It’s been a long time since Walker Ironside left behind Scotland and the memories that haunt him. Yet after years of traveling the world as a bodyguard, Walker misses his homeland enough to return. To a village in the Scottish Highlands that plays host to an exclusive members-only club, Ardnoch Estate. If not happy, Walker is content working with the elite security at the club and maintaining his bachelor lifestyle. What he doesn’t need is distraction in the form of the enticing but too-young newcomer, single mother Sloane Harrow.
Sloane never imagined she’d get pregnant at sixteen. Or that a decade later she’d escape from California with her daughter, Callie, to start over in the Scottish Highlands. Hidden and safe from Callie’s dangerous father, Sloane is satisfied with their new lives. Her daughter is happy. Sloane has a stable job, a quaint cottage, a passion for baking that might just be turning into a business, and a huge crush on brooding security guard Walker Ironside. Unfortunately, the grumpy Scot seems immune to Sloane’s charm, but she can’t help but try to seduce him with cupcakes and baked treats whenever the opportunity arises.
However, when someone arrives in Ardnoch intent on destroying Sloane’s life, Walker is the first to step forward to protect her and Callie. Even if it means giving into temptation and awakening his own demons. Because in doing so, Walker faces failing not only to shield Sloane from her past, but to safeguard her against his own.
Release date: May 2, 2023
Print pages: 388
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Beyond the Thistles
Fourteen months ago
If I told anyone I was sick of palm trees and sunshine, they’d think I wasn’t in my right mind, especially since I was someone people described as having a sunny personality. However, I’d been sick of the monotony of endless summer since I was fourteen. My dad afforded me the sweet taste of travel as a kid, and it had made me long for something different. To be anywhere but in LA.
You know what they say—the grass is always greener. Literally. Grass in my part of town dried up. Not just because of drought, but because no one around here had time or resources for such things as lawn maintenance.
I’d never wanted to be anywhere else more than I did as I stopped outside my apartment door and saw the eviction notice posted to it.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I whispered hoarsely, pinching my nose to stop the sting of tears.
An overwhelming powerlessness threatened to seize hold of me. I fought through the panic tightening my chest, thinking of the little girl on the other side of the door. Had she seen this? Or had Juanita shielded Callie from the truth? Dread settled in my gut. My Callie might appear shy and quiet, but she was sharp as a tack and missed nothing. It made trying to shield her from the crappiness of our circumstances extremely difficult. But I was determined.
Bracing myself, my stomach roiled as I snatched the eviction notice off the door.
Today I was fired from the receptionist job I’d lied my way into. A colleague who’d had it in for me from the beginning looked into my claim that I’d worked as a receptionist for another casting agency. She knew someone at said agency, and they told her they had no record of me ever working there.
So, I got fired, even though I was more than competent at my job. Yeah, I knew the lie was wrong, but when you’re a single mom, you’ll do just about anything to make enough money to put a roof over your child’s head. The irony of being fired from a casting agency for lying on my résumé was not lost on me. The agency lied on people’s résumés all the time.
I’d spent the rest of the afternoon using most of the gas in a tank I couldn’t afford to refill, following up on ads I found on my phone for positions. Out of ten, one—for a receptionist at a beauty salon—offered me an interview. I took it, even though they paid way less than what I’d been earning, and I was already behind on my rent.
Exhibit A: Eviction notice.
Even renting in Crenshaw, in one of the cheapest studio apartments I could find, where my kid didn’t even have her own bedroom, I was behind on my rent.
Because my useless, scumbag ex forgot we existed half the time.
In a perfect world, he would forget we existed, period. His reputation preceded him, and the man I’d stupidly had sex with at sixteen and gotten pregnant by had become someone so dangerous, I barely recognized him.
I’d never regret my Callie.
I only wished her father was someone different.
Someone I didn’t have to track down and beg for money, even though knowing where that money came from made me nauseous. But for Callie, I’d not only throw pride out the window, I’d throw my morals out too. I’d do anything for her.
So I called Stacie.
It was a short, snippy call. Afterward, I took a deep breath, opened the apartment door, and walked into the studio. During daylight hours, it was light and bright and airy. Even with our twin beds crowding half the space, we tried to keep it as nice as possible.
I buried my worries and grinned at my kid like I had none.
“Mom!” Callie dropped her book and launched herself off her bed, hurrying across the apartment to throw her arms around me.
Love and determination filled me as my daughter rested her head against my chest and I wrapped my arms around her. Bending, I pressed a kiss to the top of her blond head. When she was a baby, I’d felt overwhelming love for her, but I’d felt overwhelming terror too. I was only a kid myself. What did I know about raising a daughter? The love had grown to impossible depths over the years, and the terror became manageable, sharpening in moments like this.
Callie pulled away to stare up at me with the only beautiful thing her father gave her—big, gorgeous blue eyes.
I smoothed her hair off her face. “How was your day, baby girl?”
“I won the class spelling bee. Ms. Francis thinks I should join the school team.”
My smart girl who, somehow, would be in the fifth grade next semester. I didn’t know where the time had gone. “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you.” I took her arms and danced with her on the spot, making her giggle. “Does that mean I get to come see you in competition?”
Juanita’s voice drew my gaze. The best thing about this apartment building was that it came with Juanita. She’d seen us moving in on the first day and we got to talking. When I mentioned I was concerned about Callie taking the bus home from school and staying in the apartment until I got home, Juanita had offered her babysitting services. Her husband, Eli, worked nights and their kids were grown, so she said she had time. Though she charged less than other babysitters, I still couldn’t afford her. But Callie’s safety was all that mattered to me. Hence why I was behind on rent.
We shared a look, and she gave me a small shake of her head.
Relief filled me. Somehow, she’d kept the eviction notice from Callie.
“I know you’ve stayed longer than usual tonight, but could you give me another hour?”
“Where are you going?” Callie scowled up at me.
My smile was reassuring. “I promised a friend I would help them with something tonight. But I’ll be back soon.” I looked at Juanita.
She frowned and jerked her chin toward the door. “A word outside, mija.”
Despite my tension, I offered Callie another kiss on the head and told her to return to her book. My daughter stared suspiciously up at me but did as I bid, and I thanked God for giving me a child as easy as Callie. She’d been the quietest, most chilled-out baby, and she was the sweetest kid. I often wondered if that meant she’d be a hellion as a teenager because no one could be that lucky with their child.
However, that was a worry for the future. I had enough to be concerned about in the present and was grateful Callie’s behavior wasn’t one of them.
As soon as we stepped outside, Juanita turned on me. “Everyone who has passed your door will have seen that eviction notice. You can’t hide that from Callie for long.”
“I know, and I don’t intend to. I’m going to get the money.”
She narrowed her eyes. “How?”
“I need you to watch Callie so I can pay her father a visit.”
Alarm filled Juanita’s eyes. She knew who he was because I’d told her. But she also knew who he was because he was now a high-ranking soldier in a gang that primarily traded in drugs and chopped cars. “You are not going after him at night.”
“I called Stacie. She told me where to find him.” Reluctantly. We’d been friends when I was still with my ex. But when I left him and tried to start fresh for Callie, Stacie called me out for thinking I was better than her, than them. For wanting to get away from that life. That I’d never really stopped being that spoiled rich girl from Beverly Hills.
“Where is he?”
“He’s at some house party in West Adams. She texted me the address.”
“You are not going alone at night to a house where that man and his thugs are. No way.”
Though I appreciated Juanita’s concern for my safety more than I could say, I couldn’t back down. “I need to find him. And while I hate that I need to, the one upside to being his kid’s mother is that he won’t let anyone hurt me.”
“No, he likes to leave that job to himself.”
I flinched and looked away.
“I’m sorry, mija. I just worry. Wait for Eli to get off work. He’ll go with you.”
“I’m not dragging Eli into this. Please.” I clasped her hands in mine. “I don’t have time to argue. I need to find him, get the money, and get home to my baby girl. Will you please stay with her until I get back?”
Sensing my stubborn determination, Juanita reluctantly agreed.
A few minutes later, I was in my car, hands trembling as I clipped in my seat belt. Using the map on my phone, I slowly made my way toward the house in West Adams.
There were people sitting on hoods of cars parked curbside, others drinking in the yard, and music boomed so loud from inside that I’d heard it as soon as I turned onto the street.
I wouldn’t give up Callie for anything in the world. She was my world. Every action I made was in service to loving her. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t angry at my past self. Furious with that hurting sixteen-year-old who wanted to punish my father for ignoring me and marrying a woman half his age who hated me and made me feel like a stranger in my own home.
I’d started partying at fifteen.
I met my ex at sixteen at a club where I’d used a fake ID to get in. He was eighteen, charming, from the wrong side of the tracks. All that cliché stuff that appealed to me because I knew my father, lawyer to the stars, would hate him the most.
I didn’t intend to get pregnant.
Or get kicked out of my own home for refusing to give up my child for adoption.
Or end up with an abusive criminal.
That’s why I left my ex. Though in his mind, I was still his.
One day, I’d save enough to get Callie and me as far away from him as possible.
Sucking up my courage, I got out and rounded the hood, ignoring the catcalls from a couple of guys leaning against their car.
I stepped into the yard, and a tall guy with a gun tucked into the waistband of his pants blocked my way.
“Who the fuck are you?” he shouted to be heard over the music.
“Relax, Kai!” My ex’s friend, Brix, clamped a hand on my interrogator’s shoulder. “She belongs to Andros.”
Nathan Andros. My ex. His family owned a Greek restaurant in Culver City. They’d disowned him a long time ago. Just like mine disowned me. But that didn’t make me his.
I belonged to no one but Callie.
Yet, I curbed my tongue, because despite the way it made my throat close with impotent anger, that imagined ownership was the only thing keeping me safe.
Brix gestured with a bottle of beer and yelled, “He know you’re coming?”
I shook my head. “It’s an emergency.”
“The kid okay?” he asked, as if he might even care a little.
“She won’t be. That’s why I need to see Nathan!”
“Shit, man, even I think the music is too fucking loud!” Kai turned on his heel and hurried into the house.
“This way!” Brix jerked his head toward the small porch.
It was like most homes in the neighborhood. Single story in the Spanish style. Bars guarded the windows and the front door.
As we entered the crowded house, the volume of the music lowered. It was still loud, but I couldn’t feel it reverberating through my chest like before. It was stifling hot with all the bodies inside. Alert, wary, I glanced around as Brix led me through the sitting room and into the kitchen. I didn’t see Stacie or anyone else I recognized from my old life. Brix turned left down a hall off the kitchen, leading to what I guessed were the bedrooms.
“He’s down here?” I asked, attempting to sound cool.
“He’s in a meeting,” Brix called over his shoulder. Then he stopped at the third door and knocked. “Andros, it’s Brix!”
“Sloane’s here! She said it’s an emergency!”
There was silence, then, “Let her in.”
Taking a deep breath, I prepared to face my ex.
Brix opened the door and gestured me in, and as soon as I stepped inside, the door closed behind me.
We were in the main bedroom, but it was small. Two guys sat in armchairs near French doors that led into the backyard. Behind them, the yard was dark and empty, like the guests had been told it was off-limits. My ex stood near them. And on the bed, looking a little worse for wear, was a gorgeous brunette.
A way-too-young gorgeous brunette.
Nathan gave me a hard look. “What couldn’t wait?”
I glanced at the two men, then back at him. “Can we talk in private?”
“It can’t wait?” he pressed. “I’m in the middle of something here.”
“I only need five minutes.”
One guy gently tapped the other. “Let’s give them a minute.”
“What about her?” The other stared at the brunette like she was a piece of meat.
The girl tensed but said nothing.
“We’ll talk,” Nathan answered. “I’ll be right out.”
The two men were tall. They had a few inches on Nathan and plenty of muscle. The one who had excused them eyed me with a flirtatious smirk as he approached. “Hey.” He jerked his chin as he leaned past me to open the door.
Stepping aside to let them out, I gave him a practiced friendly but platonic smile as I said hey back.
Once the door closed behind them, Nathan crossed the room to me. I tensed as he reached past me to lock the bedroom door.
Then he put his hands on my hips and yanked me into him. “My girl’s looking tired. You should let me take care of you.”
When I’d first met him in that club, I’d thought him the sexiest guy I’d ever met. His father was Greek, but his mother was Danish-American. That heritage had resulted in beauty for Nathan. Olive skin, dark hair, and striking light blue eyes.
He was all charm and humor, and he’d wrapped me up in affection and attention that I’d been missing at that point in my life.
I was too naive to realize that he got off on taking a good girl and dirtying her up. That I was some kind of prize to him. Something he owned, not someone he loved. Two years after Callie was born, I’d gotten the courage to leave him. He’d haunted my doorstep for a year after that, trying to cajole and threaten me. Thankfully, he’d grown bored. Now he appeared every few months to drop off cash and remind me who owned me. He’d even beaten up a guy I’d dared to date when Callie was five. I hadn’t dated since.
Nathan thought that somehow meant I agreed he owned me.
I was just biding my time until I had enough money to get Callie and me out of his orbit.
Now looking up at him, I saw the malice behind his beauty. Trying not to let it show in my expression, I stayed still in his hold and said, “I lost my job, and they’re evicting me. I need money to get up to date on my rent and to tide us over until I get a new job.”
His fingers bit into my hips as his gaze hardened. “Well, you know the answer to that. You get your ass back in my bed, and you won’t need to worry about that shit.”
“Hey!” The brunette I’d almost forgotten was there jumped off the bed and shoved Nathan away from me. “I’m right fucking here, and you’re trying to get with another girl!”
I was surprised she sounded so lucid, considering she looked like she’d been partying for days.
Nathan’s face hardened. “Bitch, shove me again and you’ll regret it.”
Her expression turned mulish. “No one treats me like shit. And that includes offering me up to one of those miscreants who was just in here.”
My eyes narrowed on her. Why was she so familiar?
“Princess, you’re in my world now. You do whatever I fucking tell you to do … and right now, I’m telling you to SHUT THE FUCK UP!”
I flinched at his roar while the brunette barely moved. After a second, she spit right in Nathan’s face.
My heart plummeted.
The crack of his hand across her face cut me off, and the girl fell back on the bed. Suddenly, Nathan was on her, straddling her, trapping her legs.
I got a flashback.
The first time I tried to leave.
Callie, a toddler, screaming in the living room from her playpen. Nathan holding me down on the bed, unzipping his pants. To prove who owned me.
His friends had thankfully interrupted us, bursting into the apartment before he could take what he wanted. I’d left him that evening while he was out.
Pulled from the memory and back into the room, I watched in horror as he held the girl down with one hand and reached for the zipper on his pants.
He snapped his head toward me. “Want to see what you’re missing?”
“Get off me!” the girl shrieked.
His shirt rode up as he hit her again, and I spotted the gun tucked into his waistband. Moron kept his loaded gun down his pants.
Fear thrummed through me as I zeroed in on it.
I couldn’t let him …
I took a step toward the bed, but my heart sank as Nathan yanked the gun out and pressed the muzzle to the brunette’s forehead.
She stopped struggling, but glared defiantly up at him.
“That’s a good girl.”
Revulsion slithered through me.
That’s what he used to say every time I capitulated to him. He’d never gotten the chance to rape me, but he had raised his fists to me and I’d pretended so many times to forgive him. To go along with whatever he wanted for a quiet life. Until that day he’d tried to take what I didn’t want to give. That was the final straw.
“Wait for me out in the hall.” Nathan shot me a look. “We’ll talk when I’m done here.”
My eyes flew to the girl. She stared at me.
“I’m not leaving. I need to get back to Callie. Let the girl go.”
He sneered. “If you don’t leave, we’re gonna do this, anyway.”
“It doesn’t look like she wants to, Nathan, so let her go.”
“Do you want to?” He pressed the gun harder against her head.
And even then, she hissed, “No.”
I lunged at him. It distracted him long enough for her to bite the hand holding his gun so hard, Nathan cried out.
The rest of the scuffle was a blur. Nathan punched me in the head and stomach. But I thought between me and the brunette, we’d have the upper hand.
I don’t know who had the gun, but when it went off, pain ricocheted through my upper arm, and I screamed.
“Shit!” Nathan bellowed.
The door to the bedroom rattled, but it was locked. “Andros!”
“Fuck, I’m okay!” he yelled back, and I blinked through my red haze of pain to see the girl was on her ass against the bed, staring at me tear-streaked and wide-eyed. Nathan wrenched the gun out of her hand.
Concern wrinkled his brow as he dropped to his knees beside me. I noted he laid the gun down even as I clasped my bleeding arm with my free hand and strained away from him.
“Shit, Sloane,” he hissed, reaching for my wound. “Why the fuck did you do that?”
“She … she needs an ambulance,” the brunette whimpered.
“No fucking ambulance.” He glared at her. “I’ll take care of her. You know why? Because I actually give a shit about her. This is my kid’s mom you just fucking shot!” He stood up, stupidly forgetting about his gun. And he began punching her.
Over and over.
Like he wouldn’t stop until it was too late.
I pushed through the agony blazing through my arm, grabbed the gun, and aimed it at him.
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