Chapter 1

 

“She’s lucky to be alive.”

Sawyer heard his father’s statement as he took in the sight before him. Even after a full minute of standing in the hospital room he couldn’t process seeing his little sister, Ashlyn, lying in the bed. The harsh scent of antiseptic in his nose, the beeping noise coming from the monitor, and the morphine drip attached to the needle in his sister’s hand all faded into the distance as the beaten state of her face filled his vision.

Black and blue bruises covered her cheekbones. Cuts and scratches spread over every inch of creamy white skin, and stitches outlined the right side of her mouth. Only her long brown hair remained untouched, and that lay beneath the bandages on her head.

Consumed with a wrath foreign to him, Sawyer inhaled a sharp breath through his nose, controlling the desire to explode. He fisted his hands and turned to his parents, Beth and Roger Quinn, asking the obvious: “Where is Travis?”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, son.” His father—a few inches shorter and slightly softer in the middle, with a full head of salt-and-pepper hair—continued in a stony voice, “We need to wait for Ashlyn to wake up. We can’t make assumptions about who attacked her.”

Sawyer heard what his father said, but the darkness rushing into his Roger’s hazel eyes contradicted his words, a confirmation to Sawyer and what he suspected. Travis, Ashlyn’s boyfriend of three months, had done this to her.

His father added, “The police are involved and are interviewing friends and acquaintances to see if anyone knew anything or saw anything out of the ordinary.”

“This attack is brutal, and based on what I’ve seen, it looks personal.” As Sawyer spoke he gestured to his beaten baby sister. “Look at her, for Christ’s sake.” Sawyer was a cop, and he’d seen it before. A beating like this, so intense and violent, typically involved someone the victim knew. “We all know Travis is capable of this and more.”

Travis was an up-and-coming mixed martial arts fighter and had the skills to beat someone into unconsciousness. Sawyer suspected Travis had used steroids on more than one occasion, and he’d seen evidence of Travis’s ’roid rage from time to time. It had never been directed at his baby sister before, though.

A sob ripped from Sawyer’s mother’s mouth. Noticing the pallor on her face, he moved toward her, offering comfort. His chest constricted as he wrapped his arms around his mom’s slender frame. “Please don’t cry, Mom.” Nothing broke him more than to hear her weep.

“Look at what he’s done to her.” His mother sobbed against Sawyer’s chest, her short curly blond hair tickling his neck as she clung to his black T-shirt. “How could he do this?”

Anger bit into Sawyer like a sharp blade while he examined his battered sister. So sweet, so tiny, and so young—she had turned twenty-two only three weeks ago. He was eleven years older, and he had always tried to protect her. His parents hadn’t planned on having a second child—given his mother’s endometriosis, they had thought that conceiving again after Sawyer’s birth would have been impossible. They were shocked when they found out about her pregnancy, but Sawyer was overjoyed that he’d have a playmate, even if it was a much younger sister.

“He’ll be arrested.” Sawyer gently rubbed his mother’s back. “Don’t doubt that.”

“How will she recover from this? My poor baby . . .”

His mother’s despairing voice made Sawyer vividly imagine pummeling Travis. Sawyer rejected the thought; as a member of the police force, sworn to serve and protect, he had to let justice be served through the law. Having served in the military and now as a member of Las Vegas’s SWAT team, however, he’d found that sometimes his morals got in the way of what his heart wanted to do, and right now what his heart wanted was to make Travis feel pain.

He held on to his mother tightly, feeling her trembling beneath his arms, and it made Sawyer realize just how Travis had broken into a happy life full of happy memories. In his line of work, he often saw people who experienced horrific childhoods. Not Sawyer and Ashlyn. Their dad, a white-collar worker, had always exceeded the role of a father. His mother, a stay-at-home mom, lived through her children. Travis had brought darkness into the Quinn family.

Sawyer wouldn’t forget that.

A sound of someone clearing his throat came from the hospital room’s doorway, making Sawyer turn. He saw a fellow Dom and good friend, Kyler Morgan. Tall and muscular beneath his police uniform, Kyler radiated power.

A coil of tension escaped Sawyer, as Kyler was precisely the man he needed to see tonight. He gave his mom a final hug, then pulled away. “I need to speak to Kyler for a minute. Go be with Ashlyn. She needs you.”

“Yes. She needs me.” His mother sounded robotic, not thinking, only acting.

As she sat down in the chair beside the bed and reached out to hold Ashlyn’s hand, his father greeted Sawyer’s friend, then asked his son, “Shall I come with you two?”

“Stay with Ashlyn and Mom. We’ve got this.” Determination sent Sawyer walking forward, and Kyler followed him out into the hallway. A few doors down, far enough away to keep any conversation between him and Kyler private, Sawyer stopped and ran his hands over his face, feeling a bit defeated. Fucking unbelievable. An hour ago, he’d been teaching a less-skilled Dom the art of suspension in an erotic playground. But one phone call had changed everything.

“Fuck, man,” said Kyler. “I’m sorry this happened. What have you learned from your sister?”

“Nothing yet.” Sawyer lowered his hands, staring into Kyler’s compassionate blue eyes. “They have her sedated.” Images of his sister fighting for her life blasted through his mind, making his insides shake. “She’s fucking beaten to a bloody pulp. It’s clear that Travis didn’t want to kill her—he wanted her to hurt.”

Kyler leaned against the cement wall, thrusting a hand through his light brown hair. “I’ve learned from the cop who arrived on the scene that Ashlyn managed to get herself into the bathroom and locked the door. She told the nine-one-one operator that her boyfriend attacked her.”

The rage Sawyer felt earlier only intensified, making him hungry for vengeance. He shut his eyes, breathing deeply. No training in the world could have prepared him for this. Only when he was finally able to control the wrath bursting into him did he reopen his eyes. “Thank God the cops got to her in time.”

Kyler nodded. “From what I hear, they arrived within five minutes of her call—fortunately, there was a squad car in the area. The 911 operator said she heard him trying to break down the bathroom door. Apparently he did, but when he did, he saw Ashlyn was on the phone, and he immediately fled the scene.”

“The fear she must have felt . . .” Sickness roiled through Sawyer’s stomach, forming a heavy rock. Restless, he began to pace the hospital hallway. “Have you got an APB out on him?”

“Already done,” Kyler confirmed. “We sent his photo to law enforcement agencies within a three-hour radius. We’ll find him.”

“The fucker’s probably gone into hiding.” Sounds became dull in comparison to the thumping of Sawyer’s heart banging against his chest. “He’ll have to come out at some point. And when he does . . .”

“He’ll be arrested.”

The statement hung thick in the air. Sawyer pondered which he wanted more: to arrest Travis or to face the fucker himself. Deep down, he knew what needed to be done. He couldn’t get into a deadly fight with the asshole. That wouldn’t benefit his sister. “Yeah, he’ll be arrested.”

Muscles twitching with frustration, Sawyer rubbed his palms over his eyes. When he lowered them, he spotted his police chief, Kyler’s father, Andrew Morgan. His boss approached them, passing by the hospital rooms with a steady gait. In his late fifties, with a fierce stare and wise blue eyes, Andrew was a fit man—and an honorable one, too.

“I’m sorry to hear about your sister,” said Andrew. He wore a baseball cap and casual clothes, not his uniform, and told Sawyer that he had come from home to pay his respects. “Has Ashlyn woken up yet?”

Sawyer shook his head. “Not yet.”

“How badly was she injured?”

“Broken bones in her face and a few broken ribs.” Sawyer recalled what his father told him when he first arrived at the hospital. “Stitches in her lip and the back of her head.”

“Jesus Christ,” Kyler bit out.

Sawyer’s strength drained out of him; listing her injuries aloud made the situation even more real. He dropped down into a chair that was sitting up against the wall, loathing how helpless he felt.

Andrew’s firm hand squeezed Sawyer’s shoulder. “Take time off to be with your sister. I’ve informed your SWAT captain that you’re on short leave. Let’s start at two weeks. If you need more time, call me.”

Sawyer looked up at him and saw the empathy in his chief’s eyes. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate that.”

Andrew nodded at Sawyer. After nodding to Kyler as well, he turned and strode down the hallway. To most, it might appear that, as a boss, Andrew possessed a kind heart, which he did—but there was more to it, Sawyer knew. “Was that your doing?” he asked Kyler.

Kyler gave a small smile. “I thought you’d rather be at the hospital than at work. My father agreed.”

“Thank you.”

“Please don’t thank me. It’s the least I could do.” He sat next to Sawyer, his arms resting on his knees. “But it’s certainly not enough. What else can I do?”

Sawyer stared off into space, not sure what to say. He finally shrugged. “Fuck, I don’t even know what to do. We need to take Ash’s statement. Then we can go from there.”

“What will you do if we don’t find him?”

Sawyer considered the question. His thoughts spun for a moment longer, and then everything settled in his mind. Purpose rose within him as he got up from his seat. “I’ll hunt the fucker down myself.”

 


 

I love him. I love him not.

People chattering and laughing among themselves funneled through the small coffee shop on the Las Vegas strip. The café was a charming nook of a place in between a five-star restaurant and a pharmacy. Nothing made any sense, but Chloe Nash thought that was the magic of the city. Whenever a space became available, something went in it, whether it made sense to put it there or not.

For as long as Chloe could remember she’d gone to the café, where singers and songwriters played at night. As she sipped her vanilla latte, embracing the warmth and inhaling the comforting hints of cinnamon sprinkled onto the foamy milk, she realized how much time had passed since she’d graduated from university.

Years ago she’d come here to drink coffee with her good friends, but that circle had dwindled. Two of her best friends had relocated for their jobs, Jenny to California and Erin to New York. Only one person she’d met from high school had stayed in Las Vegas.

She lowered the mug from her mouth, staring at the cutie across the table from her.

Josh had kept his baby face throughout the years. Now that he was twenty-eight years old, it made him even more attractive. In high school, Josh had been the football team’s quarterback. He had that all-American look, with handsome features. And he had a gentle heart.

But he’d become her life, and Chloe wasn’t sure she liked that.

The friends he made working as a lawyer for Henderson LLC became her friends, too. Chloe worked as a private investigator for Marshall Investigations, but she’d never made as many long-term acquaintances on her job as Josh did on his. Until a month ago that had never bothered her. Now she realized she was defined as part of a couple, Josh’s girlfriend.

Thinking of all this made her remember the night she’d met Sawyer Quinn. One meeting with him had changed her self-perception. His presence had awakened her in unique ways. He’d also made her question things she’d never before questioned—like her relationship with Josh.

“Chloe.”

She blinked, finding Josh frowning at her.

“Welcome back to the world of the living,” he grumbled, his chocolate-brown eyes narrowing. “Did you hear anything I said?”

“Sorry.” She placed her mug on the table. “I’m tired.”

The second the words left her lips she regretted them, as she noticed Josh’s eyes narrow further. “Did you go to the doctor, like I said you should, to get your blood work done?” he asked.

She nodded, running her fingers around the rim of her mug. The excuse about being tired had run its course, she realized. “Yeah, I did. My tests came back fine.”

He tilted his head, scanning her face, looking for illness. “Not anemic or anything?”

“Nope.” She hated the spotlight on her, and she sipped her latte, hoping for a subject change.

Not going to happen, she thought grimly as Josh asked, “Okay, so what’s up? It can’t be that you’re just tired. You seem stuck in your head lately.”

Of course Josh would have noticed any change in her mood. He truly knew her. She’d been with Josh longer than some marriages lasted. But that realization only stirred the same confusing question running through her mind: Is this the life I want?

The sense of guilt storming across her when she saw the stress in Josh’s warm, kind eyes left her knowing she couldn’t avoid the conversation any longer. They’d been high school sweethearts, and had even been voted the couple most likely to get married. “Are you happy?” she blurted out.

He bristled at her question. “Of course I am.”

Chloe noticed how he couldn’t look her in the eye. She reached for his hand, wrapping hers tightly around his. “Why haven’t you asked me to marry you?” She knew she held blame for this, too, as she’d never pressed the matter.

Up until a month ago, that hadn’t seemed odd.

A slow breath escaped his mouth. “Chloe, that’s not fair. You know I’ve been busy with university, law school, and settling into the firm.”

She watched his every move, noting how tense his body language seemed underneath the casual weekend outfit of gray T-shirt and plaid shirt. Suddenly it became clear that she and Josh had the same doubts. “Is it that? Or do you not want to marry me?”

His chin jerked up, eyes pained. “You know I love you, Chloe.”

“I know you do. And you know I love you, too.”

Their fingers tangled together, and the heavy silence stretched out, speaking of so much while saying nothing at all. She supposed she could ignore the giant elephant in the room and continue to live her life with Josh. They shared a strong love, but passion didn’t exist in their lives. She could count on one hand how many times they’d had sex in the last year—and whenever they did that particular deed, it began with an alcohol-fueled night. That sort of life seemed unfair to both of them.

Don’t we deserve passion?

He tightened his fingers around hers and she shut her eyes, willing herself strength. At last she reopened them, finding his warm gaze on her. “I’m happy with you. I’m comfortable. But sometimes I wonder if we’re staying together because it is comfortable and it’s what we’ve always known.”

He paused. Then said, “I feel the same way.”

“You do?”

A couple of young girls passed by their table, laughing. Josh waited until their laughter faded away before continuing, “It seems too easy.”

“Too comfortable. Like best friends?”

He gave a small nod.

Chloe smiled in return. She was grateful that Josh understood where her heart lay. When Sawyer had entered her life, even for a brief moment, things ignited in her body—passion, lust, and intensity. Her entire soul had stood up and taken notice of Sawyer in a way she’d never noticed any man.

Yet . . . she trusted Josh. That was something special, too. She’d lost her virginity to him when they were sixteen years old. They’d stuck together for more than ten years. But after meeting Sawyer, she felt like she could have more.

Josh ran his thumb across Chloe’s hand, pulling her into the present. “Have you met someone else?”

“No.” She didn’t even know Sawyer. Not really. But that night he’d changed something in her, making her wonder what else she’d been missing by choosing the safe path. “There is no one else.” But I’m hoping there will be—though she didn’t say that. “I don’t want life to be too easy. I want to take chances. We should want more for ourselves, don’t you think?”

Josh watched her for a long moment before he nodded. “Yeah, I do. But I want you to know that I haven’t met anyone else, either. I’ve never cheated or anything—”

“I know you haven’t. But you’ve been curious . . .?”

“I’ve sometimes wondered why I haven’t wanted to get married.” A strand of his dark hair fell over his brow, and he brushed it away. “But I guess it became confusing, because I do love you. I can’t imagine not having you in my life.”

Relief settled deeply in her chest. Not because their relationship was coming to a close, but because Josh understood what she was feeling. “Let me guess—you wondered if I would be better in your life as a friend than your wife?”

“Yeah,” he whispered, hanging his head.

“That’s okay, Josh.” She squeezed his hand, forcing him to look at her. “I feel the same way. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized I wasn’t ready to get married, either.”

Josh reached for her other hand, holding both of hers in his. “So, are we, I don’t know, breaking up?”

“No.” Tears welled in her eyes, and they filled his, too. “I don’t ever want to break up with you.”

He frowned.

Chloe added with a smile, “We’re deciding we’re better off as friends. I need you in my life, Josh. I can’t have it any other way.”

She meant every word. Yet she also longed to experience the part of herself that Sawyer had awakened, a part of her soul that seemed foreign, as if it belonged to a perfect stranger—a man she’d met who’d disappeared quickly from her life. Still, his effect remained like a desire she couldn’t escape. With one look, he’d offered emotions, sensations that she couldn’t ignore. The promise in his shadowy eyes had dared her to go after something more.

Josh gave her his boyish smile. “You’ll always have me. Promise.”

 

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