Protected: A Masters and Mercenaries Novella
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A second chance at first love
Years before, Wade Rycroft fell in love with Geneva Harris, the smartest girl in his class. The rodeo star and the shy academic made for an odd pair but their chemistry was undeniable. They made plans to get married after high school but when Genny left him standing in the rain, he joined the Army and vowed to leave that life behind. Genny married the town’s golden boy, and Wade knew that he couldn’t go home again.
Could become the promise of a lifetime
Fifteen years later, Wade returns to his Texas hometown for his brother’s wedding and walks into a storm of scandal. Genny’s marriage has dissolved and the town has turned against her. But when someone tries to kill his old love, Wade can’t refuse to help her. In his years after the Army, he’s found his place in the world. His job at McKay-Taggart keeps him happy and busy but something is missing. When he takes the job watching over Genny, he realizes what it is.
As danger presses in, Wade must decide if he can forgive past sins or let the woman of his dreams walk into a nightmare….
**Every 1001 Dark Nights novella is a standalone story. For new readers, it’s an introduction to an author’s world. And for fans, it’s a bonus book in the author’s series. We hope you'll enjoy each one as much as we do.**
Release date: July 31, 2018
Publisher: Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated
Print pages: 125
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Protected: A Masters and Mercenaries Novella
Wade Rycroft looked out over the yard where the reception was being held. It was still hard to believe that one of his brothers had finally taken the plunge. His oldest brother, Clint, had done the unthinkable and said I do.
What was even harder to believe was that Clint had invited Geneva Harris Howard to the festivities. Anger burned in his chest as he looked at the raven-haired beauty. Shouldn’t greed show on that face of hers? How was it possible that she was even more beautiful than she’d been in high school? She should have gotten fat and ugly but no, she was curvy and gorgeous, and his dick still responded to her even when his brain knew she was toxic.
He took a deep breath and tried to let it go. He shouldn’t let her ruin anything else in his life. On that night fifteen years ago, he’d sworn she had no power over him. Not anymore. She’d made her choice and she could live with it.
“I can’t believe that harlot is here.”
He wasn’t the only one watching Geneva. The old biddies of Broken Bend were out in numbers, and they’d made their opinions of Geneva Howard plain. No one had sat with her. She’d taken a place at the back of the church on the bride’s side. She’d been the only one in her row.
“Well, she’s probably on the prowl, if you know what I mean,” another said. “I heard she’s desperate. The only asset the government didn’t seize was the house, and Brock got that in the divorce.”
“Brock got everything in the divorce. She signed a prenup. Even though she managed to lie and get poor Brock put in jail, the judge here wasn’t fooled. It’s those Austin types. They think they’re so smart. They ruined this county.”
“No, she did that. One of these days someone is going to give her what she deserves…”
Wade took a slow swallow from his longneck and glanced over at the tables set out on the lawn. They were a vivid white against the stark green of the grass. Damn, he hadn’t realized how much he’d missed this place. The Rockin’ R Ranch was where he’d grown up. He’d been born in the big house and spent his childhood running wild here. When he closed his eyes, he could still see his father on horseback, riding herd, and his momma ringing the bell that brought them all in for dinner.
Of course, he could also see Genny Harris, lying back on the grass by the pond, her eyes widening as he lowered his body to hers.
There was a reason he didn’t come back often. Too many ghosts.
A hand clasped on his shoulder and he found himself smiling at his younger brothers. West and Rand were twins, both leanly muscled with all-American good looks and sandy blond hair.
He’d missed years with his brothers because of that woman, because he couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her again. Even when he’d returned to Broken Bend, he would spend most of his time here trying to avoid Genny. That had been a stupid mistake.
It looked like karma was having its sweet way with her. It was definitely time to let go. It was time to forgive himself for being her fool. Maybe now he could relax and have a good time getting to know his brothers again.
“Clint looks good. I never thought she would get him in that tux,” West said, tipping back his beer.
“You underestimate our new sister-in-law,” Rand replied. “She’s super sweet until you cross her, and then that girl can take a man down. When I complained about wearing a bow tie and asked her if I could maybe be a bit more casual, she told me I could wear the tie around my neck or she would find a new place to put it. I think she meant my balls. Now she didn’t say she would wrap that bowtie around my balls, but she got that look. You know that look that lets a man know his balls are in trouble? Needless to say, I wore the tie in the traditional way.”
West sighed as though he’d heard this all before. “You can take it off now. Your balls are safe.”
Rand shrugged. “I want to be sure. When she’s on a plane to Hawaii, I’ll take it off.”
It was good to know there was a new matriarch of the Rycroft family. His mom had died ten years before and Clint had been left to keep the brothers in line. He’d been left to save the ranch.
Of course, that had become a hell of a lot easier when they’d found a rich natural gas reserve right beneath their feet a year and a half before. Another bit of karma. Genny had left him because she didn’t want to be the wife of a poor soldier from an even poorer ranching family, and how those tables had turned.
Now the first family of Tellis County was in ruins, and the Rycrofts were enjoying more success than their daddy could have dreamed of. Clint had taken the initial money from the natural gas and brought the ranch into the 21st century. He’d joined a collective of independent ranchers, and the Rockin’ R now supplied southern Texas with organic beef. Clint had been smart as hell.
Clint hadn’t faltered because some girl dumped him.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” he said, realizing how much he’d missed out on. “I’m sorry I let so many years go by.”
West was staring at him like he’d grown two heads. “Sorry? You were serving your country, man. We’re proud of you.”
“I am in particular.” Rand pulled at the hated tie but still didn’t take it off. “Someone had to do it. There’s been a Rycroft in the military for three generations. Momma used to say we produce too many damn boys. At least one of them had to be sacrificed to the US military. If only to feed him. I’m glad I didn’t have to go. I don’t think I would have been very good at it.”
“I don’t know,” West said with a shake of his head. “You follow orders really well.”
“Only if my balls are in question,” Rand replied.
West sent him a look that had his brother snorting.
His youngest brothers had a shorthand of their own. Twins. He envied them. Sometimes he felt so solitary he ached with it. Especially now that all his friends were getting married and moving on with their lives. In the past couple of months, he’d watched the whole crew he worked with at McKay-Taggart Security fall for the women of their dreams and get married. A few of them had moved on, leaving him behind to start to rebuild his unit. Even his childhood friends were getting hitched, and now it looked like he would get to watch his brothers start their lives.
And he was still stuck. He looked out over the lawn again and she was sitting on her own, staring down at her phone. She hadn’t eaten anything at the lovely plated dinner that had been served, and it looked like she wasn’t going to partake of the open bar his brother had provided. He wondered if it wasn’t lavish enough for her. He was certain the parties she’d gone to as Brock Howard’s wife had been much more luxurious than a reception at a ranch.
Why the hell had she come? No one wanted her here.
“Who invited her?” The question was out of his mouth before he could think about it. Of course, if he’d thought about it at all, he wouldn’t have asked. The last thing he wanted was for his brothers to think he was pining for a woman who’d dumped him years before.
Because he wasn’t pining for her. It wasn’t like he compared every woman to her and found them lacking. That would be stupid. He compared them to the woman he thought she’d been. He couldn’t quite find anyone who moved him the way her lies had.
No, he was grateful to her. She’d saved him from his dumbass younger self.
West’s jaw had gone stubbornly straight. “It sure as hell wasn’t me.”
“Hey, we talked about this.” Rand sighed as though he knew he had to take the more mature role. “She’s Lori’s friend.”
“Friend? I have no idea why Lori puts up with her.” West had crossed his arms over his chest. “Clint has a soft spot for Genny. Always has. Even after she pulled that crap she pulled on you, Clint was right there. More than once I caught him in town having coffee with her over the years. He’s the one who helped her move out of the mansion when they had to sell it because that husband of hers finally got what he deserved.”
“Clint’s not sleeping with her,” Rand insisted.
Wade felt his gut twist at the thought of Clint and Genny together. How long had it been going on? Had she been cheating on him with more than one man? He wouldn’t put it past her, but he’d thought better of his brother. “He spends time with her? And Lori lets him?”
“Of course she lets him because he’s not sleeping with Genny.” Rand was shaking his head. “Look, I don’t begin to claim that I know what is going on between the two of them, but Genny’s not a bad woman. I know she hurt you, Wade. But I think she’s paid for that mistake. I feel bad for her, and I think Clint does, too. There are rumors I don’t like to think about.”
Rumors? When he’d left Broken Bend, he’d cut himself off from everything but news of his family. When Clint tried to relate some information that might have touched on Genny, he’d shut that shit down and fast. His big brother had learned not to mention her name if he wanted Wade to keep talking. He knew that the years he’d been gone, especially in the beginning, had been tough on Clint. Their mom died while Wade had been deployed. Clint had to keep everything together but if he’d sought comfort in Genny’s arms, Wade wasn’t sure he could ever forgive his brother.
Was he really thinking that way? It was obvious Clint loved his new bride, but Genny had a way of getting what she wanted.
“I’m glad you think so,” West was saying. “I’ve never understood why Clint felt like he needed to help her out. You know he paid for her divorce attorney.”
Wade’s stomach took a deep dive. He looked out over the lawn, the twinkle lights coming on as the band began to play. Clint escorted his bride out to the floor for their first dance as man and wife.
Genny still sat by herself, her face tight and drawn as she looked out over the dance floor. Was she pissed off that she might lose her sugar daddy? Or was she planning on how to catch another wealthy husband? There were a couple of men at this wedding who could keep her in lavish style. Jack Barnes, the man who owned the successful ranching collective his brother had joined, was sitting with his wife, Abby, and his partner, Sam Fleetwood. Barnes was a highly connected businessman and rancher who could introduce her to any number of rich men. He was sure she would prefer to be married to one of them, but she wasn’t eighteen anymore and she came with the encumbrance of a kid. There were men who wouldn’t want to raise Brock Howard the fourth. She might have to settle for being some rich man’s mistress.
But she wasn’t going to be his brother’s mistress. No fucking way.
He wasn’t sure which brother called out his name. All he knew was it was time to break his silence with her. He’d tried to avoid her, but now he realized he couldn’t. He wasn’t going to allow her to ruin his brother’s life.
She glanced up, her eyes widening when she realized he was coming her way. She stood, straightening the dress that was a bit too loose on her. Now that he was closer to her, he could see the fine lines around her eyes. It was good to know time hadn’t left her completely unmarked.
“Wade, I was hoping we could talk.” Her voice was huskier than he remembered. “Could we go somewhere quiet?”
Was she seriously trying to get him alone? Did she think she could turn those big blue eyes on him and he would forget about everything she’d done?
He was well aware that stares were turning his way, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t going to cause a major scene, merely let her know the rules. It was obvious something was going on between her and his oldest brother. That stopped here and now.
“We don’t need to go someplace quiet. We can do this right here and right now. I understand that you’ve been spending some time with Clint. I don’t care what you do with other men. God knows how many you’ve run through by now, but you need to understand I won’t allow you to break up my brother’s marriage. How much to get you to leave town and not come back?”
He had some money saved up. When they’d found the gas reserves, he’d been given his cut. He didn’t live lavishly so he had a sizable amount collected in his account. He hated the thought of spending it on her, but if it saved his brother, he would do it. And when Clint got back from his honeymoon, they would have a long talk.
She’d paled visibly. “How much?”
“Money, sweetheart.” The word came out twisted and nasty. “I’m asking how much it will take to get you to stay away from my brother.”
“Wade, you have the wrong impression.”
He wasn’t going to give her a chance to work her magic. She was smart and she’d always known how to manipulate him. “I don’t think so. How much have you already gotten out of him? I understand he paid for your divorce lawyer. What happened? Did you not love your husband as much when he lost his fortune? Why didn’t you sell some of those fancy clothes of yours and pay for your own damn lawyer?”
Her eyes were steady on him. “I’m paying Clint back.”
“I’m sure you are. My question is what are you paying him back with?” He was well aware of the nasty insinuation.
“I didn’t come here to fight with you,” she said, her voice a bit tremulous now. “Please, Wade. I know you’re angry with me, but I need to talk to you. There are some things you don’t understand.”
“We have nothing at all to talk about except for you to give me a number,” he shot back. “If you don’t give me that number and then get your ass out of town, I’m going to do what I should have done all those years ago.”
Tears shone in her eyes, but her face had gone stubborn in a way he’d never seen before. “And what is that? What should you have done all those years ago?”
He leaned in, well aware that he was getting in her space. He prided himself on being a gentleman, but she brought out the asshole in him. “I should have crushed you. I should have made your life hell. I’ll do it this time. By the time I’m finished with you, you’ll wish you’d left town. You’ll wish you’d taken that brat of yours with you.”
A loud smack split the air around him and it took a second for the pain to hit. She’d slapped him good. His face heated. Had he really just threatened her kid? Who the hell was he? He didn’t recognize himself.
Still, he couldn’t take it back.
“What the hell is going on?” Clint stepped up, looking resplendent in his tux. He held hands with his bride.
“Hey, are you all right?” Lori wasn’t talking to him. She moved to Genny’s side, placing a hand on her shoulder.
He didn’t understand a thing. Maybe there was something more going on here. “I think she’s fine. I’m sure she’s heard worse. And maybe I was hasty. Maybe Clint knows exactly what he’s doing.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Clint asked.
He held his hands up, backing away. This was his big brother. Clint had taken care of them all. After their dad had died, it had been Clint who stepped in, giving up his chance to go to college because he had to run the ranch. And yet all Wade could see at the moment was his big brother in bed with Genny, enjoying her every curve and that sweet as sin mouth of hers. “It means your sex life and what your wife is willing to put up with is absolutely none of my business.”
Clint’s face went red and Wade realized no one was dancing. They were all far too busy watching the family drama playing out in front of them.
Lori had blushed as well, but she simply smiled and waved toward the band and dance floor, nodding. The band changed songs, starting up a beat perfect for the latest line dance. “Please, dance. Have fun! This is nothing but a small misunderstanding between brothers.”
Abby Barnes dragged her husbands, Jack and Sam, out on the dance floor and the rest of the group joined in.
Clint turned to him, his voice going low. “You want to explain to me why you’ve decided to wreck my wedding? And I would love to know exactly what you’re accusing me of.”
Heath Rycroft made his way through the crowd. “What’s going on?”
“I’d like to know that myself,” Clay said.
West and Rand joined the circle. The gang was all here.
And it was obvious that he was the one left out. They were all looking at him like he was some kind of freak, like he was the troublemaker. Well, he’d walked out on them. He hadn’t come back because he couldn’t stand the thought of seeing her again. The years and distance had turned him into an outcast. Genny had won and she would continue to win. Lori held her hand and his new sister-in-law frowned his way. It was definitely time to retreat. His brothers didn’t need him.
Anger boiled inside him. “It was a mistake to come here. Lori, I’m sorry I ruined your reception. Clint, I thought I was saving you, but you have obviously made your choice. Hope you have fun with her.”
“We need to talk.” Clint took a step toward him.
He held his hands up because he was done talking. “No. We don’t. I need to go back to Dallas and you need to get on with whatever it is you’re doing. Y’all have a nice night.”
“Don’t be an asshole,” one of his brothers said. He couldn’t tell which. There were a lot of them. Three older, two younger. He was somewhere in the middle and the truth was they hadn’t missed him. They had each other.
And apparently at least one of them had Genny.
He stalked off, tearing at the tie at his throat. It had been a stupid idea to come home after all these years. There was absolutely nothing left for him here. He would head back to Dallas and the life he’d built there. If he hurried he could make it into work in the morning. He’d taken the week off, but the thought of sitting in his quiet house with nothing to distract him was unsettling. He needed work, the harder the better. He would ask Tag to send him on the worst assignment possible, one where taking a bullet was almost certain. Then he could spend his time surviving and not thinking about Genny Harris.
Howard. She’d made that choice. It didn’t matter that she’d divorced the bastard. She would always be a Howard to him.
As quickly as he could, he made his way to the house and picked up his duffel. He hadn’t exactly unpacked. The truth was he’d tried to spend as little time in his room as he could. Ghosts. They were everywhere in this house, but particularly strong in the room he’d grown up in. Someone had thought it was a good idea to make it a shrine to his teenaged years. It was exactly as he’d left it. The desk where he’d done his homework was still pushed against the wall and the buckles he’d won during his rodeo days were on display.
And there wasn’t an inch of this room she hadn’t imprinted herself on. He’d made love to her on the bed, sneaking back in when everyone else was at a church dinner. He’d lied to his parents about having to study for a test and then he’d been the tutor. Most of the time she knew way more than he did, but when it came to sex, he’d been the teacher. He’d lost his virginity at sixteen to a barrel racer, but it hadn’t been until Genny that he’d finally realized what sex could mean.
And it hadn’t been until Genny that he’d realized how stupid he was. She kept teaching him that lesson even fifteen years later.
He slung the duffel over his shoulder and started down the stairs. He wasn’t coming back here. Dallas was home now.
He’d made it to the bottom of the stairs and turned to go when he realized he wasn’t alone in the big ranch house.
“All right, you son of a bitch, we’ll do this the hard way.”
He saw her through the mirror in front of him. She was standing there like a warrior, her eyes wild, and she hadn’t come unarmed. Yep, she’d pulled a gun on him. It looked like Genny wasn’t done with the lesson for the day.
Copyright 2018 Lexi Blake
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