From NYT and USA Today bestselling author A.L. Jackson comes an enemies-to-lovers, close-proximity, second-chance romance…
Logan Lawson won me in a bet.
The second I saw him sitting at the illegal card table, I knew I was in trouble.
Years ago, he sealed my fate and condemned me to a life I didn’t want to lead.
Yet he’s filled with untamed fury and thirsting for vengeance against the husband I hate.
Aster Costa is everything I never should have wanted.
The second she showed with her pompous, prick of a husband, I should have gotten up and walked.
But there’s no looking away from the woman who wrecked me.
Worse, I can’t stop myself from plotting to get her back.
I want nothing more than to be free of my husband.
I’m afraid Logan Lawson is the only one who can make that happen.
He might hate me for our past, but now it’s me on my knees begging for help.
Finding each other in the middle of it wasn’t supposed to be part of the bargain.
But once Logan touches me, I’m gone.
A torch is rekindled. A fire is lit.
Aster Costa has always been mine.
And this time, no matter the cost, I won’t give her back…
Release date: August 29, 2022
Publisher: A.L. Jackson Books Inc.
Print pages: 508
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Never Look Back
It was just after ten when I pulled into the circular drive of the mansion hidden deep in the forest outside Redemption Hills. Night stretched long and dense across the heavens. It didn’t matter. The sun could sit square in the sky, and you would still be able to feel the darkness radiating from within.
A shroud of debauchery.
An oozing of sin.
You didn’t get this rich playing by the rules.
That was a rule I’d learned at just nineteen.
The moment I came to a stop, the valet opened the door to my Maserati.
“Sir,” he said as he stepped back for me to stand. “Welcome.”
“It is a beautiful evening, isn’t it?” I responded with too bright a smile as I rose from the driver’s seat. I inhaled the cold, mountain air and casually readjusted my suit jacket as a bolt of anticipation jumped into my veins. It curled beneath the surface of my skin like a demon that had finally found a place to sink its talons, and a thirst that felt like an old, familiar friend lit in the well of my chest.
Nine cars were parked facing out along the long, curved drive that looped around the front of the house.
Dealt like a hand of dirty cards.
An Aston Martin.
A G-Wagon, among others.
I was certain I’d be the proud owner of at least one of them tonight.
The valet slipped into the seat of my car so he could park it next to the rest.
Ante up, baby.
I strode toward the expanse of concrete steps that led to the double doors. When I hit the top landing, one side opened, and I was escorted into Haille Manchief’s home by a guard named Oz who was dressed in a designer suit. His holster peeked out from under his jacket and a massive scar ran the length of his face.
“Oz. It’s a pleasure to see you again. Tell me you brought backup.” I grinned.
Let’s just say the last time I’d visited, there had been a small disagreement when another player had felt played.
He roughed a chuckle. “Tell me I’m not going to need any.”
I patted his shoulder. “Now what would be the fun in that?”
“You are dangerous, you know?” He smiled when he asked it. “You’re lucky the boss likes you.”
I ran a hand over my trimmed beard. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Everyone likes me. I mean, come on, man, have you seen me?”
He laughed, his accent thick as he eyed me from the side and said, “I know firsthand that is not true.”
“Jealousy. Admiration. Like. They’re all very closely related. Some people just have a hard time managing the proper way to show them.”
Amusement gleamed in his blue eyes. “Like I said, dangerous.”
He led me deeper into the bowels of the home decorated in dark woods, plush, oversized rugs, and exposed, raw stone. A giant fireplace roared from beneath a two-story mantle in the main room, accenting the carved staircase that led to the floors above.
Haille Manchief was a rich motherfucker. Bred of old money and wicked schemes.
I’d made him richer.
Legitimate investments that had turned over a multitude of times.
I supposed he’d been returning the favor by inviting me into his underworld. Or maybe he’d only needed one look at me to recognize the vile stain that lived within.
Oz and I edged down a long corridor before we dipped through another set of double doors and headed down the wide, spiral staircase to the basement below.
“Now you and I both know I won’t need it.”
Fighting a smile, he dipped his head before heading back up to the main floor.
Downstairs, the air was thinned, dense with the scent of expensive bourbon, cigar smoke, and sweaty expectation.
Gathered around the table were a group of greedy men. Some filthy rich who had plenty to lose and others who would fair far better by packing their shit and leaving before it was too late. Their mistresses lingered around the room, some standing behind them like good luck charms. More likely consolation prizes to soothe them when their egos were stung.
Moving toward an open seat, I glanced around at the men’s faces. I knew in a beat, I would win.
Losing cost you everything. Greed was the only way to survive. Pushing ahead. Taking what you needed before someone else stole it from you.
I took my seat, and Haille lifted his chin my direction, the old bastard puffing at his cigar as he rocked back in his chair. He sat three seats to the left, his smile wry, like he knew I would do whatever it required, too, and he took some twisted satisfaction in that fact.
The valet came downstairs and dumped the pile of keys he’d collected onto the middle of the table while the dealer divvied chips for their worth.
The asshole next to me rubbed his hand on the back of his beefy neck as nerves visibly rattled through his body.
A grin pulled at my mouth.
This was going to be fun.
Only the grin slid off my face when I felt the disturbance. This feeling that saturated the air in a clotted dread.
Awareness slipped through my senses.
The kind that promised the faulty foundation I’d been standing on had just been ripped out from under me.
Oz led another player downstairs, and the man slowly rounded down, the clack of his shoes echoing on the wood steps like the tapping of destruction.
The sense only grew as he came more into view, until that awareness turned into shocking recognition.
It pitched the air out of my lungs and sent my defenses to high alert.
Ice slipped down my spine, and any warmth that still remained in my blood went cold.
Jarek Urso crawled to the underbelly of the house like the scum that he was.
A flash of rage singed through my being.
A swell of lightheadedness rushed to my brain.
I couldn’t fucking breathe.
I had to physically hold onto the arms of the chair to keep from launching myself across the room to snuff him out. To beat a debt out of him that he’d had coming to him for seven years.
He’d taken the one thing from me that had ever mattered. The one thing that could never be replaced.
My hands curled tighter to the chair as my vision clouded over in red when my attention caught on the woman who trailed behind Jarek with her hand twined in his.
It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see her face.
I’d recognize her from a mile away.
My stomach soured, and hot hatred pounded through my frozen blood, ripping open an old, ugly wound.
Jarek took the last step into the basement, coming up short when he felt the force of my stare, the grudge that burned and the dark ideas that spun too far and too fast.
He angled his head in a clear-cut challenge.
Since her head was downturned, Aster Rose all but collided into his back.
Aster who jerked her attention up to find what had stalled her husband.
Aster whose fire-agate eyes went wide and whose rose-petal lips parted when she found me sitting across the room.
Shock whispered through the air in tendrils of hot static.
Hate and hurt.
Hate and hurt.
I wasn’t sure if it was hers or mine.
Jarek’s eyes narrowed in possession, and his hand tightened on his wife’s.
My jaw clenched, and my heart thrashed.
Haille chuckled as he glanced between us like the snake knew he’d just invited two beasts into the ring, and he was excited by the prospect of us ripping each other to shreds.
A fight to the death.
“Welcome to my home.” Haille lifted his arms in a show of pretension. “Please, have a seat. It is time to begin.”
Jarek took the last spot directly across from me.
Aster stood behind him like an adornment, long, dark brown hair worn in an intricate, seductive twist, pieces trailing down to kiss the skin of her bare shoulders. A black, silky dress draped over her curves like the sluicing of dark water.
And in a moment, I knew all bets were off.
I wondered if it was possible to drown on hatred as another hand of cards was dealt.
Wondered if my lungs could physically implode with the weight of the loss, with the shape of her presence, if there was a chance we’d be crushed by the carnage strewn between us.
Tension bound the room, and few words had been said, everyone’s attention rapt on the duel going down.
It wasn’t unusual for a high-stakes game.
But tonight, while I sat there trying to hide the fact I was twitching like a rabid beast, it felt like the purse had shifted.
The goal, the objective, the target—they had blurred and hazed and taken new shape.
Distorting reason and sound mind.
Hours had passed.
Each had whittled away a little more of the exterior—the pretenses and façades—and peeled away my flesh to reveal bare bones.
It seemed I was no longer playing for wealth.
It was pride.
Or maybe it was purely survival because I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through this alive.
The only thing I was certain of as I pushed another ten grand into the pot and stared across at the single player who remained was that I was going to destroy him. Take everything he had and ruin what was left.
Jarek tried to keep his expression neutral, the pompous prick with his slicked back black hair and his careless confidence that had been given to him through his name rather than earned.
Like he was confident I would let him reach out and take what was mine.
Not ever again.
Even with the pungent arrogance, I saw the tick of his jaw, the flinch of his eyes, the sheen of sweat that hinted at the edges of his brow and glimmered beneath the dull lights from the chandelier that hung from above.
He glanced at his dwindling chips.
“Your father-in-law would be proud. If only he could see you now.” I couldn’t help but taunt it as I rocked back in my chair. I did my best to ignore the presence that hovered over him from behind.
A presence that fanned out and teased me like a sinful, decadent dream. A dream that had once been so beautiful it’d coerced me into believing there just might be something better in this life than depravity and greed.
I glanced up in time to catch the worry that riddled those fire-agate eyes. The golden green with flecks of red that were begging for something she didn’t deserve to be given.
I tore my attention from the lure of hers and watched as redness clawed at Jarek’s throat before he started to push in the chips to meet the bet.
Aster gripped him by the shoulder. “Jarek, don’t do this.”
I had to wonder exactly what he had riding on the line. Why he was there. Why I could feel the chinks in his armor coming apart.
Flinging off her hand, he cut her a hard glare.
“Don’t,” he warned.
The word was coated with his humiliation. With desperation.
There was the chink.
Weakness wept through the powerful persona.
Reluctantly, Aster withdrew her hand, and her delicate throat trembled as she swallowed. She lifted that stoic chin that I’d caressed more times than I could count.
That was a goddamn lie because I remembered every fucking touch. Every glance. Every broken promise she had made.
Jarek met my stare as he pushed nearly the rest of his chips into the pot, raising me by a thousand.
I raised him another ten.
How far are you going to go, asshole? Whatever you have, it’s mine.
A soft sound of pain wheezed from Aster’s chest. A heave of distressed air.
My gaze followed to where the black dress she wore dipped low between her tits. My heart fisted when I saw what she wore around her neck. It was a star-shaped necklace, dangling down to kiss her cleavage.
I nearly cracked. Lost the control I was holding onto.
It had to be a joke.
A fucking cruel, sick twisted one, the girl coming down here and parading it like a slap to my face.
It made my teeth clench and the fury I was barely constraining flashfire through my veins.
I tore my attention from her when Jarek spat, “Fuck,” under his breath.
He still clutched his cards, refusing to give up the fight.
Haille laughed, the sadistic fucker enjoying this far too much. He looked at Jarek. How the hell he knew him, I didn’t have a clue, but I didn’t believe in a coincidence quite this big. He pulled his cigar from his mouth and jabbed it Jarek’s direction. “It seems you’re in a small predicament, Mr. Urso. Are you already going to walk? And here I thought you were going to bring something interesting to the table.”
Jarek all but growled, and Aster’s gaze darted between the three of us. Nerves flew from her soft, caramel flesh. That face carved of perfect lines and smooth skin tightened in dread.
He’d brought something interesting to the table, all right.
“Just cut your losses, Jarek.” She begged it quietly, but I heard the strength behind it.
It tugged somewhere deep in my chest. The way she’d come off as shy, maybe even vulnerable, but in truth, she’d just been a listener. Too astute to join in on the superficial. Strong and firm in her own, innocent way.
Too smart to delve into the foolishness of that sordid life.
I guessed I’d been the fool, though, hadn’t I?
“Your move.” Haille cocked his head as he rocked back in his seat, his attention on Jarek before his eyes slanted to me, curious as they narrowed.
Normally I came off as easygoing. Probably too easygoing. Just another spoiled, rich punk living in excess because I didn’t see a point in having it if I didn’t use it up.
Reckless outside the office. Ruthless inside.
Tonight? Every cell in my body had pulled to a razor-sharp edge.
“What’s it going to be?” Haille provoked.
Jarek roughed his hand down his pompous face, and he turned to look at the necklace around Aster’s neck as if it could be a solution to his issues.
Aster gasped, and her hand came up to protect it. Tears sprang to her eyes. She took a small step back. “No,” she wheezed, like it would physically pain her to remove it.
I wanted to jump to my feet.
Take hold of her and demand answers.
Demand to know why.
Why had she done it if she could stand there and look like there was a piece of her that was broken.
Anger and confusion had me in a stranglehold.
Old grief I’d buried deep that was clawing to the surface.
“Give it to me,” Jarek grated.
“No.” My voice cut through the dense air.
A roll of thunder.
The tolling of a challenge.
Aster froze. Her stare landed on me.
It was pain.
It only made the sickness thrum harder.
I looked to Jarek.
The stake came out without thought to repercussions.
I wanted what never should have been his.
A gasp rocked from her, and she stumbled back farther.
Jarek’s eyes sharpened to blades, and there was no question he wanted to reach over the table and choke the life from me.
My fingers itched.
I hoped he tried.
I gave nothing. No smile. No sneer. Just the quiet hatred that emanated from within. The fact I intended to take everything from him.
I’d known one day I would. I just hadn’t anticipated the opportunity would present itself so soon.
He blinked then jutted his chin at the dealer for the exotic chip.
The one that signified he would hazard my proposition.
It wasn’t rare. A bid made for a beach home. A family heirloom. Something that couldn’t be replaced. Here, fortunes were won and lost.
“What are you doing? I am not for sale.” Aster’s voice was aghast. Horrified and filled with disgust.
“He’s bluffing, Aster.” Jarek tossed in the chip.
It was the first time I let myself fully look at her. To sit back and take her in like she was mine to take. Sickened terror ridged her gorgeous face because I was pretty sure she knew this wasn’t close to a bluff.
I couldn’t do anything but crack a grin. “It seems you are tonight.”
Then I laid down my cards.
A straight flush.
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