In the secret world of the Phoenix club, inhibitions are left behind, fantasies become reality, and lust can lead to love in this intoxicating romance from USA Today bestselling author Stacey Kennedy.

Nessa Hale is a hopeless romantic. Growing up, she witnessed her grandparents and parents’ epic love stories. But Nessa hasn’t been as lucky. Instead, she spends her free time swiping right on online dating apps and enduring hellish first dates trying to find the one. But when one of those dates ends tragically, Nessa is left emotionally shattered.

Ronan Crawford understands what it’s like to feel broken. As a retired Navy SEAL, he still suffers from the after-effects of war. Forming new friendships and working security at Phoenix, the secret sex club in the heart of New York City, has given him a purpose. He likes protecting people again. So when Nessa asks him to teach her self-defence techniques, he’s concerned, but up for the challenge. He can tell Nessa is suffering and he’s prepared to be her safe haven. What he’s unprepared for is how Nessa makes him feel like he’s coming back to life.

The more time they spend together, the more Ronan and Nessa help each other heal. As their friendship blossoms into something more, Ronan introduces Nessa to a world of no inhibitions and wicked desires. But when Nessa’s recovery is threatened and her life is endangered, Ronan vows to protect her at all costs. He knows he’ll have one chance to make Nessa safe again, but only Nessa can bring Ronan back from the darkness threatening to bury him….


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OUT June 6, 2023...

Their story has all the things I look for in a great story - a lovable couple fighting demons who find healing with each other, some suspense, and sizzling chemistry."
Goodreads Reviewer

Chapter 1

Rain pattered against the window next to the table at the new, trendy restaurant in the heart of New York City. A glass of the finest merlot paired with a filet mignon awaited Nessa Hale. Everything in the restaurant, from the shiny silverware to the finely dressed waitstaff, set the stage for a perfect date night that could be highlighted in the latest issue of Cosmopolitan.

Only this date sucked.

No. Scratch that. The guy sucked.

Dr. Mitchell Graff was the it guy. The youngest and brightest vascular surgeon at Mount Sinai. Mitch had it all—his deep-brown eyes captivating Nessa as soon as he set them on her, a smile that took her breath away, and a body hardened with muscle that made her fingers ache to trace the lines. She should have been melting in her chair, but despite his undeniably good looks and accomplishments, there wasn’t a bit of warmth anywhere in her body. Most of all, not between her legs.

“Mm hmm,” she replied, reaching for her glass of wine for the twentieth time after he’d continued talking about himself.

“The case was complex,” said Mitch, before shoving a piece of steak into his mouth, “but I held that man’s heart in my hand and made it work again.”

“That’s great.” She set her wineglass down, tasting the dark-cherry undertones on her tongue. “I’m sure the man’s family was really grateful to you.”

Mitch glanced up from his plate. His brows drawn tight. “His family?”

“Yeah, for saving the man’s life,” she offered. “I’m sure they were so thankful for you.”

He blinked, as if the thought had simply not occurred to him. “I imagine they were. Nurses said as much.”

Nessa hadn’t known much about Mitch before this date, only that he’d taken out a few nurses at the hospital before her.

That should have been her first red flag.

She valued a good doctor. She loved working alongside them as an emergency room nurse. But Mitch wasn’t just a good doctor, he had a god complex. Every single word that dripped from his lips was about his greatness for saving a life rather than his gratitude.

Nessa was over it.

His phone suddenly rang. “Dr. Graff,” he said, once he answered. “Yeah. Yeah. All right. I’m on my way.” Sliding his phone back into his pocket, he wiped his face with his napkin and dumped it onto his plate, regardless that there was still half his dinner on the plate. “That was the hospital. They need me for surgery.”

“Of course,” she said, restraining her breath of relief that soon this date would end.

With confident steps, that looked more arrogant now than powerful, he moved to her and dropped a quick kiss on her cheek. “I’ll get the next dinner.”

He threw her his charming grin that had once won her over. Then she was staring at the back of his head as he left the restaurant.

Unbelievable! She scoffed, picking up her wineglass and polishing off the rest of the wine. Then reached over and drank back the rest of his too.

“The date didn’t go well?”

Nessa lowered her glass and said to the waitress, “No first date ever goes well.” She grabbed his plate and cut off the portion of the steak where he’d eaten. He hadn’t touched his baked potato or veggies.

The waitress laughed quietly. “Girl, I feel that.” 

Nessa returned the smile and then held up the plate. “Do you mind packing this up for me?” She offered her plate too. “Mine too. And I’ll take the bill, please.”

“He didn’t even pay?” the waitress asked, brows lifted.

“They never do.” Though, a date not paying hadn’t been the worst of her string of bad dates lately. She’d had one date where the man’s ex-girlfriend showed up and threw a fit. The last man she dated a couple of months back had been a stage-five clinger. It had taken her two weeks to get him to stop texting.

Nessa paid for the meal with her credit card, cursing the steak dinners. She’d need to eat salad for the rest of her dinners this week and skip breakfast. That one dinner cost her a week of her groceries. What a jerk!

With her carryout containers in hand, she headed out the door, greeted by the always confusing mix of big-city smells. With restaurants in abundance, and street meat vendors on either side of the road, the air was infused with delicious aromas. Though, nothing could cut through the wretched scent of garbage, only amplified by the rain.

Opening her umbrella, she managed to get under it quickly. The cold rain splashed up on her bare legs as she headed down the street. The nights were getting longer as autumn was stretching into the coming winter months. She hugged her coat around herself and contemplated hailing a taxi to get home sooner, but her apartment was only a half-dozen blocks away. Besides, after what she’d spent on dinner, paying for a cab ride was a luxury at this point.

Cursing Mitch’s charm, she headed out into the night, walking as fast as she could muster to get home. The rain only grew harder with every step she took, pounding against the umbrella. Soon, she came to the corner where Jerry lived, with his few belongings, in a small tent that she bought for him.

“Jerry,” she called outside the tent.

“Miss Nessa, is that you?” he asked in his gravelly voice.

“It is. I’ve got dinner for you.”

He unzipped the tent and stuck his head out. “What’s on the menu tonight, sweet girl?”

She offered him Mitch’s dinner. “Steak and potatoes. Very posh and delicious.”

“Thank you, Miss Nessa.” He accepted the box, smiling with his few teeth, and dirty fingers. “God bless you.”

“Enjoy, Jerry,” she said, walking away. She’d tried on many occasions to get him into a shelter, but Jerry wouldn’t have it. Instead, she did what she could for him. He preferred alcohol to comfort, and Nessa knew deep down that she helped him because her father died of alcoholism. She didn’t read too much into it. She liked Jerry and was happy to help when she could.

Intent on getting home and out of the rain, she hurried her steps and took the next turn, which led down a quiet, empty street. Lights were dimmer here, the noise and busyness of the city got quieter. Most times she appreciated that. Tonight, though, unease slid deep in her gut.

Stopping halfway down the quiet street, she turned back, spotting the cars driving by. She looked in all the dark corners, and nothing jumped out at her, but something felt like it was crawling over her skin. Her instincts blaring a warning at her.

She waited and held her breath, the only sound was the rain hammering against her umbrella. You are losing it, girl! She rolled her eyes at herself and blew out the breath she’d been holding. “Get it together, Nessa,” she murmured to herself.

She took a step forward, and only then did she realize the path forward wasn’t empty any longer.

The darkness crept inside her, swallowing her whole. The sounds from the busy street faded away to the loud thumps of her heart rate telling her to run.

A man wearing a black hoodie and dark pants, as well as a ski mask, blocked her way. Fear froze her to the spot, every alarm in her demanding she escape the danger ahead. Refusing to let fear control her, she threw her umbrella his way and ran as fast as she could muster toward the next busy street, screaming for help.

She got only two steps.

Firm hands gripped her before she fell face-first onto the wet pavement. She landed hard, her body screaming out in agony as her face smashed against the hard ground. Blackness crept into her vision as the man lay on her back, pinning her down.

“Take whatever you want,” she managed. “There’s money and my credit cards in my wallet.”

Silence greeted her, yet his heavy breathing by her ear cut through. In that aroused, cruel sound, she knew instantly he didn’t want her money.

The pressure on her back lifted, and he turned her over, pressing against her shoulders.

“Help!” she screamed. “Help!”

“Shhhh,” he crooned, pressing a leather gloved finger over her lips.

He was too strong, too heavy… too scary, and she bucked under him trying to free herself. But her efforts were useless against his strength. He said in a voice, void of any warmth, “You are mine.”

Then his lips landed on hers.

Instinct had her biting him hard, drawing blood.

He cursed, snapping back, and the stars in her eyes came after that. His blow to the side of her face had been delivered with pure efficiency. 

“You bitch,” he snarled.

The next blow brought darkness into her vision.

“Hey!” a man suddenly called off in the distance. “Hey! Get off her. Call nine-one-one.”

Footsteps pounded the ground—the savior she’d needed. She heard them coming for her. More than one person.

Darkness slowly crept in closer and closer. “Help,” she managed to whisper.

The heaviness pressing against her vanished, and soon, the cruelness was replaced by a man’s voice that held all the warmth the other voice was missing. “You’re okay. I’ve got you. You’re okay. Do you hear me? You’re okay. Help is on the way.”

* * *

Ronan Crawford entered the hospital, following his close friends, Lottie and Hunt. A half an hour ago, they were having a drink in a hotspot in midtown Manhattan, a cigar lounge on Fifth Avenue. After they polished off their drinks, they would have ventured down into the underground tunnels, once used to bootleg whiskey, to the exclusive sex club, Phoenix. But they hadn’t made it to Phoenix because they got the call about Nessa’s attack.

Ronan had gotten a security gig for the club through Hawke, a retired Navy SEAL who Ronan had met during hell week. The bond they had created during that week had lasted throughout the years. When Ronan left the military, knowing Hawke had been out after he lost his leg to an explosive, he’d gone to Hawke looking for a job.

And damn, did he find a good one.

The sex club catered to the elite of New York City society, who partook in voyeuristic fantasies. When Ronan first worked at the club, he only worked security. It only took a month for Ronan to realize he was missing out on some big excitement and some big money in not partaking in the shows.

Within the walls of Phoenix, every person wore a mask, never revealing their identity. Not even names were spoken in the club. But each member had the option of selecting a show they wanted to watch. The one rule that was enforced was watching only; no touching allowed—unless Rhys granted permission as a special treat for certain members every month. Separate rooms were available to those who wished to engage with somebody after a show or for singles who wanted to hook up.

For these sexual fantasies, Rhys used ex-military to ensure his club was secure, but military-trained men were crowd favorites. Ronan knew why—their bodies were in peak physical performance. They were trained to be lethal, dominant, and considering what they’ve seen in life, anything that brought pleasure was nothing to be ashamed of, which made for shows without restraints of embarrassment.

As the hospital doors slid shut behind him, coldness sank deep into his bones as his friends went to the nurses’ station. The sound of the door sliding back open again dropped him into a memory so fast he had to lock his knees to remain upright.

Toys littered the room. More toys than Ronan had ever seen in his life. He picked up the solider and asked, “Where’s Mommy?”

The lady in the blue dress had tears in her eyes when she knelt in front of him. “Oh, sweetie, your mommy has gone to heaven.”

“When’s she coming back?” Ronan asked.

Tears slid down the stranger’s face. “I’m sorry, Ronan, but she’s not coming back.”

A whine and a cold, wet tickle on his hand snapped him into focus. Ronan looked down, finding his PTSD service dog, a black Labrador named Dex, peering up at him with his gentle, dark eyes. Ronan breathed through the emotion, instead of swallowing it back like he’d done for years, which had led to debilitating panic attacks. He stroked his dog’s head. “Thanks, buddy.”

He didn’t remember much of his mother. Even less of her death. But that one memory woke him from a dead sleep sometimes.

Apparently, visiting hospitals did the same.


He snapped to attention, finding Hunt’s firm brown eyes on him. Hunt held the air of a military man, with short brown hair and a hard edge that declared he’d seen some bad shit, but he hadn’t ever served in the military. He gestured for Ronan to follow him down the hallway. As a homicide detective, Hunt likely spent many hours in this cold space. Ronan hated every second here.

But there was a reason he tagged along.

“Jesus, Nessa,” Lottie gasped, rushing forward after she took the first step into the hospital room.

Hunt’s low curse followed.

Ronan entered the room, looking for the reason he came to the hospital and immediately understood. Nessa sat against the pillows on the bed, her face covered in bruises, cuts, her green eyes flecked with brown were dull, flat. Her honey-blonde hair was messy around her face. And something inside Ronan broke at the sight of her. She was always as bright as a star shining in the night sky, but all her light was dampened.

For weeks now, he’d been telling himself that the flirting he’d done with Nessa was harmless. That he shouldn’t enjoy the pinkish hue creeping up her cheeks whenever he spoke to her. That he didn’t fucking love when she looked at him with innocent, hungry eyes. But one look at her injured face, and Ronan knew for certain: he was a man who was already invested in this woman. Because he wanted to rip apart whoever hurt her.

The moment Lottie took Nessa’s hand, awareness filled those typically sunny green eyes, flecked with brown. A single tear slid down her cheek.

Lottie hugged her, and said, “My God, who did this to you?”

Nessa returned the hug, gripping Lottie until her knuckles went white. “I don’t know.”

Hunt closed in on the bed and asked in a gentle voice, “Did you get a good look at him?”

Leaning away from Lottie, Nessa shook her head. “It was dark out. He wore a mask. I didn’t see him at all.”

Ronan clenched his fists, fighting against the urge to hunt this fucker down and make him pay. No woman deserved this, especially not a woman as sweet as Nessa.

Hunt asked, “Have you had any trouble with anyone lately?”

“No,” Nessa said softly. “Nothing like that.”

Her voice trembled, and Ronan couldn’t take it anymore. He stepped forward. “What did he take from you?” he asked. That would give him a lead on how to find the prick.

“Nothing,” she whispered. Her gaze flicked to Ronan, and he sucked in a deep breath from the fear in her eyes. Eyes that usually were so full of life. The lack of life there began to unravel him. “He didn’t take anything. The police found my purse on the ground and gave it back to me.”

Ronan gritted his teeth as his gaze landed on her cut lip. He’d seen many wounds just like that. “Did he hit you?” he asked gently.

She glanced at her hands in her lap. Her voice got small. “Backhanded me after I bit his lip.”

Ronan sucked in a long breath, controlling the fury pulsating in his veins. He pushed his pride ahead of all he felt. “You did good, Nessa.”

Her head snapped up, surprise glistening in her eyes. “It wasn’t even a thought,” she said. “It was just instinct.”

“It was good instinct,” he told her, giving a firm nod. “You should be really proud of yourself.”

For a second, the warmth returned to her eyes before it was gone just as fast. “Thank you, Ronan,” she whispered, her voice shaking. 

He had never melted in his life. But whenever she said his name, staring at him, he goddamn melted. He forced a small smile back to reassure her, though he was just damn glad to see that life back in her eyes for a moment. The fucker didn’t steal that. It had dulled, but it would come back.

“I’m just so happy you’re okay, Nessa,” Lottie said, drawing Nessa’s attention away from him. “I can’t believe you were attacked.”

“Me neither. I don’t understand any of it.” She paused, drew in a visible long breath. “Someone was looking out for me. I don’t think I can ever thank the men who scared the guy off.” Tears welled in eyes, and Ronan felt like he’d been punched in the gut when she looked at him with a quivering bottom lip, and said, “I just want to go home.”

Hunt sidled closer to her. “Have they said you can be discharged?”

Nessa shrugged. “I think I have to speak to the detectives first.”

Hunt squeezed Nessa’s shoulder, looking softer than Ronan had ever seen him. “Give me a few. I’ll go see if I can hurry that along so you can go home.”

“Okay, thanks.” Nessa gave a little smile but cringed as the movement creased her split lip.

Ronan’s gaze met Hunt’s as he strode by, and all that softness he’d seen was gone, replaced by a murderous rage that Ronan understood. He glanced down at his dog and gestured to Nessa on the bed. “Go for a cuddle, buddy. She needs it.”

Dex, somehow always understanding what Ronan was saying, trotted over to the hospital bed and jumped up to lay on Nessa’s lap. Dex had been so tuned in with Ronan’s requests ever since he received Dex from the K9s For Warriors after a crippling panic attack that had left him hospital bound for a few days.

Something warmed in Ronan’s chest when Nessa wrapped her arms around his dog’s neck. As if she’d been given the right to, or felt the extra love that came from Dex, she began crying. Lottie dropped her head on Nessa’s shoulder, hugging her tight.

Taking that as his cue to leave, Ronan entered the hallway, finding Hunt, talking to two detectives near the nurses’ station. Ronan took a seat in the hallway, stretching out his legs, hating the smell of this place, the cleanliness, the coldness of the environment, the lack of life there.

A few minutes later, Hunt strode his way and took the seat next to Ronan. The two detectives entered the hospital room, obviously to get Nessa’s statement. Ronan was glad to see that Lottie didn’t come out. The last thing he wanted was Nessa to be alone, reliving the hell she’d been through.

Hunt cleared his throat, drawing Ronan’s attention. “If I clear it with Archer, can you watch over her until her case is solved?” he asked.

Relief swelled in Ronan’s chest. The last thing he wanted to do was leave Nessa alone. And he wasn’t sure how he would have broached the subject with her. “Of course, not a problem.”

“Good,” Hunt said with a sigh, running a hand across his eyes. “I know that will make Lottie feel a lot better. Neither of us can get the time off work.” Hunt was a homicide detective. Lottie was a dog walker and was attending veterinary school.

“As long as Archer and Rhys are good with my taking leave from working at the club”—Rhys owned Phoenix, and Archer was Phoenix’s head of security—“then I’m good with staying close to her.”

Hunt cupped Ronan’s shoulder, squeezing tight. “You’ll be good for her to lean on.”

Emotion slammed into Ronan, causing him to catch his breath. When he received his honorable discharge from the Navy SEALs after a string of injuries to his spine, back, ankle, and shoulder, and the multiple surgeries that followed, his PTSD had popped up its ugly head.

It wasn’t from his time in the miliary. There, he’d been focused, and knew his why—to protect his country and the good people within it—but without that focus, everything he’d been running from, and the memories of his mother’s death, haunted him. Ronan could never thank the nursing staff who recognized he was in trouble and got him the help he needed, connecting him with a great therapist and K9s For Warriors. He knew many vets who didn’t get that help. But now he had this new life, with a solid group of friends who were quickly becoming his chosen family, alongside his SEAL team, whom he kept in touch with and saw as often as their schedules allowed.

Ronan nodded in agreement. “I’ll be there for her.”

“Thanks, man.” Hunt smiled, giving him a pat on the back.

The next thirty minutes felt like the longest thirty minutes of Ronan’s life. He could hear Nessa’s soft cries as she retold the most horrible night of her life. And by the time the detectives left the room and said their goodbyes to Hunt, Ronan was nearly crawling out of his skin to get back into the room.

He didn’t wait for Hunt. He entered and found his dog staring right at him.

Ronan froze, the air stuck in his lungs. His dog didn’t need words to tell him that the only place he wanted to be right now was with Nessa. And Ronan got that because he wanted to be there too. Which made his head spin?

He’d liked flirting with her, but this, this was something different.

He stayed back and only whistled for his dog to return to his side as Nessa was about to get out of bed. It took every ounce of his strength not to go and help her, but he didn’t want to get in the way.

Lottie followed her into the bathroom. When the door reopened, Nessa wore a pair of scrubs, obviously given to her from the nurse, since her clothes were taken away as evidence of her attack.

Hunt led the way out of the room with Lottie following behind. As Nessa passed, Dex licked her hand, and she stroked his head.

Dex looked at Ronan. “Go on, buddy,” he told his dog.

Trotting to Nessa, his dog stayed glued to her side, and Ronan followed behind, unable to look away from her. Hunt was at her front. Ronan was at her back. His shoulders straightened. No one would get close to her again.

The moment they passed the nursing station, a soft, sweet voice called, “Nessa.”

She stiffened. “Oh, no.”

Ronan caught her sharp inhale. He jerked his head toward the source, but only found a bald, pale little boy, with the lightest blue eyes Ronan had ever seen, wearing Superman pajamas. A slender, blonde woman, in her mid-thirties, looking like she needed a year’s worth of sleep, wheeled the IV drip next to the boy.

He noted Nessa forcing a smile before she turned to the little boy. “Hi, Ollie.”

When Ollie caught sight of her injuries, his eyes widened, fear shining in their depths.

“I’m okay,” Nessa cut in quickly, hurrying to him. She dropped to her knees and took his hands. “It’s just bruises and cuts.”

Ollie didn’t even blink. “What happened to you?” he asked.

“I was in a car accident,” she answered, and Ronan understood the lie was to protect the boy. “But I’m okay. Promise.”

“Okay,” he said, slowly.

“Gosh, Nessa, how terrible,” the woman said, obviously the boy’s mother. She placed her hand on Ollie’s shoulder. “We’re so glad that you’re all right.”

“Thanks,” Nessa said, bracing herself to rise.

Ronan saw the struggle in the shaking of her arms. He understood the pain, having been injured many times. Hoping he wasn’t overstepping, he stepped forward and gently took her arm, helping her to feet.

A quiet moan spilled from her lips before she glanced at him. When those gentle eyes met his, he felt gut-punched. Again. “Thank you,” she said.

He inclined his head and then stepped back, his gaze falling to Hunt.

Hunt gave a nod of approval, and Ronan let the worry breath out of him that he shouldn’t have touched her.

“Okay, Ollie,” the mother said to her boy. “We need to get back, and Nessa needs to get home to rest.”

Ollie nodded at his mother, then came closer to Nessa and hugged her. “Take the medicine they give you. It helps when the pain gets bad.”

Ronan gut churned for a whole other reason now. A boy as young as this one, maybe five or six years old, shouldn’t know pain so intimately.

Nessa returned the hug. “I’ll come see you soon. Promise.”

“Bye, Nessa,” Ollie said with a final wave.

The moment they turned the corner, Nessa’s smile fell, and a soft cry fell from her lips. “Please get me home.”

Ronan walked behind her again, and knew he’d do one better. He’d get her home safe.


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