After a stalker breaks into her home, internet entrepreneur Bee Langston decides Kelly Connolly is the only man who can help her—but seeking help from the former Marine isn’t easy, especially after she made a spectacular fool of herself trying to kiss the sinfully sexy bodyguard.
When Kelly spots Bee weaving her way through the Houston nightspot where he’s working security, all those feelings he’s desperately tried to deny for his best friend’s sister come flooding to the surface. He’ll do anything to keep her safe, even if means getting up close and personal with the one woman he simply can’t have.
Soon, Bee’s stalker isn’t his only problem. His gambling addict father is tangled in a mess of debts to two of Houston’s toughest loan sharks. With the family gym on the line, there’s only one way for Kelly to make everything right. He agrees to fight for the Albanian mob in an underground bare-knuckle fighting tournament.
But winning the tournament and saving his family’s legacy comes at a high price—one that just might cost Bee her life.
“We’re about to close up, Bee.”
Startled by the coffee shop owner’s voice, I tugged on the cord connected to my ear buds and glanced around the empty café. The lights were already dimmed and he’d flipped up the chairs on the tables surrounding me. I offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry, Ron! I didn’t realize it was so late.”
“Oh, it’s fine. You’re one my favorite and best customers.” Ron drummed his fingers on the wooden chair across from me. He seemed hesitant to speak but finally worked up the nerve to say it. “Is everything okay? I noticed you’ve been spending more time here over the last couple of weeks. We just had that housewarming party for your new place so..?”
I brushed off his concern with a shrug. “I do some of my best work here. My brain seems to function better when I’m inhaling coffee fumes.”
He laughed. “Maybe I should use that as part of my new marketing efforts to draw in the high tech crowd.”
“Make sure you emphasize the wicked fast Wi-Fi and these super comfy chairs,” I added while tucking my laptop and gear into my backpack.
“So what are you working on tonight?”
“I’m troubleshooting some bugs in a program I built for a DJ friend of mine. She likes to interact with her fans and the audience while she’s spinning but it’s hard to juggle social media while she works.”
“I bet. That’s a very hands-on job.”
“Exactly. So I created a program that allows her to filter messages via hashtags and clip out the pertinent bits to build playlists.” I drained the last of my lukewarm coffee. “She’s trying it out at Faze tonight but it’s not working seamlessly.”
“You’ll get it figured it out,” he said with a dismissive wave.
“I hope so.”
“Bee, you built HomeFront at the kitchen table of your granddad’s house while you were still in high school. You created LookIt while you were a freshman at Rice. I’m pretty sure you can figure out some bugs in this new software.”
I shot him an appreciative smile. “I might have to snap your pic and hang it in my workspace as a motivational tool.”
He chuckled and combed his fingers through his blond hair. “Whatever it takes, right?”
“Something like that,” I murmured and slipped my arms through my backpack straps. When I reached for my chair, our hands bumped together. Ron quickly tugged his hand back. I’d noticed that he seemed to have an aversion to personal touch so I didn’t make a big deal out of it. Everyone had their quirks and this one seemed to be his.
“Are you on your bike tonight?”
I nodded and dug the key to my bike chain from the pocket of my jeans. “It’s not a long ride now that I’ve moved into the new place.”
He glanced toward the floor to ceiling windows lining the front of his downtown shop. “It’s awfully late, Bee. You sure you don’t want me to drive you? I’m happy to let you park your bike inside for the night.”
“It’s a tempting offer but I’ll pass. I need to burn off some energy anyway.”
Ron seemed reluctant to let me go. “Well…if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” I unclipped my bike helmet from my backpack strap and plopped it down onto my head. “I’ll see you around, Ron.”
“See you later, Busy Bee.”
I smiled at his playful nickname and left the café. Outside in the humid night, I grimaced at the suffocating heat. Mid-May in Houston and the temperatures were already flirting with three digits. I shuddered to think what July would bring.
As I unlocked my bike and wound the chain around the handlebars, I wondered if it wasn’t time to crack open that vacation folder tucked away in my desk. It wasn’t just the heat I wanted to escape. The stress of my skyrocketing profile as a tech entrepreneur was finally starting to get to me.
A little nervously, I glanced around the dark but still busy street. One of the theaters up the block was just letting out and the bars and restaurants lining either side of the avenue had steady streams of patrons moving through their doors. I don’t know what I expected to see among the crowd. A boogeyman in black? A masked figure?
Shaking my head at my silliness, I inhaled a cleansing breath and hopped onto my bike. There’s no one there. You’re just paranoid.
I eased off the sidewalk and into the bike lane. Keeping an eye on the late-night traffic, I tried to focus on the cars and buses whizzing along beside me. My thoughts continually strayed to the weird vibe that had been following me around for the last few weeks.
At first, I had convinced myself it was merely the stress of preparing for finals, moving into my first real place, entertaining an offer for LookIt, my micro-blogging platform, and schmoozing advertisers. I had even reluctantly conceded that years of pulling all-nighters to study or write code hadn’t been kind to my body. All that caffeine and junk food? Not exactly good brain fuel.
Throw in all the normal coed partying and the occasional weekend hackathon and I probably hadn’t had a full eight hour stretch of sleep since high school. When I considered the fact that I had lost my mother and brother within the last four years? Well—it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility that I was simply starting to mentally deteriorate from wear and tear and stress.
But, while I could brush off the strange sensation of being watched, there was no way I could ignore the bizarre phone calls and texts that couldn’t be traced beyond the burner phones that had been used to send them. With my contacts, there was very little information I couldn’t get my hands on, but the phones were dead ends. They had all been purchased with cash and had been used at various places around the city so I couldn’t even create a geographical profile of the weirdo bothering me.
Three days ago, I had started to receive disgusting photographs. They popped up in random places—tucked under the windshield wiper of my car, stuffed in my backpack—and made my skin crawl.
There was only on conclusion that made sense.
I had a stalker.
The very thought of some creep following me around and sending me snapshots of his dick made me want to puke. Ever since I had made a splash on the tech scene in high school with HomeFront—a real-time chat service for military families—I had experienced more than my fair share of weirdos. Most of them were harmless folks who lacked social skills and simply wanted to reach out to someone who interested or inspired them.
But this? No, this crap was a different league altogether. It felt intensely personal and it scared me.
More than once, I had considered calling Kelly. There wasn’t a man on earth I trusted more than my brother’s best friend. He had been a permanent fixture in my life for as long as I could remember. If anyone could protect me from this unknown menace, it was Kelly Connolly.
But the former Marine worked in private security for the Lone Star Group and had been bouncing in and out of the country since March while on a detail with a sheikh from Dubai. I had tried calling him a couple of times but his phone went straight to voicemail. He hadn’t returned my texts either.
A twinge of hurt twisted in my chest at the way he had basically ignored me. There was no one to blame for that but me. A poorly timed attempt to kiss him on New Year’s Eve had resulted in a quick rejection and such incredible embarrassment. Not surprisingly, Kelly shutting me down like that had strained our once easy relationship.
Whenever he was in Houston, Kelly made sure to stop by and see me but our visits were growing shorter. He seemed unable to spend even half an hour in my presence.
And it hurt. Bad.
Even now, as I angled my handlebars to glide up onto the sidewalk, I couldn’t ignore the gut-churning pain of unrequited love. Falling head over heels for your brother’s ridiculously sexy friend? Definitely not my smartest move.
But it wasn’t as if I had ever stood a chance. Kelly was…well…he was perfect, wasn’t he? The bright green of his eyes had been my favorite color since I was old enough to have a driver’s license. His boyish grin did crazy things to my belly and that booming, raucous laugh of his made my heart race. I couldn’t stop fantasizing about having his big, strong arms wrapped around me—or tumbling in bed with him.
Foolishly, I had let myself believe that I could be something more to him than just Jeb’s kid sister. Clearly I had been wrong. Now, I was paying for that mistake. When I needed Kelly most, he wasn’t there for me.
As I slowed to a coast near the building I had recently purchased, I experienced the strongest pang of loneliness at the idea of spending another night alone in my empty apartment. After living in a noisy dorm for two years and sharing a house with Coby and Hadley for another two years, adjusting to a newer, quieter space was proving incredibly difficult for me. I was having serious second thoughts about striking out on my own. I found myself wanting to crawl right back into the third bedroom at Coby and Hadley’s place.
Hopping off my bike, I walked it the last few feet to the private entrance of my building. I had snapped it up in early February after the developer that had previously owned it was forced into bankruptcy after pleading guilty to a list of shady crimes. So far, only the top two floors were inhabitable. One I used as a living space and the other as a workspace. I hoped to have the rest of it renovated and operational as the headquarters for my company by the end of the summer. The floor I currently rented at Yuri Novakovsky’s downtown skyscraper was nice enough but we needed more space if we were going to continue growing.
After unlocking and locking the side entrance, I swiped my keycard near the RFID reader to access the elevator. I rolled my bike inside and punched the button for my floor. Leaning my head back against the cool metal, I tapped my finger against my bike seat while the elevator slowly climbed. The elevator bounced slightly as it reached its destination and dinged pleasantly.
I pushed my bike across the small private entryway to my front door. While I dug for my keys in the front pocket of my backpack, I noticed a strange brown residue on the door frame. Was it dirt? I couldn’t tell and wasn’t about to get close enough to sniff.
Holding the door open with my foot, I rolled my bike across the threshold and leaned it against the wall of my sparsely decorated space. I smacked on the light and took exactly three steps into the living room before freezing mid-stride.
There, sitting on my coffee table, was a hot pink gift box adorned with a bright white bow.
Adrenaline poured into my bloodstream as I realized someone had been in my home while I was gone. I was the only person who had a key to the front door or the access card for the elevator.
Panicked, I glanced around the opening living space. Was my stalker still here?
Terrified, I frantically backed up to the door and escaped my apartment. I didn’t bother waiting for the elevator. I rushed to the emergency stairwell and swiped my keycard through the reader there to unlock the door. Taking the steps two and three at a time, I raced down the seven floors. It was a freaking miracle I didn’t break my neck.
Bursting out the side entrance, I didn’t even wait for the door to close behind me before sprinting to the sidewalk. My backpack bounced against my back as I desperately searched for people. A fast food joint on the next corner over beckoned me with its promise of safety.
Huffing and panting, I reached the brightly illuminated spot out front and sagged against the brick wall with utter relief. With shaking hands, I retrieved my cell phone from my backpack and started to dial 9-1-1. My finger hovered over the touchscreen but I couldn’t commit to calling the police.
During my freshman year, a girl in our dorm had been stalked by an ex-boyfriend who had followed her halfway across Texas just to harass her in Houston. The police had done absolutely nothing to help her, not until the creep had gotten close enough to abduct her from a grocery store parking lot. All the restraining orders in the world hadn’t been enough to save her from seven horrifying hours of being held hostage at a rundown motel with that sicko.
Even though it made me feel awful, I had to consider the purchase offer for LookIt slowly working its way through the lawyers and accountants. There were so many people counting on that deal happening, especially the investors who had supported me from the beginning. Bad press like this? It could tank a shaky deal.
There was only one thing to do. I had to find Kelly.