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At Your Service

Masters and Mercenaries~Topped Book 4

Lexi Blake

At Your Service

Masters and Mercenaries~Topped Book 4

Published by DLZ Entertainment LLC at Smashwords

Copyright 2017 DLZ Entertainment LLC

Edited by Chloe Vale

ISBN: 978-1-937608-64-4

McKay-Taggart logo design by Charity Hendry

Lyrics from “Don’t Call Me Darlin’” copyright Corinne Michaels, to appear in Say You Won’t Let Go.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights.

This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental.


Thanks to the usual suspects: Kim Guidroz, Liz Berry, Kori Smith, Sara Buell, Riane Holt, Stormy Pate, Danielle Sanchez, Jillian Stein, Richard Blake, and Dylan Blake.

Special thanks to Corinne Michaels and Larissa Ione for letting me spend time with your characters as we build toward our crossover event! Meshing worlds is easy and amazing when you work with authors as talented as the two of you!

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Table of Contents



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Author’s Note

An excerpt from Master Bits & Mercenary Bites~Girls Night by Lexi Blake

Nobody Does It Better, Masters and Mercenaries 15 by Lexi Blake

An excerpt from Chasing Taz by Khloe Wren

About Lexi Blake

Other Books by Lexi Blake


Javier winked at the gorgeous blonde as he fumbled with the keys to his apartment. Normally he didn’t bring women back here. It was way easier to go to their place and sneak out after the sex was done, thus sparing them both an awkward morning, but Kristy was different.

At least he thought she might be.

They’d been seeing each other for a month. He’d met her at a private play party. She’d been there with a couple of friends, but she’d seemed drawn straight to him after the first hour. She’d shyly asked if they could play, and they’d been partners from then on. After a few raucous sessions, they’d decided to take their relationship into the vanilla world and see where they could go.

He’d taken her out with some friends tonight. If things went well, he might ask if he could bring her with him to Sanctum. Of course, she’d have to go through a bunch of checks and interviews because Sanctum was a private BDSM club. It would be good to have a sub at his side.

“Oh, Sir,” she said, rubbing her body against his as though she couldn’t even wait until they were inside. “I’m going to rock your world tonight.”

After tonight, she wouldn’t call him Sir again. It was time. He wasn’t a child anymore and he was tired of one-night stands, had been for a while. He wasn’t sure Kristy was the one, but he was willing to give it a go, and that started by inviting her to spend the night with him.

Letting her know where he lived. Had he really thought that? Maybe he was as bad as everyone said he was.

He slid the key in the door just as he caught sight of the new girl walking down the hall.

What was her name again? Julie? Juliana?

Jules. Chef had introduced her as Jules. She was the new hostess and she’d rented the apartment across from his. She was carrying an armful of groceries. Normally he would have helped her with that, but he had a horny blonde to deal with. A horny blonde whose hand was currently trying to run down his slacks.

She could be awfully aggressive when she wanted something. He tried to gently tug her hand up. This was a coworker and he was trying to rebrand himself as anything but a manwhore. Making out in the hallway was not going to help his reputation.

He managed to nod Jules’s way. “Sorry. Uhm, it’s been a night, you know.”

Jules strode by them. “I don’t think your night’s over, buddy.”

“It’s definitely not,” Kristy whispered far too loudly. “Not over at all.” Kristy stopped, her body stiffening behind him. “Eww, what’s wrong with her arm?”

Shit. He should have cut Kristy off at the fourth round of shots. They’d gone out with some of his friends from the club and it had been obvious that his Dom friends hadn’t thought he’d been careful enough. Kristy had been a little loud, a bit too much. Now he agreed with them.

She hadn’t behaved this way in the dungeon. She’d been practically perfect.

Jules turned, holding up her left arm. It had been amputated just below the elbow. He hadn’t seen her without the prosthetic before. “I like to call her stumpy. What? You never seen a stump before? Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, sister.”

“Hey,” he called out, wanting to apologize.

“Don’t worry about it.” Jules managed to get her door open. “I don’t care what a drunk fool thinks anyway.”

And he’d made a friend. Her door slammed closed.

“She’s weird.” Kristy went back to wrapping herself around him.

“She’s a coworker and you just embarrassed me.” He opened the door and managed to unwind her, turning to look into her eyes. She was gorgeous, with wheat-colored hair and a body made to bang, but he really looked at her this time. She was a lovely woman, but there was a cruel twist to her lips and a hardness in her eyes he hadn’t noticed before. “Do you understand that woman gave a part of her body to ensure that you can go out on a Friday night and drink too much tequila? She lost that arm during her service to our country. I could have done the same, but I was lucky.”

She frowned, her bottom lip out in what he was sure she thought was a sexy pout. “What’s up with you tonight? I thought we were having fun.”

Maybe this wasn’t going to work out the way he thought it was. “Come on. Let’s go inside.”

They might need to talk because if she was that rude to a woman she didn’t know, how the hell was she going to handle his family? He had a brother in a wheelchair. Would she make fun of him, too? No. Optimism. He was going to be optimistic. She was drunk and in the morning, he would talk to her and have her apologize to Jules. There was no reason to ruin the whole night. It would be an object lesson.

But maybe he would keep the collar he’d purchased for her in his pocket. He might need a little more time to make that decision.

She was always sweet as pie around him. It was just the liquor.

Life was easier when his hookups happened in broom closets. He never had to see past how hot a chick was.

He closed the door behind him.

Kristy immediately turned and started to play with the buttons on her shirt. “Don’t be mad at me. I can’t stand the thought.”

She was incredibly sexy. Curves in all the right places, and they were all artfully on display.

So why was he thinking about Jules and wishing he could walk to her apartment and apologize again? He didn’t really know the woman, had only worked a few shifts with her, but he’d hated the blank look on her face. Oh, he’d heard her sarcastic words, but they’d covered up what had to have been at least a pain she’d become numb to.

Like his brother.

Kristy stepped in, turning her face up. “I can make it up to you, Sir.”

What the hell was wrong with him? He was alone with a woman who was willing to have sex with him and he found himself thinking more about sleep than an orgasm. “I think it’s late. Maybe we should go to bed and talk some more in the morning.”

He should know more about her than her bra size and which lube she liked.

Her eyes had gone wide. “You want to go to sleep? It’s not that late, Sir. I was rude. I’m sorry. What’s my punishment? I think a spanking and then I should totally take care of you. I can make it all right and then maybe the next time we play, you’ll take me to Sanctum.”

He stopped. “What do you know about Sanctum?”

He’d never mentioned the club to her. It was a private space. He hadn’t intended to mention it to her at all until he had cleared it through the owners.

Her eyes went wide. “Oh, some of the other subs I’m friends with were talking about it. They know that you and Eric and Deena are members there.”

Eric and Deena were some of the friends he’d introduced her to. Eric had been his boss for a long time, teaching him much of what he knew. When Eric had left Top Dallas to be the executive chef at Top Fort Worth, he’d started having some play nights out in his neck of the woods. It wasn’t the same as Sanctum, but he missed Eric and made time to go out to Fort Worth. After Eric met her, he’d told Javier to be cautious about Kristy, but then Eric kind of had it all so it was easy for him.

He was getting tired of being the manwhore. He was thirty and he had his dream job. It was time to settle down. Time to be serious, and he could be serious about a banging blonde babe who liked D/s.

And apparently knew about his connections to the most exclusive club in the state.

She looked up at him, giving him big doe eyes that might have worked on him before she’d mentioned Sanctum. “Come here, Sir. I think I should get you out of those clothes.”

There was a hard knock on his door that startled Javi.

It was nearly midnight. Who the hell would be here?

Except any of a dozen women who could have tracked him down.

“Javier?” A female voice yelled through the door. “I know you’re in there. Open up.”

Kristy suddenly didn’t look as sexy as she had the moment before. Or quite as drunk as she’d seemed. Her eyes had narrowed. “Who the hell is that? You have some other sub? Is she the one you take to Sanctum? I’m just some cheap piece of ass on the side.”

Javier moved to the door. He recognized that angry female voice, though it wasn’t usually directed at him. She was the one female he couldn’t hide from. “It’s my sister-in-law.” He opened the door and stopped, his heart suddenly in his throat. “What happened?”

Sonja was standing there, his niece on her hip. Camilla was barely a year old and she clung to her mother, her eyes red rimmed with tears. Camilla was wearing a pair of brightly colored footie pajamas. Sonja looked worse for the wear. His sister-in-law always took care with her appearance. He’d never once seen her with her hair in disarray, mascara smudged. It looked like she’d managed to push his brother’s wheelchair while she carried her child.

“What do you think happened, Javi? What happens every single night since he came home?” Sonja asked, sounding infinitely tired.

Rafe. His older brother. Rafe was in his wheelchair, slumped over as though he’d passed out, and he probably had. He was thinner than Javier had ever remembered seeing him, his hair greasy and unkempt.

Rafe stirred, his head coming up. “Bitch won’t let me sleep.”

Anger welled in Javi, warring with the guilt and shame he felt whenever he looked at his brother. Whenever he realized that it could have been him in that wheelchair having lost both legs in a helicopter crash. All it would have taken was a change of assignment, some bad luck.

There were days when Javier wished like hell it had been him. He didn’t have a wife and child to take care of. No one would have cared if he’d devolved into some pathetic thing.

“I can’t do it anymore.” Sonja backed up, tears streaming down her face. “I took him in because he lost his last apartment and he was going to be homeless. He promised me he would try, but it’s exactly like it was before the divorce. I hide the liquor and he has a buddy bring more over. He won’t go to rehab. I set everything up for him but he cancels it the minute I go to work. He won’t even try. He gets drunk and he scares the baby. I can’t, Javi.”

Javi’s heart twisted. What was she saying? “Sonja, he’s going to get better. He’s got another surgery soon. He’s going to get better.”

“Fuck it,” Rafe slurred. “Not doing the fucking surgery. Don’t need you or her. Don’t need anyone. Get the fuck out, Sonja.”

Camilla started to cry, burying her face in her mother’s neck.

“I have to think of my daughter,” Sonja said, tears rolling down her face.

Javier remembered Sonja on her wedding day five years before. She’d been gloriously happy with her husband. Sonja had worn a white wedding dress and Rafe had been in his dress whites. Javier had stared at them as they’d danced and wondered if he’d ever find anyone who looked at him the way Sonja looked at Rafael.

How the hell had it all fallen apart?

His sister-in-law turned and walked down the hall toward the elevator, cradling her baby to her chest. Javier watched as Camilla’s head came up, and she looked at her father as her mother swept her away.

And he was left with his brother.

“Do you need help getting him inside?”

He turned and realized the new girl was standing in the hallway. He hadn’t noticed when she’d opened her door and stepped outside.

Rafe. He had to get Rafe inside. The neighbors were opening their doors and watching the scene playing out in the hall with curious eyes. Shit. If he didn’t hurry, someone would call the cops and he would have that headache to deal with.

“I can get him in,” he stuttered as he moved around, getting behind the chair.

“Who is that?” Kristy stared at his brother like he was a bug she needed some man in her life to sweep away so it didn’t disturb her.

“He’s my brother,” he said under his breath, well aware lots of people were listening in. He pushed the chair forward but it didn’t go anywhere. He tried again. What was wrong with the chair? Damn it. He didn’t know how to work it. Rafe wouldn’t let him near the chair. It was a serious point of contention since his brother had come home.

“He can’t stay here,” Kristy insisted. “I thought we were going to have fun. I’m not some nursemaid. He should be in a hospital or something. He looks sick.”

“He’s my brother.” His head was racing. He needed to get inside. Why wasn’t the chair moving?

“The brakes are on,” a calm voice said. “Let me help you. Hold the door open for me and we’ll get him inside and away from prying eyes. You would think they’d never seen a dude in a wheelchair.”

The new girl was standing there, her soothing voice reaching out to him. He moved out of her way and she competently flipped the brakes off and pulled the chair back, though she only had one hand.

“I’ve certainly seen men in wheelchairs,” Mrs. Gleeson from 5E said, holding her robe closed. “I’m eighty-two. It’s how all the men I date get around. You work that chair well, dear. You’re not Javier’s usual. Much more lovely.”

Kristy stepped out, frowning. “She’s not his girlfriend.”

Mrs. Gleeson sighed as she looked her over. “Yes, that’s what I was expecting. Oh, well. If the gentleman in the wheelchair needs a hangover cure in the morning, come down. I’ve got a wonderful herbal tonic. I’m going to dip into the wine this evening.”

“Could you keep it down?” Mr. Cassidy from 5F shifted his glasses and frowned.

Mrs. Gleeson shook her head. “Oh, go back to bed, old man. Have you never seen a man in a wheelchair, his brother who has terrible taste in women, a blonde tart, and a lovely female veteran who’s trying to help out?” She waved down the hallway toward Jules. “Let me know if you’re single, dear. I have two grandsons.”

Javier felt his face flame as Rafe’s head came up.

“Where the fuck am I?” Rafe nearly shouted.

“Go back to sleep, buddy. It’s definitely time to sleep it off,” Jules said quietly.

“Don’t go. Sonja, baby, I didn’t mean it,” he mumbled. His eyes were completely unfocused.

How deep had Rafe fallen?

“It’s okay. No one’s going anywhere. Go to sleep,” she replied, not missing a beat. “We can talk in the morning.”

She pushed the wheelchair, easing it inside the apartment.

Kristy was hard on her heels. “Who the fuck is she and why is that man here? Javier, I’m patient, but this is too much.”

Jules looked over at her. “Then you should go because apparently this is his brother and he needs help. Are you going to help? Or are you going to whine and cause more problems for your boyfriend here? Javier needs someone who can help him get these prosthetics off and get his brother into bed. I am more than willing to turn that job over to his loving girlfriend, but you look way more like a chick who runs at the first given opportunity. Which one is it going to be?”

Kristy stared at her like she wasn’t sure what to say.

Javier knew. “I think you should leave, Kristy. I’ll call you a cab.”

She turned on him. “Don’t bother. You’re not the man I thought you were. I thought a Dom from Sanctum wouldn’t live in a hellhole. It’s not worth it. I’ll find another way.”

She stalked out the door, slamming it behind her.

“Well, I showed her, didn’t I?” It wasn’t really a hellhole. Of course, it wasn’t all that nice either.

Jules glanced back at him, her lips quirking up. “Sanctum? Is that the club Chef and Mrs. Taggart mentioned? I bet it’s full of rich dudes.”

“Not all of us are rich. Some of us just work for the rich dudes.” So much for settling down.

Except apparently now he had a brother to take care of. An alcoholic double amputee with a terrible attitude.

“It’s better to know now. Sorry, I heard a rumor she’s a new girlfriend, not a long-time thing,” Jules commented.

Ah, the rumor mill was still strong at Top. “Yeah, it wasn’t anything serious. Thanks for helping.”

Jules put the brakes on again. “No problem. Do you know how to get his prosthetics off? He should sleep without them. He’ll be more comfortable.”

How had she known? He shook his head because his brother was wearing cutoff sweats and his legs were visible. Not something Rafe would have done had he known he was going out for the evening.

His brother had always been impeccable. But then this man wasn’t really his brother since his brother would never, in a million years, call his wife a bitch and scare his tiny daughter. Ex-wife.

What the fuck was he going to do?

“Hey, one step at a time. I know this is overwhelming but the only way to handle it is to work the problem in front of you. Getting him to bed. Unless you want to call someone. Is there anyone else who’ll take him?” Jules’s logical questions and competent demeanor were something he could cling to.

He tried to shove aside the emotional storm playing through his brain. He shook his head. There was no one he could call. His mother lived in an assisted living facility. His father had passed years before. His sister had her own family to take care of and his younger brother had recently graduated high school and joined the Army, following in his and Rafe’s footsteps.

“You could call the cops,” she said gently, not a hint of judgment in her tone. “They could help you figure out where to take him.”

“Of course not.” They were just the words he needed to get him moving. She was right. He needed to work the problem in front of him and then get some sleep. There would be a world of new problems to solve tomorrow. He looked up at the woman who was showing him such kindness. “I’m sorry about what Kristy said to you earlier. She was never mean before. I guess I didn’t really know her.”

“You knew her bra size,” Jules replied with a grin. “That’s all most guys need to know about a woman like her. Hey, she was hot. I’m not so hetero I can’t see that.”

“Yep, she was hot. And then she wasn’t. At least not for me.” He had a suspicion now that her hots for him were all about getting into Sanctum, where she likely would have found a wealthier, more powerful Dom and left him behind.

Jules knelt down beside him and showed him how to pull his brother’s C-legs off, how to clean and dry his stumps, how to ease him onto the bed without hurting him. Rafe was deadweight. If Jules struggled with her part, he didn’t see it. She didn’t complain or show strain.

She even seemed to know that he needed a minute. She walked out of his bedroom after they’d gotten Rafe into bed.

He stared at his brother, wondering what the hell he was going to do now.

Rafe had been his rock. Rafe had been the leader. He was only two years older, but it had always been Rafe who would go first into anything. It would all be easy if Rafe had been a shitty brother, but he’d never shut Javier out, never told him he couldn’t go along because he was a snot-nosed kid brother.

Who the hell was he now?

Javier grabbed a blanket and a couple of pillows. He would bunk down on the couch until he figured out what to do.

He stepped back out into his living room and the redhead was there. She’d poured a couple of fingers of whiskey into a glass and held it out for him.

“You should enjoy this now. I think you probably need to get rid of it in the morning.”

He took it from her. He definitely hadn’t had enough to drink. He’d been driving and planning to play, so he’d had exactly one beer hours before. He took the glass and downed a healthy portion.

“I’ve written down a couple of numbers for you.” She gestured to a notepad on his bar. “One of them is a really good rehab place not far from here. I actually go there on a regular basis and they’re super good at what they do. I left you the number for a…well, he’s a guy who works with vets.”

Javier could guess. “Kai Ferguson? Yeah, I think Rafe’s already given up on that.”

She shrugged. “Kai’s a good guy to talk to anyway. I’ve only had a couple of sessions with him and he knows what he’s doing. He could give you advice. The other number is a veteran service’s group that will do everything from helping to set up doctor’s appointments to getting him to and from rehab. They’ll also probably send a nurse if he qualifies.”

It was too much. He couldn’t pivot and change that quickly. One minute he’d been dipping his toe into having a girlfriend who knew where he lived, and now he had a brother who would be dependent on him. And Rafe would be angry about it.

“Are you okay?” Jules asked.

“Why are you being nice to me?” He took another drink. If Rafe was staying, he would have to hide the liquor. Or do what she’d said and get rid of it because he was going to be responsible for his big brother, and it looked like the party was over.

She held up her left arm, showing off the stump it ended in. “I kind of know where he’s been. I definitely know what it’s like to feel alone.”

“Well, I’m pretty sure Rafe wants to be alone.” He couldn’t get the look in his niece’s eyes out of his head.

Jules moved to the door. “I was talking about you. If you need help with him in the morning, you know where I am. See you at work.”

She closed the door behind her and he was alone again.

He sat up for the longest time knowing his whole world had changed.

Chapter One

One month later

Juliana O’Neil stared down at the petite brunette named Suzanne and wondered if she was a bored housewife. She had that look about her. Not the bored part, exactly. The woman had a glow, a certain innocent awe for the little things that made Jules wonder how often she got out. The housewife part she fit. She looked like the kind of woman who had a husband she would dote on and a couple of kids who adored her.

So what the hell had gone so wrong that Suzanne was here trolling?

It was the fact that sweet woman with the Southern accent couldn’t seem to take her eyes off Javier that caught Jules’s attention. Had she met the gorgeous chef somewhere, he did what he did with all women, and now she followed him around like a puppy?

Somehow the idea of Suzanne finding a broom closet and having fun with the handsome chef didn’t sit right with Jules.

“Was everything all right with your dinner?” Jules wasn’t sure how to go about trying to save a woman. Not that she hadn’t before. She’d totally saved people from mortar fire and bad guys. She’d been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt, which in this case was more like got the completely shitty prosthetic. Saving a woman from herself and picking the wrong dude to moon over was a completely new experience.

Suzanne glanced up from where she’d been staring and flashed a bright smile. “It was amazing. Truly. It was the best of all the meals I’ve had here. The bacon wrapped shrimp were better this evening. Not that they weren’t excellent when I had them two days ago, but this evening there was something…some extra zing to them.”

Suzanne waved a hand and Jules caught a glimpse of something on her inner wrist. Was that a brand? Maybe the sweet-looking housewife type had some secrets of her own.

“I tweaked the barbecue sauce they use. I didn’t do it myself, obviously. I merely mentioned that adding some cayenne would boost the flavor,” she admitted.

“I thought you were the hostess. I didn’t realize you were a chef.” Suzanne’s face brightened. “That’s very exciting. I love to cook. I would love to talk to you about the beef Wellington I had last night. The pastry was perfection. Do you make your own pastry dough or use a frozen puff pastry? I tried my hand with it, but it’s surprisingly delicate.”

Jules held up her obviously fake hand. “No, I’m not a chef. I simply help out in the kitchen from time to time. And I do believe the chefs make their own pastry. I wouldn’t be able to.”

Suzanne frowned. “Why not?”

Did she not see the prosthetic? “Cooking is one of those things that requires two hands for real precision. I only have one now and it’s not even my dominant hand. I was a lefty and now it’s gone. I’m not saying I can’t heat a can of soup, but cooking is an art form.”

“So is surviving,” Suzanne said with a wistful smile. “I think you could probably do anything you would like, but sometimes dreams shift. You seem to know how to fix a recipe.”

“Like I said, I help out.” She’d been thinking a lot lately about doing more.

“How long have you been at Top?” Suzanne asked, her eyes straying back to the bar.

“I hired on six weeks ago.” Yep, there it was, that longing look in her new friend’s eyes. How to handle this? Jules caught Ally’s stare across the room. Ally Miles was one of the servers, and she, along with Tiffany Lowe, had come up with the “save the civilian” plan. Ally nodded her way, encouraging her to continue. “I noticed you come in a lot.”

Suzanne nodded, her eyes still on the bar where Javier was sitting with a couple of friends. “Yes, I was quite happy to find this place. I’m recently moved here. Starting a new job and a new life, so to speak. It’s nice to find places where I feel comfortable.”

What did she say now? She wasn’t any good at this. Damn it. Why had she stopped at Suzanne’s table? If she’d just gone on about her business it could be Ally over here awkwardly warning a perfect stranger about venereal diseases. This was Ally’s table after all. It should be her job, but she’d found herself asking Suzanne about how the meal had gone. “I’m new myself. You know new girls gotta stick together.”

“Oh, yes, we do,” Suzanne agreed, leaning in. “Which is why I hope you’ll allow me to give you some advice. I’m very good at seeing things like this.”

“Things like this? What is this?”

Suzanne’s eyes lit up. “Sparks between people. You see, some in my family think I’m a bit of a busybody, but I like to think of it as using all my gifts for the betterment of humanity.”

“Gifts?” Was she losing control of the conversation? Now that she thought of it, she was kind of the one being a busybody. Who was she to care if some housewife went looking for a wild time with a bad boy?

Except Suzanne was sweet and Jules wasn’t sure she was capable of not falling for whoever she slept with. Unlike her. Hell, she’d managed to marry a man she hadn’t loved. She was fairly certain love wasn’t real, but Suzanne would believe.

“I’m a bit of a matchmaker,” Suzanne admitted, proving Jules right on everything she’d been thinking. “I mean I was way back in college. I might be a little rusty, but I think I’ve found your match.”

Well, at least they were talking about dating. It would be a good opening to warn her gently away from the manwhore of Top. Over the couple of weeks she’d known the dude, she’d heard story after story about his sexual proclivities. “I recently got divorced. Well, I got divorced eighteen months ago. It was amicable, but I’m not ready to date.”

There was no room in her life for a relationship. No way. No how. But would it be so bad to have a one-night stand? Every now and then.

Or a relationship based purely on need. Like some of the women who worked here had found at Sanctum. When she’d hired on, she’d gotten the spiel from Grace Taggart about the club many of the employees belonged to. They weren’t taking new members for the time being, but when they opened it up again, Jules would have a place if she wanted it.

A place in a BDSM club.

Yeah, she wasn’t sure about that, but she also wasn’t willing to count it out.

“I think you can do anything you put your mind to, Juliana.” Suzanne practically had a halo around her. She was sitting in exactly the right way to be illuminated by the soft light from the table behind her. “You just have to believe in yourself and the people around you. You can’t let anything hold you back. Not when you want something. Not when it’s right. I can practically feel the chemistry between you and that lovely man over at the bar.”

“Linc?” Lincoln was the bartender. He was cool, though a little on the paranoid side. He was putting a beer in front of Declan Burke, one of the bodyguards who worked for McKay-Taggart. He was a lovely man, but he rarely talked. He seemed to prefer brooding and working out when he wasn’t on duty. “Or Declan? Because I’m really not interested in improving my psych skills, if you know what I mean.”

“They are not crazy,” Suzanne said primly. “Though they might behave that way some of the time. I assure you their behavior seems perfectly normal to each of those men. You would do well to be more tolerant of the people around you. And no, I was talking about the other one. I think his name is Javier.”

She bit back a laugh. Wasn’t the world a crazy thing? “I was coming over to warn you away from him. That’s funny.”

Suzanne looked entirely satisfied with herself. “Then I was right. I’ve watched you two. I don’t have anything better to do. My job hasn’t started in earnest yet. I need a hobby. I think you should be the one to make the first move. He watches you, but he seems uncertain. Is he going through something? That might be why he’s hesitating. I think all it would take is you asking him for a drink and he’ll fall right into your arms.”

“Arm,” she corrected. “I’m not good with the prosthetic yet. I would probably drop him. I’m afraid you’re wrong. The servers are worried about you and they wanted someone to kind of gently give you the truth about Javi. I wasn’t going to warn you away because I want him for myself. I live across the hall from that guy and he’s a serious player. I mean a walking, talking venereal disease according to the rumors. I’ve only been here for a while, but I know not to walk into the broom closet if I hear something weird.”

At least that was what Ally had told her. She’d never actually caught Javier with his pants down, though she’d seen plenty of women doing the walk of shame out of his apartment during the first few weeks. It had been just after that night she’d helped him with his brother. She’d been surprised because he hadn’t called her to help out again, and he seemed to have found a way to watch his brother while keeping up with his active social life.

And then the last two weeks he’d gone quiet and it made her wonder what was going on. No late-night dates. No early morning good-byes.

Suzanne shook her head. “You can’t blame a man for his past. Can you honestly tell me you have no interest in him?”

“He’s hot.” She wouldn’t lie about that. The man was sex on a stick, which was probably why all those women made the long trek down the hallway in the morning, still shaking in their stilettos. “I can’t deny that. He’s a beautiful man and he’s pretty funny and nice, but I’m not interested in a relationship.”

But then was he? He wasn’t a serious guy. He was the very definition of good-time guy. She suspected he was taking out a whole lot of stress on those women he brought home. She had stress. Would it be wrong to take it out together?

Suzanne looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess I was wrong. I’ve seen how you look at him, too.”

“I don’t look at him.” Did she? “I mean I look at him, of course. I have to. I work with him, but I don’t look-look at him.”

One brow arched over Suzanne’s eyes.

That was one judgmental brow. “Fine. I look at him but only because he’s hot. I’ve got eyes. But I also know when something’s bad for me.”

“Have you had a relationship since you lost your hand?” Suzanne asked quietly.

This was the point when she would normally shut down all talk and walk away. She didn’t have to answer this woman’s incredibly invasive questions. They didn’t know each other from Adam. She wasn’t sure why she found herself holding the menus to her chest with her good arm as she replied. “No, but I’m okay with it. I’m not all self-conscious. I lost my hand. I would do it again because it saved some really nice people. If some dude can’t handle it, I wouldn’t want to be with him anyway.”

“That’s a good attitude to have, but do you honestly believe you’ve moved on? Juliana, you’re working as a hostess for barely above minimum wage when your mother would pay you well to work for her.”

A chill went up Jules’s spine as so much about the woman in front of her fell into place. “My mother sent you.”

Her mother. America’s Favorite Hostess. Annaliese O’Neil was known across the country for her exquisite taste. She was a media queen with two television shows, a lifestyle website, and multiple cookbook and decorating book deals.

Yet, Jules remembered standing by the roadside with her trying to sell jam. She would make strawberry jam with her mom after Dad left them behind with nothing but a stack of bills. She remembered her mother crying and wringing her hands, and then standing up calmly to get to work because they had to make money and she only knew how to do one thing.

Jules also remembered the day her mother had told her not to call again, that she couldn’t handle watching her daughter ruin her life.

“My mother made herself very clear when I left home to join the Navy. I wasn’t welcome back.”

Despite her chilly tone, Suzanne still seemed warm, her eyes sympathetic. “Sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment that they regret. She hasn’t tried to contact you?”

Jules would give her mom credit. This chick was way better than sending some assistant around to get her to sign paperwork or to ensure she didn’t talk to the reporter writing a tell-all story. Suzanne was slick. She’d spent days being sweet to everyone and getting under Jules’s skin. “My mother contacts me when she needs something from me. That’s all.”

“I heard she paid for your divorce,” Suzanne reminded her. “That was kind of her.”

“She wanted to make sure Kevin didn’t have any way to come after her fortune. That was her grand sympathy for me.” Though she had sent her a card. That was her mom. Polite to the end. She’d likely gotten a blog post out of it—“Ten Ways to Support Your Daughter’s Divorce.” Probably would make a fortune off a whole new line of tastefully designed greeting cards.

“Or she wanted to make sure her daughter had what she needed,” Suzanne replied. “Maybe it’s not my place, but have you thought about the fact that she might have been reaching out?”

“It is absolutely not your place. Please tell my mother that if she wants to talk to me, she can pick up a phone.” Not that Jules would answer, but it was time to walk away.

Suzanne reached out, putting a hand on her arm, right above the spot where the prosthetic attached. “Sometimes it only takes a little bend to save the whole tree. Regret and guilt can do terrible things to a person. The kinds of things only forgiveness can heal. Just think about what I said. And think about Javier. Remember that a pretty face can hide much pain.”

Jules pulled away. “Maybe you shouldn’t come here again.”

Suzanne sat back, a sad smile on her face. “But then I would miss tomorrow’s special. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it will be amazing. I’ll be here for a while, Juliana. If you need to talk, come and see me. And you should write down that barbecue sauce recipe. It was delicious. Sometimes circumstances change, but that doesn’t mean you have to let go of your dreams. It merely means you adapt and come out of it stronger than before.”

Jules turned and walked away, not wanting to talk anymore.

Dreams. She’d already walked away from those. She’d wanted something real, something that was hers, and the Navy had offered it to her. She’d needed to feel like life wasn’t planned, like she wasn’t merely slated to take over where her mother left off.

Well, she’d gotten that life.

She couldn’t cook. Her dominant hand was gone and she was lucky to be able to hold menus in the one that was left. All she could do now was make a suggestion here or there and pray the chefs weren’t douchebags who thought their food was far too perfect for a hostess to comment on.

Javier had been sweet when she’d suggested adding the cayenne. He hadn’t looked offended at all. And he’d given her the credit when Chef Taggart had called him out for the sauce.

She glanced back to the dining room. Dinner service was over and there were only a few tables left finishing up. Javier smiled her way and held up his glass, as though offering her a toast.

Raven black hair. Chocolate-colored eyes. A jawline a superhero would be proud of. And that didn’t even cover how stunningly perfect his body was.

She nodded his way and then walked back into the kitchen.

Would it be so bad to get in line? As long as she remembered exactly what he was, would it be wrong to enjoy a single night with him?

She needed to think and it was far easier to think about Javier than the problems with her mother.

Jules moved back to the office and started getting the menus ready for tomorrow. Pork tenderloin with pineapple was the special.

Savory and sweet. Just like she liked it.

She settled in and tried to forget about the ridiculously hot man in the bar.

* * * *

“What’s up with the brunette? She’s been in every night this week, and let me tell you, she can put away some food. She’s tiny. I have no idea where it goes.” Javier Leones shook his head and turned back to his beer. It was closing time and his station was immaculate. He could head home, but then he would have to deal with his brother and the fact that his world had imploded. Sitting here at the bar and having family dinner after work seemed like the better bet.

It was the tradition at Top. After the doors closed at ten and all the patrons were gone, anyone who wanted to was welcome to sit down and have a meal with all the leftovers. Sometimes it was leftovers. Sometimes it was experiments. It didn’t matter because it was almost always delicious.

Except the time Chef decided to see what he could really do with tofu.

Linc glanced out over the bar as he wiped it down. He’d already pulled the wine for family dinner, and anyone who wanted a beer would have to get his or her own bottle. Otherwise, the bar was closed. “The weird one with the crazy eyes?”

“She doesn’t have crazy eyes.” Javier thought she looked kind of sweet. A little naïve. Like a sweet country mouse coming to the big city for the first time. “I think she’s just impressed with stuff.”

Declan Burke stared straight ahead. “I don’t know who you guys are talking about. I haven’t noticed anyone new. Not since Jules showed up. Jules doesn’t have crazy eyes. She’s got perfectly nice eyes.”

The big bodyguard put a hand to his head.

Jules had big doe eyes that kicked him in the gut every time she looked his way. “Hey, don’t you do the employee vetting on all the hires here?”

Declan worked for McKay-Taggart, a security services firm that provided everything from investigative pros to bodyguards to background checks. Top and MT were tied together since they were both owned by Taggarts. Chef Sean Taggart had left MT to start his restaurant empire and Ian Taggart had funded him with MT money. Big Tag, as they called him, came in several times a week, and the dude could eat.

But Javier kind of thought the tiny brunette ate more. He watched as she said something to Jules that made her smile. She had a bunch of daily menus held to her chest, her good hand covering her prosthetic. She did that a lot. She hid that hand or tried to cover it with something. She tried not to use it and it made her life hard.

Didn’t he know a thing or two about stubborn vets?

“Yeah, I ran some of the applications,” Declan replied. His eyes were narrowed, but he took a long drink of the beer in front of him. “You think I missed something?”

Javier should have known that was where he would go. “Dude, you’ve got to stop being pessimistic. You always go to the worst place.”

Declan shrugged. “If you always go to the worst place, you got nowhere else to go but up. I don’t get optimists, man. It’s like setting yourself up to fall. If you always think everything is shit and it’s all going to hell, then you can be pleasantly surprised when it works out for the best.”

Linc nodded. “Yeah, that seems like a good life philosophy.”

Javier shook his head. “No, it’s a terrible one. What happened to the two of you?”

“Lots of stuff,” Linc replied. “I got shot to shit in Iraq and Dec here keeps getting the worst headaches, and he has some weird dreams, I think.”

Dec shot Linc the finger. “I don’t need you to play doctor. I need you to pour me another beer.”

Javier could have told him the beer wasn’t going to help with a headache, but Declan didn’t look like a man ready to take advice. “And I was only asking because I’m curious about the new girl.”

Linc glanced toward the dining room. “The one with the crazy eyes?”

Sometimes he was certain Linc sampled the product too much. Other times he was aware that the big guy was a massive puppy who’d been kicked one too many times. He could still love a good pet from time to time, but he was capable of biting the hand that fed him. Linc had a metal plate in his head that made him near impossible to deal with at airports, and a load of shitty memories that made him go a little crazy from time to time.

“No, buddy. I was talking about Jules.” Jules, with the sad eyes and that crazy waterfall of red hair he thought about getting caught in. Like she was some gorgeous mermaid and her hair caught men and brought them in for the kill.

It might be a good way to go.

Declan turned, setting down the beer he’d been nursing. He’d come in the last few nights to hang out and start to get what he called a “feel” for the place. Javier wasn’t sure Top had a “feel,” but apparently it was important since they were hosting an up-and-coming country-western singer soon and Declan and the bodyguards were providing security. Javier kind of thought Dec had taken lead on the job for the free food and beer. “You interested in Jules?”

If by interested Dec meant couldn’t get her out of his head, Javier was interested.

But he wasn’t about to say anything so…touchy, feely. He wasn’t one of those guys. Nope. The kind who talked about their feelings and had feelings. Did he have feelings? He wasn’t sure. Oh, he was good with anger and irritation. Lately, he wasn’t so good with happiness or joy.

“I’m curious about her. She doesn’t talk a lot to the guys. I managed to find out that she was in the Navy. Eric served with her ex-husband and that’s how she got the job, but other than telling me how to cook, she’s pretty closed down.” Except sometimes she would laugh and her whole face would brighten. “She shows up in my life a lot lately. I wonder about her.”

“She shows up in your life?” Dec asked, suddenly getting serious. “You think she’s stalking you for some reason? Damn, man. I told you that dick of yours was going to get you in trouble. I didn’t actually run her application, but I’ll pull it and go back through her history. Do you think you had one of your encounters with her and she’s pissed?”

Sometimes it sucked to be surrounded by worst-case scenario guys. He held up his hands. “No. Absolutely not. She’s not stalking me. She moved in to the apartment across the hall. Eric asked if I knew of a place and it opened up. She certainly didn’t come looking for me. And she rehabs at the same center I take Rafael to. I’ve seen her talking to him but when I ask what they were talking about he tells me to mind my own business.”

“You think she’s moving in on your brother?” Linc asked.

He hadn’t even considered that. He didn’t like the thought. Not at all. Still, she hadn’t seemed flirty with Rafe. “First of all, she gave me the name of the rehab center. It wasn’t like she followed us there. And I don’t think she’s moving in on Rafe. No woman with half a brain would touch my toxic as shit brother right now. No. She was being kind to him. Not that he deserves it. I’m curious about her. She seems to know her way around a kitchen far better than any newbie hostess I’ve met.”

“That’s because she’s Annaliese O’Neil’s daughter,” Linc said.

Dec frowned his way. “How the fuck did you know that? I was told to keep that quiet.”

Linc shrugged, one shoulder moving negligently. “I like her show. She’s got a soothing voice and she has some very good tips when it comes to cocktails. Also, there’s a picture of her daughter in her biography. It’s Jules. If Jules knows something about cooking, it’s because she was raised by her mom.”

“You read some decorator’s bio?” Dec shook his head like he was trying to get the image out.

“I can read,” Linc shot back. “Mostly comic books and gaming magazines, but you know what—I’m single and I don’t want to live in squalor. Her notes on feng shui really improved my sleep patterns.”

Well, he was not going to judge a book by its outwardly masculine cover anymore. He needed to spend more time with Linc. Dude was a trip. “So she’s like an heiress or something? What’s she doing in my rathole building?”

“I don’t know what happened,” Dec admitted. “But I know she needed this job. She seems like a nice lady. She’s not your usual.”

Javier turned and Jules was frowning down at the brunette. It was obvious that conversation had gone wrong. He didn’t like the way Jules had paled. He slipped off his barstool, and tipped his glass her way. Maybe she would come over and have a drink with them. “Yeah, I know. I don’t think I have a usual anymore.”

Nope. Jules merely nodded his way and went back to the kitchen.

Dec’s brows rose. “That’s not what I heard. I heard you went on quite a tear.”

He felt himself flush. “I was stupid. You know how some guys get bad news and go on a bender? Yeah, I sometimes do that with sex.”

“Because of all the shit with Rafe?” Linc asked.

Javier couldn’t look him in the eye. He stared at his beer. “Yeah. About a month ago I decided to try, really try to settle down with a woman. Thought I found a good one. The night I was going to ask her to be my sub, Rafe showed up. She bailed as fast as she could. So instead of a pretty sub to take care of me, I get to take care of my brother, who hates everything and everyone. For a couple of weeks there I would put his ass to bed and call some women I knew. It wasn’t like they were looking for relationships, if you know what I mean. I’m sleeping on a pullout bed in the living room. It was all about sex.”

It was all about forgetting his shitastic existence for a few hours.

“Hey, no one is blaming you, man,” Dec replied. “I talked to Rafe for about two minutes before I realized I would rather punch him than listen to him. He’s pretty rough right now. Do you want me to look into those friends of his?”

“I would like to bar them from the apartment building, but then Rafe manages to get his ass out on the street, and that goes poorly, too.” He wasn’t sure what to do. One minute Rafe was apologizing and promising to be better. The next he was trying to punch a guy at the grocery store who he said was giving him the eye or something.

“Let me check ’em out,” Dec encouraged. “I got nothing better to do with my time.”

“Sure. That would be great. I’m just grateful that Rafe changed his mind about the surgery. He’s having a procedure in the morning that should help manage his pain. He’s having trouble with the prosthetics. This is supposed to make it easier for him to walk in them. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. He’ll be able to get his own booze or whatever.”

“I thought he said he wouldn’t do it.” Linc nodded as the brunette walked by. The one with the slightly crazy eyes. “Good evening, ma’am.”

She waved and that was when he realized she wasn’t looking at Linc. It was Dec who had her attention. She stared at him for a moment before hurrying out the door.

Top was closed for the night.

“Jules talked him into it.” He put his beer down, ready to put some tables together for supper. “I’m brother free for a few days and I have her to thank for it.”

And for his recent celibacy. He’d caught her watching as one of his fuck buddies said good-bye one morning. He hadn’t liked her seeing that part of him.

It was weird and he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“You going to grab the grub? I’m starving.” Linc pulled his apron off.

Dec slid off his barstool. “I could totally eat.”

Yeah he was here for “work.” Javier started for the kitchen, but the other chefs were already bringing out the food while Ally and Tiff set the table.

Since he didn’t have a houseguest, shouldn’t he think about having someone over? Indulge in his drug of choice? He could have sex in his own bed for once.

He pushed through the doors and caught sight of her. Jules was talking to Grace Taggart, her hair pulled back. She smiled at something Grace said.

Or maybe he could try something different for a change. Maybe he could try something new.

God knew he could use it.

Chapter Two

Jules frowned down at the paper. Her handwriting sucked, and it looked even worse next to her grandmother’s super-neat script. Of course, her grandma had use of her dominant hand and Jules was trying to make do with her right hand.

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