He carries the burden of protecting an entire town
Being the oldest Kennard brother, I’ve got a centuries-old promise to uphold—run the family business to give the townspeople jobs and the sort of security they can only find in Justice. When a motorcycle club blows that plan apart, I’ll do anything to make them aware that they picked the wrong town to target. As a former Green Beret, I know just how to sabotage an enemy. The only weakness in my armor is my obsession with a five-foot-nothing blonde who unknowingly holds my heart in her hands. My attraction to her could cost me my life, but I’d sacrifice it all to save hers.
She owes a debt that could cost her life
I’ve spent three years hiding out in Justice and paying off a debt to the Soul Suckers, one they’ve decided to collect whether I’m ready to pay or not. When danger lands on my doorstep, one man jumps in to help. Alder Kennard—former Special Forces soldier and current object of all my fantasies. But the Soul Suckers won’t let a debt go unpaid, and with the price on my head rising every day, it’s only a matter of time until they come back for me. Alder would put his life on the line to save mine, which is something I simply can’t afford.
Everyone has a debt to pay, and the only currency I have left is my body. So when the time comes, I’ll trade my life for his.
If I hadn’t already been in a foul mood, those words would have gotten me there. “What is it now?”
“Motorcycle gang up on Widow’s Ridge.” Camden Reese—born and bred in Justice, friend of my youngest brothers, and former Marine sergeant—launched into a speech about his team running into some bikers up by the Hansen property. We’d recently signed a contract with Miss Hansen to harvest eighty acres of dead Ponderosa pine on that hill, so anything getting in our way was definitely a problem. A big one.
As Camden laid out the events of the altercation, I checked over the satellite images of the area on my desk, making notes and marking locations. A star on the house to the west where the elderly Miss Hansen still lived, another to the east on the patch of earth where a trailer sat, all alone. The only two residences up that long, rough stretch of road leading to a drop-off on the far west side.
That rocky piece of land sat just outside the city limits, so things like road maintenance were all but forgotten unless the two residents brought them to my attention. No biker would intentionally ride up such a rutted, gravel road without a reason—too hard on their bike and their face if they were trailing someone else.
“He tried to call out Finn, but I squashed that shit,” Camden said, securing every bit of my attention for the moment. Finn—my second youngest brother, one of a set of twins, and the only Kennard ever to spend time in prison. He was also a recovering addict, and I had vowed to my dad that I’d keep him in recovery and not let him backslide. That had been ten years ago, and I still worried about keeping that vow every fucking day.
“What the fuck was Finn doing on a job?” My brother didn’t work for me except for the occasional project, and I knew for a fact he hadn’t been assigned to the Hansen job.
“He’d driven with me to check in on Miss Hansen. We never made it out there, though, because we ran into the bikers on the way up. One guy said some shit about Finn’s drug days, how they missed him over at the strip club in Rock Falls.”
Jesus. “You get a name?”
“Patch on his vest said Spark.”
“Spark.” I sat back, balancing my chair on two legs. “As in plug?”
Camden blinked, a cocky smile breaking across his face. “Yeah, like plug. I didn’t see the other guy’s name.”
“So Spark knows Finn from what…ten, twelve years ago? He look familiar to you?”
Cam shook his head. “Never seen him in town.”
That caught my attention. Justice was a small town planted squarely between two slightly larger towns, all in the middle of fucking nowhere. People didn’t happen into Justice—they came here for a reason.
And if that reason was named Finn Kennard, Spark and his friend needed to be dealt with and quick. “How’d my brother handle the run-in?”
“Finn ignored the bullshit from Spark. I wasn’t as restrained.”
Not surprising. Cam always did have a bit of a temper. “If the sheriff gets called again on you—”
Camden waved me off. “I knocked his legs out from under him and put him on the ground. Didn’t even leave a mark, I don’t think. But I made my point.”
“And what point was that?” Not that I needed to ask.
“That Kennard Mills would be harvesting the lumber on that side of the hill, and their club had better not have any business up there. They drove off after Spark picked himself up out of the dirt, the other guy saying something about bigger fish.” Camden frowned. “I recognized the other guy.”
“Local?” I couldn’t think of anyone in Justice who rode with an MC, but I might have missed someone. Three hundred plus people were a lot to keep track of.
“No. He came into the truck stop one night when Leah and I were there for dinner.” He blew out a breath and shifted his weight. An almost unconscious gesture, but one that stood out. Normally almost confident to a fault, Cam suddenly seemed nervous, which meant I wouldn’t like what he had to say.
“Yeah?” I prodded, wondering how a night out with his wife would piss me off.
“Leah noticed something was up when she went to the restroom and came to get me. The asshole had Shye cornered in a back hallway and wasn’t letting her pass.”
The snap of the pencil I’d been holding breaking in two might as well have been a gunshot. “And you let him walk away?”
“I had Leah and Shye looking on. I had to.”
Picturing perfect little Shye—at least ten years my junior and so damn sweet, every one of her smiles would give you a toothache—watching as I kicked the shit of some asshole was about as unappealing as a thought could get. I probably would’ve wanted to do the same as Camden and let the guy walk with a warning if I’d been there. I wouldn’t have, but I’d have wanted to. Because I wanted her, and the idea of Shye being scared of me made my gut sink like a rock.
I needed to stop thinking about Shye Anderson. An impossibility as of late, which directly correlated to why my mood had been so foul all day.
I sighed, rubbing my forehead and sitting deeper into my chair, bringing all four legs back to the floor. “All right. So they rode off after you knocked Spark to the ground. Any indication they’d keep hassling you or come back for Finn?”
He shrugged. “Not really, though you never know with these types of guys.”
Lawless, clan-like, arrogant. Yeah. You never knew a damn thing with them. “Did you recognize the club logo?”
“Definitely the Soul Suckers.”
Of course. I’d heard they’d added a clubhouse not too far over the county line to the west. I probably wouldn’t have thought twice if I’d seen their bikes on the highway through town or heading toward the new restaurant on Main Street. I would now, though.
“Might be time to set the club straight on what they can and can’t do as they ride through Justice. I’ll talk to Deacon, see if he knows anyone. Head back to the ridge, and get the Hansen site plot worked out so we can start cruising and marking trees. This might be our last big harvest before the rains come, and I want to take advantage of the summer weather while we have it.”
“We’ll get it done.”
“Good. And if you see Bishop on the mill floor, have him call me.”
Camden nodded, then left without another word, leaving me to stew over this new mess.
Fucking messes all over the place lately, it seemed.
I looked over my satellite images again, tracing roads and logging paths I’d known my whole life. Acres of Widow’s Ridge pine forest stared back at me, a mottled brown and green landscape. Half the trees stood dead or dying, a sign of the mountain beetle infestation that had nearly bankrupted my late father and destroyed Kennard Mills. But the bug that had nearly killed us had instead left us flush with jobs and cash. The droughts hadn’t stopped this mill, the industry collapse hadn’t either, and the fucking plague of beetles killing the forests around us had actually been a boon instead of a death knell. Everyone in Justice had enjoyed the bonuses beating our sales plans every month brought, and no fucking bikers would make us end that streak. I had a town to employ.
But Justice, Colorado was more than a town to me—it was my responsibility. The place my ancestors had set down roots. Where they tended to each and every resident over the years, giving families time to grow good, strong roots. Kennard men had run Justice like a homestead for nearly two centuries with the mill as the central business fueling everything else, and I’d live up to the legacy set before me as the oldest living Kennard. That meant making sure people had jobs, food, shelter, and that they felt safe.
Another thing bikers wouldn’t be taking away from us, even though it seemed as if they were trying just that.
An annoying, robotic song interrupted my thoughts. The words “Bishop Kennard”—name of my closest brother who also happened to be my VP of sales and marketing—flashed on the screen of my phone as it played that stupid song again. I swiped to answer and brought the device to my ear.
“Camden said you wanted me,” he said, not bothering with a greeting.
“We’ve got trouble on Widow’s Ridge.”
“I heard. Finn all right?” Because, as the second oldest Kennard brother, our family would be the first thing on Bishop’s mind. As it should be.
“Camden thinks so. Let’s run by the bar tonight and be sure, though. And I’ll need you to check in on Miss Hansen—make sure she’s okay out there.”
“Sounds good. I’ll call as soon as we hang up. Anything else?”
“Sell some fucking lumber, Bishop.”
“On it, boss. I’ll be ready to go at six.”
I tossed the phone back onto my desk, the maps snagging my attention again. One spot in particular, actually, and not the one belonging to Miss Hansen. I ran a finger over the east side of the hill, circling the little trailer on a barren, flat piece of rock. Just outside the city limits, it technically sat beyond my protective net, but Shye Anderson lived in that trailer. New girl in town at only three years since she moved to the area, waitress at the truck stop over in Rock Falls, and the only woman I’d ever met who could drive me mad with frustration and desire all at once.
I’d been ultra-aware of Shye since I first met her. Slightly obsessed, really. The girl captivated me; stole all my attention with her sweet little smile and never let me go. It didn’t hurt that she looked like a damn angel—long, blond hair and big, dark eyes, a tiny little body that I wanted to get my hands on more than anything else. Sweet as honey, that one, but she lived up to her name. She blushed and stuttered around me, avoided my eyes when I tried to catch her gaze. If I pushed too much, she ran, so I held back. Made myself available but waited for her to come to me.
Which is how I ended up eating at the truck stop five nights a week—all on Shye’s shifts. I’d had to up my workouts to keep from getting soft on all the grease and baked goods, but seeing that smile every night was worth it. The coffee—man, that was a harder pill to swallow. How a restaurant could have such bad coffee—especially one based out of a truck stop—was beyond me. I drank cup after cup of the foul brew so she’d come to my table more often to pour me refills. Without the coffee, I didn’t get much time with Shye, so I suffered.
And when I worked? I sent my guys in there. Shye had no family in Justice, so I made sure everyone understood they were to treat her as they would a Kennard. Making my men see her as mine kept them watchful around her. Hell, I paid Bishop to eat his lunches there so he could keep an eye on her, and everyone on my team headed that way at least once a day if I had to go out of town. They mocked me relentlessly for chasing her around like a damned puppy, but I didn’t give a shit. I needed to know she was happy and safe. That she had everything she needed…even if she wasn’t ready to willingly take things from me yet. We’d get there. Three years I’d waited for her to come around, and she would. Eventually. I just had to figure out the right plan.
As I pondered honey-blond hair, sugary smiles, and how many times I could use the excuse of working on the ridge to stop and see her at her place, my phone rang again—Camden, this time.
I swiped to answer and hit the button for speakerphone. “If you tell me we have another problem, I’m going to toss a grenade in your truck.”
“So I shouldn’t tell you we’ve got a fire on the mountain?”
Motherfucker. The trouble with harvesting the blue-stained wood left behind by the mountain beetle infestation was the trees needed to cure standing for a number of years. But dead trees meant dry trees, and with the droughts of the past few years and the mild winters we’d had, that meant trouble. Big, dry, tinder-type trouble. A single lightning bolt could ignite an inferno, while a forest fire could destroy the whole damn town.
And apparently, we had one to deal with.
“Where?” I grabbed my keys and pressed the mill-floor alarm to get the team’s attention.
“Eastern slope. Just past the Hansen property.”
My steps stumbled, then sped. “That’s by Shye’s place.”
An engine roared in the background. “I’m already on my way there. Two minutes out.”
She could be hurt in two minutes. Dead. Jesus fuck, I was too far away. “Drive faster.”
I hung up and stormed down onto the mill floor. My team stood ready, looking at me expectantly, ready to fight the fires we knew could ruin everything we’d all built here.
“Fire just east of the Hansen site. Let’s get two water trucks up the eastern side of the ridge and send one up to the west side to be safe.” I met the eyes of Gage Shepherd, former Navy SEAL like Bishop and current heavy machinery engineer of Kennard Mills. “It’s close to Shye’s place.”
Without another word, Gage began issuing orders to the team. He understood the severity of the situation from every angle—the loss of our product, the potential for destruction in the town, and the possibility that the woman I had my eye on could be in danger. He’d get shit done for me.
As Gage loaded the water trucks with oxygen tanks and medical equipment—something that made my gut churn—his dog Rex trotted after him, looking as if he was headed for a joyride instead of into a fire. Wouldn’t be the first time he’d been on site at a fire, though. Gage never went anywhere without Rex.
While Gage made sure the team knew where to go and what to do, I raced to my truck. My heart pounded as I started the engine and peeled out of my spot, heading for the ridge where smoke was beginning to turn the sky black above the tree line. Fuck, if Shye was up there, if she was hurt—
I didn’t get to finish my thought because my phone rang right as I turned onto the highway heading toward the mountain. Camden again.
“Tell me good news.”
“She’s not here,” Camden said, sounding slightly out of breath. “It’s her trailer on fire, though.”
“The water trucks are on the way.”
“Don’t think they’ll do any good for her, to be honest, but we need them for the tree line. It’s so dry up here, a single spark could set the whole mountain on fire.”
Confirming my earlier thoughts. Fuck. I yanked the wheel sideways, making a sharp turn onto the road that would take me up to Shye’s place, looking over all the dead, brown pine on the hillside as I flew over the rutted, gravelly road. “Gage had the team rolling out right behind me. I’m four minutes out, though.”
“Want me to call the fire department in Rock Falls?”
Wouldn’t do any good at that point, which was why Kennard Mills had as many water hauling trucks as we did. “No use, though you’d better call the sheriff.”
“That useless piece of shit? What for?”
Useless wasn’t the term I’d use—corrupt sounded better for the county sheriff we were forced to deal with. I didn’t have time to correct Camden, though. “He’ll throw a tantrum if he’s not informed. Knowing him, he won’t come out to investigate anyway. Just make the call.”
“Yeah, got it…hang on.” Voices yelled in the background, and the sound of Camden moving fast created static on the line.
“We’ve got a problem.”
That phrase spoken about my girl’s place made me want to growl my frustration to the universe. “What fucking problem?”
“There are motorcycle tracks in the dirt around her property. Lots of them.”
Rage unlike anything I’d felt exploded in my chest. “Call the sheriff and put the word out—anyone sees a fucking Soul Sucker in Justice, I want to know about it.”
I hung up and threw my phone across the bench seat before taking the switchback turn way faster than I should have. Not that the worry burning in my gut had anything to do with me—Shye owned that ache.
Shye may not have known it, but she was mine. I’d do whatever it took to protect her.
And if this fucking motorcycle club had threatened my girl?
I’d gut them and leave their bodies for the predators.
When not writing good men doing bad things, Kristin can be found writing paranormal romance as Ellis Leigh or co-writing naughty novellas as London Hale.