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.
I wasn’t sure what to expect as Kelly pulled into the parking lot of the rundown bar. His father’s gambling addiction was well known and a constant source of trouble for their family.
A group of men at the far end of the lot caught my eye. Judging by the tense set of Kelly’s jaw, he had noticed them as well. He killed the engine and unbuckled his seat belt. He leaned toward me, the alluring scent of his cologne filling my nose, and punched the button on the glove compartment.
My eyes widened when he retrieved a handgun and tucked it into the waistband of his jeans after checking to see if it was loaded and the safety in place. He flipped the bottom of his blazer over it. The dangerously sexy glint to his eyes sent a swarm of butterflies through my belly. There was something so incredibly enticing about his cool, commanding nature.
“Do you think you’re going to need that?”
“No, but it never hurts to be prepared.” Kelly flicked his fingers. “Let’s go. Remember what I told you.”
I glanced at the rowdy group that awaited us. “You won’t hear a peep out of me.”
Kelly reached out and tugged my ponytail. His teasing smile set me at ease. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”
We climbed out of the truck but I hesitated, uncertain if this was the sort of neighborhood where I wanted to leave thousands of dollars of computer equipment unattended even for a few minutes. I grabbed my backpack and put it on while crossing the parking lot.
As we neared the arguing group, I spotted Kelly’s older brothers, Finn and Jack, standing on either side of their father. They were facing off with a group of nine men who looked like big trouble. Mob trouble, if I had to guess.
“Kelly!” The man I assumed to be the leader of the group greeted my crush with a surprising smile. “I heard you were back in town.”
“Besian.” Kelly pushed me behind him and gave my hip a gentle pat. I didn’t dare move from the spot. Jack, Kelly’s oldest brother, glanced my way with some irritation. Feeling uncomfortable, I dropped my gaze to the pavement and tried to make myself as unnoticeable as possible. Intruding on this extremely private family matter was the absolute last way I wanted to spend my Friday night.
When Kelly shifted to the side, I finally got a good look at his dad and Finn. Both had busted up faces and hands. I winced as his father wiped at the blood seeping from his nose. Reaching back, I tugged on the zipper of a pouch on my backpack and retrieved a travel-sized package of tissues. I held it out to him and caught his attention.
His bleary-eyed gaze told me that he was drunk as a skunk again. When he recognized me, his red eyes widened with surprise. “Hey, kiddo.”
“Hi, Mr. Connolly.” Not taking offense to the kiddo remark, I pressed the tissues into his hand and gestured to my nose.
“Thanks.” He fumbled with the package while Kelly took another step toward the man called Besian.
“I thought you were a fan of discretion, Besian.” Kelly gestured to their very public surroundings. “What happened to keeping your business low profile?”
“What happened to men honoring their debts?” Besian neatly turned the question around on Kelly. “It’s all about honor and loyalty with me.”
“Sending five knee-breakers to a bar to attack two men is honorable?” Jack snarled angrily. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Kelly now.
“Nick was given ample opportunities to settle his debt. Let’s not forget that your brother threw the first punch.”
I glanced at Finn and then the group of gangsters. Finn might have lost his leg in war but he was still quite a beast when it came to hand-to-hand combat. Five of the other group had battered faces. I counted four black eyes and two cracked noses. Honestly, I couldn’t believe no one had called the cops for a brawl like the one that must have taken place here.
“Look, Kelly,” the man said in his thickly accented English, “I let this account ride for a few months because your father was always a good customer for Afrim. When I took over his action, I kept the rates the same for the old-timers but your dad has abused that privilege with his late and missed payments.”
Kelly glanced at Jack. I couldn’t tell what the two brothers were thinking but they seemed to be able to read each other’s minds. Jack gave the tiniest nod. With tired resignation, Kelly began negotiating. “How do we bring his account current?”
I watched the way Kelly’s older brothers deferred to him in this situation. Clearly Kelly had some sort of relationship with these bad guys. I wondered if Besian was someone he had met during his time as Yuri’s private guard or from his friendship with Vivian Kalasnikov.
Vivian and my friend Hadley ran in some of the same artist circles so I was acquainted with the up-and-coming painter. That husband of hers was rumored to be the Russian mob boss of Houston but I wasn’t sure if there was any truth to that. Considering the tight spot Kelly’s dad was in, having friends in very interesting places might be useful.
“The time for bringing the account current is over,” Besian replied with a slash of his hand. “I want the full balance paid by the end of the month.”
“What’s the damage?”
Both Jack and Finn stiffened with shock while Kelly made a choking sound. “Five hundred large?”
Besian gestured to the wall of muscle behind him. “You think I’d send this crew out for anything less?”
Jack whirled on their old man. “How the hell did you piss away half a million dollars?”
Nick dabbed at his still oozing nose. Rather indignant, he snapped, “It’s not like it happened all in one night. I had a couple of bad runs. Tack on the interest and late fees…” He shrugged. “It adds up quick.”
“Bad runs?” Jack looked like he was about to blow a freaking pupil and have a massive stroke. “Where the hell did you get the cash for the markers?”
Nick avoided his eldest son’s glare. “I sold some things.”
Kelly put a settling hand on his brother’s arm. Their gazes clashed as Jack shook it off but it seemed to have reined him in a bit. Turning back to Besian, Kelly said, “We can’t do that. Not by the end of May. We need more time.”
“The timeline isn’t up for negotiation. I have my own business interests to look after, Kelly. Your father settles his account by the end of May.”
Or what? I didn’t even want to think about what these men would do to Nick or his sons if the half a million wasn’t repaid. “I can cover it.”
The second the words left my mouth, I regretted them. Every eye snapped to me. Kelly pivoted slowly and pinned me with a withering stare. I suddenly remembered his instructions. I had promised to keep quiet, hadn’t I?
“Do I know you?” Besian stepped to the side so he could get a better look at me. Snapping his fingers, he smiled. “Yeah. You’re that computer genius that made Yuri even richer, right?”
I bristled at his description. “That’s hardly the way I would frame our working relationship.”
Besian’s shoulders bounced dismissively. “Call it whatever you want. I’m only interested in getting my money.”
“You’re not getting it from her.” Kelly’s irritated glare skipped from me to Besian. “This is our debt to settle. She’s not part of our family.”
Kelly’s remark shouldn’t have hurt me the way it did but I couldn’t ignore the pang that pierced my chest. After losing my family to cancer and war, Kelly and my friends were all the family I had left. Now I understood exactly how he saw me. No wonder he’d found it so easy to ignore me since that stupid kiss.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to turn down that offer,” the gangster counseled wisely. “Where else are you going to come up with a half a million in two weeks?”
“We’ll find a way.”
Besian stared at him Kelly for a few seconds, almost as if he was mulling over something. Finally, he said, “Maybe we can work out a deal that helps all of us.”
I didn’t like the sound of this possibility at all. Any deal that this guy would offer probably had some gnarly fucking strings attached.
“Let’s hear it,” Jack said.
“Paulie broke his leg last night in a rollover. I’m in the market for a new fighter. The tournament is the first weekend in June. Two nights and it’s done.” Besian slid his hands out in front of him. “We wipe the slate clean.”
I blinked and tried to wrap my head around the offer the gangster had just made. Fighter? What kind of fighter?
“No fucking way,” Finn interjected forcefully. “Those fights are brutal. Men die in that cage.”
Suddenly, I understood. This wasn’t sanctioned mixed-martial arts or boxing. They were talking about the underground fights that happened at the old meatpacking plant. I’d learned about them after starting college. A guy I had dated had shown me a video on his phone from one of the invite-only fights he’d attended with some of the guys from his frat. I’d nearly vomited watching half a minute of the bloody brawl.
My panicked gaze jumped to Kelly. Their dad had a reputation as a fighter from his younger days. It was the reason Connolly Fitness had been so successful. The business had taken a downturn while the boys were away at war but Jack was turning things around now.
Jack made a living instructing others in self-defense and Krav Maga. But Jack couldn’t fight anymore. His unit had come under heavy fire in Iraq. An explosion had caused a head injury that forced him out of the corps. As far as I knew, he had been warned to keep any hits to his head to a minimum or he risked serious injury. It was one of the reasons why he didn’t spar with his students.
And Finn? He’d lost his leg when his convoy had been hit by an IED. The men who fought in those bare-knuckle matches needed all their limbs in working order to survive. He simply couldn’t compete against some of the freakishly built men who fought on that circuit.
That left only Kelly—and I would be damned before I let him go into the ring.
“Give us forty-eight hours,” Kelly replied, ignoring his brother’s outburst. “We’ll give you an answer.”
“Twenty-four,” Besian countered before backing away with his men. “You know where to find me.”
The tension eased, and I glanced nervously between the Connolly brothers and their father. Nick swayed on his feet. Whether it was from the hits he’d taken or the alcoholic bender he’d clearly been on, I couldn’t tell. From the looks of his rumpled shirt and stained jeans, he hadn’t showered or changed in days. Was it the stress and guilt of his gambling debts that made him drink?
Jack exhaled roughly. “Let’s go, Dad.”
Kelly reached out and tapped Finn’s shoulder. “You okay to drive, man?”
“I didn’t drink!” Finn snapped at his brother. “I came here to drag Pops out of there.”
Kelly held up his hand. “Cool it, bro. I meant your head. Looks like you took a good smack.”
Finn brushed away Kelly’s hand before his younger brother could check the bruise forming on his jaw. “I’m fine. I’ll see you at the house.” His expression softened as he smiled at me. “It’s good to see you again, Bee.”
“You’re about to see more of her.” Kelly put his hand against my back. “She’s coming home with me tonight.”
Finn’s expression was almost comical. “Uh, Kelly, you think that’s a good idea? I mean, tonight?”
Kelly made an annoyed sound. “Not like that, Finn. She’s in trouble. We’re going to keep an eye on her until I can get her security situation sorted out tomorrow.”
“Oh. Well. Then I guess I’ll see you both back at the house.” Finn didn’t push for any more details before heading to his truck.
Kelly gave me a gentle push forward but refused to meet my questioning gaze. “So…you’re living with Finn and Jack?”
“I’ve been traveling so much it didn’t make sense to keep my place. Jack lets me rent a bedroom from him.”
Before I could ask how the arrangement was working, we reached Kelly’s truck. I quickly climbed into my seat and waited for him. As he crossed in front of the vehicle, I caught the clenched set of his jaw and realized he was upset. With me? With his dad? I figured he would tell me soon enough.
Buckled into his seat, Kelly jammed the key in the ignition and started the engine. He didn’t make any attempt to back out of the parking space. Instead, he exhaled loudly. “What did I tell you, Bee?”
I swallowed nervously. “Look, what was I supposed to do, Kelly?”
He darted an irritated glance her way. “You were supposed to be quiet.” Gripping the wheel, he asked, “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”
“I offered to help a friend in trouble.”
“No,” he countered roughly. “You just announced to the Albanian mafia that you can get your hands on half a million dollars without breaking a sweat. The next time one of those assholes is short on his pickups or makes a bum side deal, your face is going to be the first one that pops into his head. They’re going to be thinking that some young, sweet thing like you will be easy to blackmail or strong arm or kidnap for ransom.” With a ragged sigh, he added, “Jesus, Bee! How the hell am I supposed to keep you safe from a stalker if you’re walking around advertising your net worth to lowlifes? For someone so damn smart, you just made a really dumb move. “
His outburst shocked me. In all the time I’d known Kelly, he’d never once raised his voice with me. Within the cab of his truck, his normally deep voice seemed so much louder. Feeling stupid and embarrassed, I hastily averted my gaze to the window and blinked rapidly to clear the tears burning my eyes.
I heard the snap of Kelly’s seatbelt unlatching. A second later, his big hands were grasping my shoulders and gently turning me toward him. With the weight of my naïve misstep heavy on my shoulders, I hurriedly apologized. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”
“No.” Kelly touched my lips with his fingertip. “God, Bee, don’t apologize to me. Not after I just acted like the biggest jackass to you.” The moonlight and the parking lot lamps highlighted the pain and regret etched into his handsome face. He cupped my cheek and brushed the tears from my skin with the rough pad of his thumb. “I’m sorry, Bee. I’m so damn sorry.”
When he touched his forehead to mine, the spark of contact arced through me like lightning. “I’m upset and angry and stressed—but that doesn’t excuse the way I spoke to you.”
With trembling fingers, I stroked his cheek, the slight stubble there rasping my fingertips. “It’s all right.”
“It’s not all right. You don’t have any idea how the underworld works. You were just being kind.”
Relishing this moment of intimacy, I trailed my fingertips down his cheek to follow the curve of his jaw. “Please take the money, Kelly. Those men looked so dangerous. I don’t want you or your brothers or your dad to get hurt.”
Kelly clasped my hand. My heart flip-flopped in my chest when he pressed his mouth to my palm. Tugging away from me, he ended our sweet moment. “No. This is our mess. We’ll clean it up.”
“Bee,” he eyed me carefully, “if you give us half a million dollars, Besian and his crew will do one of two things. They’ll either tack on more interest and fees to squeeze more money out of you or they’ll give Pop a bigger line of credit. The next time it will be two or three million that he owes—and then what? I’m supposed to come to you with my hat in my hand and beg for charity?”
“It wouldn’t be charity, Kelly. You’re my friend.”
“Friends don’t abuse one another in that way.” He shook his head and put his truck in reverse. “Jack, Finn and I will figure out something else.”
I studied him as we pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street. “You’re not seriously considering fighting for that Besian guy.” He didn’t answer me immediately so I pushed harder. “Kelly?”
“I’ve fought in the cage before,” he admitted finally. “When I first left the corps and I was pissed off all the time,” he amended. “It felt good to beat the shit out of some other guy and I made a good chunk of money doing it.”
I gaped at him as his revelation hit me. If I was being totally honest, it didn’t really surprise me. When Kelly came home alive and Jeb came back in a box, he was so incredibly angry. I could totally see him seeking out a venue like that to blow off steam.
“That was then, Kelly. This is now. You’re an employee of a very well-respected private security firm. What the hell is your boss going to say when you come into work all busted-up?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. “You don’t know what men like Besian are capable of, Bee. Taking a few hits in the ring to clear our family’s debt is nothing compared to what those men will do.”
“And what happens if you get hurt in the ring, Kelly? I’ve seen those fights. I know what happens there. What if you become badly injured?”
He glanced at me as we passed through an intersection. “When did you see one of the cage matches?”
“Do you remember Cade?”
The irritated expression on his face told me he did. “The frat guy you dated your freshman year?”
“Yes. He showed me a video on his phone.” My gut lurched as I considered all the horrible ways this could end. “Kelly, please don’t do this. Just let me help you.”
“Because it isn’t right.”
“Oh my God! Who cares about what is right or wrong, Kelly? The Albanian mob owns your dad. They’re trying to extort you into risking your life.” I glared at him. “Is this because I’m a girl and you’re a guy? Would you take the money if I was a man?”
“What? Your gender has nothing to do with this.”
“So it’s not about some dumb male pride thing?”
He rolled his shoulders. “Pride isn’t dumb, Bee. Honor. Loyalty. Pride. They’ll take a man far in this world.”
“No, they’re going to take you to an early grave. I’ve already lost Jeb. I’m not going to lose you too!”
He reached across the center console and took my hand. He gave it a reassuring squeeze. “I’m not going anywhere, Bee.”
Staring out our entwined hands, I expected him to let go but he held tight as he deftly navigated the dark streets. I wasn’t brave enough to believe we were charting a new course in our friendship but I couldn’t stop the glimmer of hope burning within me.
We were on the cusp of something exciting and real—and I’d be damned if a loan shark mobster was going to threaten that. I’d move heaven and earth before I let Kelly step into that ring.
I just prayed he would forgive me…