to the rules. He’s taking the role of big brother seriously and my nephew is adorable. I don’t want to set a bad example for Danny.”
“How’s your job at Ben’s Auto Repair? You started”—the other man checked the file—“five months ago. Do you have any new altercations to report?”
“It’s good and no altercations. I doubt I’d be employed anywhere if Alan hadn’t secured the job for me.” Legitimate employers in a struggling economy didn’t usually opt for ex-cons. “The man who hit me a few weeks ago has left me alone since the boss threatened to fire him.” Mason had backed down from the fight in order to not violate his parole, but that prick deserved a major kick in the ass.
“What was that argument about?” Borden searched through his files and found the right document. “Let’s see… Right, I remember. You flirted with a coworker’s girlfriend.”
The muscle in Mason’s right cheek lifted in an annoying tic. He rubbed his scruffy jaw to suppress it. “Yeah, but I didn’t know that until he shoved me against her car and punched me. I didn’t hit him back.” He paused as the waitress arrived with their food.
The parole officer added a few notes in the current evaluation. “I see the anger management sessions have helped. A string of curse words usually follows the spasm in your face when I say something you don’t like. Tell me about the meetings.”
The tic beat again. Mason bit his tongue to silence his telltale cursing. “I haven’t missed any weekly meetings. You’d know if I did.” He popped a fry in his mouth and savored the greasy food he missed most while locked up. “I think half of what the therapist says is bull, but the other half makes sense. I have to control my temper. It’s the main reason for my stupid mistakes.”
“Why haven’t you secured a means of transportation?”
“Alan demands I pay half the bills—rent, utilities, and groceries—since I live in his apartment. I wanna buy a car outright but haven’t saved up enough money yet. I don’t want to lease a vehicle because of the monthly bill.”
“Are bills stressful for you?”
He rolled his eyes and swallowed a large bite of his cheeseburger. “You sound like the snobby therapist at my meetings. The prick charges me a hundred bucks an hour and tells me not to worry about money.” He wiped a dab of ketchup from his mouth and licked his finger.
Borden dropped his pen and cut his chicken-fried-steak into several small pieces. “Stress is a trigger for anger.” He chewed and swallowed a piece of gravy-coated steak. “And anger, as you just admitted, is the reason behind your mistakes. You may do something stupid to acquire more cash if you’re stressed over money and bills.”
“I’m not that stressed. I pay my bills every month and on time. My brother works a full-time job, as do I, but I have little money left over for niceties besides the money I’m saving for a car.” He silently cursed. He would have to dip into those savings for his Saturday night date. A sophisticated woman like Mia probably wouldn’t appreciate fast food for dinner. “Alan has extra money at the end of the month, but I refuse to ask him for a loan.”
The officer scribbled on the document. “Any drug use?”
“No. Drugs were never my thing.” He’d tried marijuana as a teenager, but it sickened him to the point of throwing up. He still couldn’t believe the state of Colorado had finally legalized it. “I preferred alcohol back then, especially whiskey, and I assume I still would if I drank. That’s a big no-no for my parole, though, so I haven’t touched a drop of alcohol.”
“Why not continue school? You could apply to one of the community colleges in the area. It would probably be easier to wait until fall, but you might make the deadline for the summer semester if you hurry. Did you look at those pamphlets I gave you?”
Mason pursed his lips. Am I even college material? He’d dropped out of high school at age sixteen but earned his GED in prison. “Benji, my boss from the garage, told me I needed an automotive certificate to qualify for a raise.”
“That sounds doable. What’s stopping you?”
“I’m on parole, Borden. That’s a problem. I’d like to enroll and not just for a certificate or a damn raise.” Mason wanted to prove he could do the academic work. He made damn near perfect grades in school before a few bad choices derailed his future. “Anyone can go to college, even people with records, but it wouldn’t be easy. The admissions board would file a background check and call me in for a meeting, according to the pamphlets. I understand why, of course, but…” He couldn’t finish the sentence as his cheeks heated.
“You’re right, but wouldn’t all that shit be worth it?”
Mason shrugged and stared out the window. “Don’t know.”
“All right. Are there any new relationships I should know about? Have you made friends at work yet?”
“Only Benji, but he’s Alan’s former brother-in-law, and I think Ben feels like he has to be nice to me. Most of the men there are okay to hang out with on the clock, but I wouldn’t call any of them bosom buddies. Two of them are ex-cons, but their parole ended years ago. They don’t offer support or anything, if that’s what you mean.”
“I know you associate with Benjamin Starwell outside of work, but what about anyone else?”
He fisted his hands under the table. “No. I just said I’m not friends with any of them.”
Borden filled out the evaluation form while he ate. “What about other relationships? You have a girlfriend?”
“Nope.” He unclenched one of his hands and smoothed his palm over Mia’s business card in his jeans pocket.
“Have you visited any bars or clubs in the past month? Did you drink?” Borden tapped his pen against the table as Mason scowled. “Don’t lie to me, Harding. Ten years in prison without female companionship or a damn drink of liquor would drive any man a little crazy. It’s hard to believe you never indulged, especially since your crew smuggled alcohol in the prison. Anyway, it’s time to enjoy a few vices since you’re on parole. Am I right?”
“Dead wrong. I ended up behind bars because I lost control when I drank, so I quit. The wild, obnoxious person I turned into almost ruined my life. My prison shrink called me a problem drinker, not an alcoholic, and it’s my choice to stay sober.” But he sometimes had to remind himself of that. His mouth had often watered when inmates passed around a bottle and the heady scent filled his nostrils. Mason told himself a single sip wouldn’t hurt, but could he stop afterward? Hell if he knew, so he always kept his paws off an open bottle. “You’re right about the contraband and it’s fully documented. I knew people who smuggled it in, but I never bought or sold it.”
Mason straightened his back and met the officer square in the eyes. “I don’t go to bars. I don’t drink. I’ve admitted to flings before, even though my sex life isn’t your business.” The terms of his parole forbade him from entering establishments that distributed and sold alcohol as its primary focus, but he’d met several women over the past six months at various venues and stores across the city. After ten lonely years, he had a lot of time to make up. “I never committed a sexual offense, so your questions and insinuations are invalid.”
“It is my business. You know that. Sex relieves stress and anger—that’s common sense—and your temper is your biggest problem. I need to know all the ways you relieve that temper. So, no, the questions aren’t invalid.” Borden’s eyes narrowed as Mason cursed under his breath. “Any flings this past month?”
“Have you paid for a woman’s services?”
He hated the same old questions. With added sarcasm, Mason gave the same old answer. “My tats and scars draw the ladies like bees to honey. I’m too damn hot to pay for sex.” He’d built his body to perfection in the prison yard and gym, and continued to work out in the morning before he headed to work and again before bed. “Most women find bad boys irresistible. My charisma, chivalry, and advanced vocabulary smooths out the rough edges, so I have no shortage of available tail.”
Mason flashed his sexiest smile as the waitress refilled their drinks, and he accepted his check from her as she tried to lay it on the table. He grazed her hand with the rough pads of his fingertips, his gaze flicking from her chest to her face.
A surprised but flirty grin lifted her lips. Calista sashayed away and her hips drew the attention of more than one male customer in the diner.
He turned back to Borden. “As you can tell, I don’t need to pay for women.”
Borden clutched his pen so hard his knuckles whitened. He slammed it down and shuffled through the documents inside the folder again.
Mason knew he shouldn’t bait the asshole but couldn’t help himself. “What a surprise. I’m not the only one with an anger problem. Would you like the number to my state-ordered therapist? I’m sure he can pencil you in on Friday after me.”
Borden’s forehead scrunched together in deep lines. “Shut the hell up and eat, Harding.” He found a certain document, slammed it on top of the evaluation, and shoved a heaping pile of mashed potatoes into his mouth. He swallowed with barely a chew. “Be warned. I might stop by your apartment or work in a few weeks at any hour of the day or night. Your ass is mine for five long years. I’m the pit bull and you’re the poodle. So play nice.”
Mason bit back another sarcastic retort and gulped a long draft of his coffee as Borden tapped his fingers on the new sheet of paper, probably an at-home evaluation. Alan wanted Danny away at school, with a sitter, or at Benji’s place while Borden inspected the apartment for violations. Mason couldn’t predict or stop unannounced visits, however, but he didn’t mind if the vengeful bastard visited the garage. His coworkers’ opinion meant shit to him.
He refused to apologize. Parole Officer Jim Borden had just proven himself a first-rate dick, and Mason should’ve known better than to consider him a decent person. Authority figures only cared about two things: following the rules and screwing over anyone who didn’t fall in line.
Mason picked up his burger and savored every ounce of cheese and beef. After so long without prime American fare, he doubted anything could ruin his appetite for a delicious burger and fries, not even the company of his angry PO.
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