Heedless

Book Four in The Hellbound Brotherhood

Find out why New York Times bestseller Maya Banks hails McKenna’s books as “A non-stop thrill ride…”

Whatever it takes to protect her…

Security expert Nate Murphy came to Shaw’s Crossing to kick ass and help the Trask brothers fight off their enemies. He didn’t expect to get knocked off his feet by the elusive, gorgeous Elisa, a mysterious woman who works for one of his friends. Elisa’s holding something back…something big. Nate’s an ex-soldier and ex-bouncer whose specialty is breaking heads…but the fear in Elisa’s eyes makes him want to crush whoever put it there. If only she would tell him the truth…

Secrets and lies…

 Elisa Rinaldi is hiding from a killer. The small mountain town of Shaw’s Crossing had seemed like a good idea at the time, but getting attached to the people there was not, particularly the hard-eyed, hard-bodied Nate Murphy. When dangerous trouble engulfs her new friends, suddenly the press is everywhere. If she shows up on TV or online, she’s dead.

She has to leave Shaw’s Crossing—after a parting gift to herself. One unforgettable night with Nate, and she’ll do the right thing…even if it breaks her. The passion between them leaves Nate gasping for breath. Then Elisa vanishes. Nate can’t rest until he finds her. He means to solve her problem once and for all…by any means necessary.

Elisa will risk everything to get her life back and be with the man she loves. But now her mortal enemy is playing a game of cat and mouse…

And the stakes are both their lives…

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Chapter One

Elisa studied the colored chalk drawing, scrubbed the board with the sponge soaked in vinegar water, and tried again. Her idea for the menus for Demi’s wedding feast had been letters fashioned like cute vegetables, but the mushrooms were looking stupidly phallic today. Good for a laugh at a raucous bachelorette party, maybe, but the wedding tomorrow would be an elegant affair, taking place tomorrow at the Bluff House, a gorgeous historic mansion up on the Heights.

She was going for a rustic-but-classy vibe with the chalkboard art, but it was hard to concentrate among the chaos of Demi’s Corner Café, even when it was closed for business. In spite of the wild events taking place in the small mountain town of Shaw’s Crossing, Demi and Eric were daring to dash away for a mini-honeymoon. Elisa and the other five members of Demi’s restaurant staff had taken on the task of cooking and catering of tomorrow’s wedding banquet, and there was so much to do. Elisa couldn’t abandon the restaurant to run upstairs and design menu boards. She had to stay on hand to solve problems, put out fires and generally multitask.

Demi deserved a perfect wedding after the hell she’d been through. Besides, this was the last thing Elisa would be able to do for her friend. It had to shine.

That was sad, distracting and unproductive thought, so Elisa squashed it, focusing on her mushroom chalk art. Demi would be okay now that she had her adoring Eric on hand to defend her from all danger. Anton Trask, Eric’s equally tough brother, would do no less for his girlfriend, Fiona. It was something to see. All that passion and heroism and sincerity and trust in action…wow.

She wasn’t exactly jealous of the lucky lovers. More like wistful. She hoped it would be real for them. Lasting and true. She herself could never risk it again.

After all. Gil had seemed to adore her, too. At first.

It was time for her to bounce. Past time. Her bus ticket was zipped into the inside pocket of her coat, along with her collection of fake IDs and her stash of cash, carefully saved over months from wages and tips. The bus left at nine-forty-five AM day after tomorrow, the morning after Demi’s wedding. From the station in Tacoma, she’d pick a destination at random. Whatever bus left soonest. Maine, Florida, Louisiana. Anywhere was fine, as long as it was far away.

Leaving Shaw’s Crossing made her miserable. She actually felt at home with these people, despite the trouble they attracted. The Trask brothers had a strange history. Fi and Demi had their own wild stories to tell. And of course, there was their tall, seductively handsome friend Nate Murphy, who worked with the other security staff to protect the Trasks and their women from their enemies.

Nate had developed an intense interest in Elisa after that mortifying box-cutter incident. She’d almost severed the guy’s brachial artery the moment she first laid eyes on him. Eric had called on his brother for help after the first attacks a couple of weeks ago, and Anton had come running, bringing his friend Nate for back-up.

No one had expected Elisa to waltz in the door early in the morning with a tray of breakfast pastries, using the key Demi had given her.

She’d seen the strange men, the guns, and panicked, lashing out with the box-cutter. Nate been quick enough to defend himself, luckily. The only harm had been to the sleeve of his leather bomber jacket. It had been a very close call.

Hell of a first impression, but Nate wasn’t put off. Far from it. It was getting harder and harder to slap the guy down. He’d re-awakened her awareness of herself as a woman, which had burrowed itself deep into the ground after all her troubles. She had no spare energy to be teased and tempted. This was distracting. Dangerous.

The bell tinkled, and she saw Fiona Garrett was coming through the door, Nate following close behind. He must be on Fiona guard duty today. Speak of the devil.

Fi Garrett was Anton Trask’s fiancée, soon to be Eric and Demi’s sister-in-law. Less than ten days ago, she and Anton had barely escaped with their lives from a run-in with Redd Kimball, a long-time enemy who had been presumed dead for thirteen years. Kimball was still at large with bad intentions, and Anton had been only discharged from the hospital a couple of days before, but nothing stopped those Trasks from getting on with their lives. Now that Anton was well enough, Eric and Demi’s wedding was on, with a vengeance.

Fiona was bright-eyed and rosy, her long red hair tangled from the winter wind. She smiled at Elisa as she looked over the chalkboard menus she had already finished. “That looks delicious. Sage, squash and sausage tartlets…mushroom ravioli…yum. My mouth is watering already.”

“We hope it’ll be good.” Elisa followed Nate with her eyes as he came in the door after Fiona. “This is the first time we’ve done a job like this without Demi at the helm but she’s trained everyone well. We should be okay.”

“I’m sure you’ll all be great,” Fiona encouraged. “Better than great.”

Even just quietly standing there, Nate seemed larger than life. Six foot two at least. Lean and taut, but very built. Wide shoulders, narrow hips, shaggy black wind-blown hair. Dark, intense eyes that examined her intently, tucking away every bit of unconscious info she let drop and missing nothing, ever. He had some dark, stubbly shadow on his strong jaw, and a big, hooked nose with a bump on it. He didn’t smile often, but when he did, his sensual mouth stretched into a blinding grin, and sexy grooves carved into his cheeks. The lines around his eyes were beautiful. And that deep voice, oh God. Listening to him was like being petted by silky fur. All over.

“…to put in the freezer at the house, so it won’t go to waste this week while the place is closed. She told you about that, right? Um…hello? Elisa? Earth to Elisa?”

Elisa dragged her attention to Fiona’s crooked, knowing smile. “Huh?”

“The leftovers,” Fiona repeated gently. “Demi said to pick them up. I hate to bug you guys while you’re so busy here, but Anton’s agitating for lunch, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to pick up that food.”

“Ah. Um, yes,” she mumbled. “Excuse me. Zoned out for a second there.”

“I saw,” Fiona murmured under her breath. “Can’t really blame you.”

Elisa’s face went warm. “Let’s see, I’ve got some squash soup and some black bean soup, some barbecued pulled pork, some prime rib, some honey ham, some eggplant parmesan, some moussaka, and a whole bunch of veggie lasagna.”

“Great,” Fiona said. “I’ll take whatever you can give me. Days worth of food, if you’ve got it. Anton gets hungry as hell. He’s the big foodie. I’m not much of a cook myself, but I can heat up leftovers like a pro.”

“Hey, Tasha!” Elisa called to one of the wait staff. “Could you bring out the stuff Demi put in the top shelf of the back fridge? I left a cardboard box on top the freezer for it.”

“Sure thing,” Tasha called back from the kitchen. “I’ll bring it right out.”

Fiona drifted closer, glancing over her shoulder at Nate. “This is none of my business, and I’m way out of line,” she said under her breath. “But when are you going to put that poor guy out of his misery? It’s killing us. You know you want to.”

The warmth in Elisa’s face deepened to scorching heat. “You’re right,” she replied, her voice tight. “It’s not your business. And it’s not that simple.”

Fiona sighed. “Yeah, I know. It never freaking is, right?” She made a lip-zipping gesture. “Not another word about it, ever. I promise.”

Elisa looked away from Fiona’s apologetic smile. With all the wild things happening here recently, her own private tale of woe had taken on some perspective. The Trask guys, Fi and Demi faced trouble on much the same scale as she did, and just look at them, handling it. They fought back like demons. Never gave up or ran away. Never cowered or whined or felt sorry for themselves.

It wasn’t a comfort so much as a stern reality check. She wasn’t the only one living under a shadow, but these people were doing it with flair. Thriving, even. Finding happiness in spite of the fear. It was the ultimate fuck-you to their enemies.

Inspiring, sure. But damn, they set the bar high.

Elisa wished she could confide in her new friends, but they were stretched to the limit with their own problems. It would be irresponsible to load her crap onto them, too. No matter how Nate pushed and pried and coaxed her to open up.

Flirted, too. Constantly making his burning interest clear every time he saw her. It was getting so hard to resist that slow, quiet pull. She felt it right now, and he hadn’t said a single word.

The bell over the door jingled again and kept on jingling as a stream of people pushed inside. It was one of the tabloid e-zine camera crews that still showed up from time to time, following the news blitz about Fiona and Anton’s near-death experience. The biggest flush of media interest had already passed, thank God, but smaller publications were still fishing for more lurid tidbits of follow-up.

A diminutive, heavily made up blond woman with big hair hustled toward Fiona, holding out a big microphone. “Ms. Garrett!” she blared. “Would you tell our viewers more about growing up in that cult? Is it true that you were forced into marriage when you were just a child? How long were you married? Did you escape?”

“Excuse me, but the café is closed,” Elisa called out. “Please leave. Right now.”

The cameraman’s lens swung toward her, as did the blonde’s microphone. An icy shard of panic stabbed in deep and made her blood pressure drop, as if the cameraman were pointing a gun to her head.

“Would you like to comment, miss?” the blonde asked her eagerly.

Oh fuck no. Elisa spun around and dove for the kitchen, pushing past Fiona, Tasha. Someone tried to speak to her, but she didn’t notice who or understand what they said. She just ran through the kitchen and out the back room.

She burst out the back door and onto the concrete steps that led down to the alley. Her legs buckled and she sank down onto the steps, shaking all over. There was noise in the kitchen behind her. Yelling, shouting. Nate’s deep voice, responding. She couldn’t make out what he said, but he was saying it forcefully.

It was unlikely that Gil would ever see this particular media outlet, she told herself. It was tabloid trash, and he better things to do. They probably wouldn’t even use that bit of footage that might or might not have her face in it. She hadn’t said anything interesting. Besides, she looked different now. She was thinner, and she’d taken to wearing glasses, just frames with plain glass lenses. She’d dyed her hair back to its original dark brown, and let it spring back into its natural fuzzy state of corkscrewing frizz. Back in the old days, she’d lightened and streaked it and straightened it with expensive blow-outs twice a week. Back when she was trying to be Ms. Perfectly Put-Together. Trying so hard to shoehorn herself into Gil’s ambitious life plans without embarrassing him. Never quite getting the hang of it.

But if Gil saw her, even with a mane of dark curls and her weird, nerdy looking glasses, he would definitely recognize her.

She should have left when the TV crews first showed up, over a week ago. She’d been sloppy. Suckering herself into staying a little longer because she liked this place, these people. She didn’t want to be all alone again.

And she’d liked Nate Murphy’s attention, too. His long, smoldering glances. Liked them so damn much. God, what an idiot.

Time to grab her packed suitcase and blast out of here, right now, without a word to anyone. The door creaked behind her. She whipped her head around.

Nate stood on the top of the steps, frowning down at her and wiping his wet hand on his jeans.

Elisa tried to tame the quaver in her voice. “What was the ruckus about?”

“I had a difference of opinion with the cameraman,” Nate said. “He followed Fi into the kitchen. I invited him to leave the restaurant.”

“And did he?”

“He did, but sadly, his camera got damaged,” Nate said. “Big shame.”

“Really? His camera?”

“Yeah. Funny thing, but somehow, the broken pieces of the camera ended up landing in a bucket of bleach water. Made a big mess. Tasha’s mopping up now.”

“Oh. He must have been pissed.”

“Yeah, he was.” Nate came down the steps “But he left. Smart decision on his part.”

Something inside her began to relax. “So they didn’t shoot any video inside the restaurant today, then.”

“No, they did not.” Nate sank down to sit on the steps beside her.

There was a lot of him. He took up all the available space. His hips were lean, but muscular, and his thighs were thick and steely. The big Shearling coat made him look even bigger. The alley was a small wind tunnel, ruffling his thick, shaggy dark hair. Hers, too.

Nate reached out and brushed aside a lock of hair that had blown across her face. “Your hair looks nice down. First time I’ve seen it when it’s not up, or in a braid.”

“Yeah, well.” Her face was getting hot. “I, um, wasn’t serving customers, or cooking, so…”

“Yeah,” he murmured. “Relax, OK?”

“I’m relaxed. I just didn’t want to be filmed. Thanks for getting rid of them.”

“You’ve always been publicity shy. Since you hauled ass when FBI agents came to see Fiona at the hospital,” Nate said. “You’ve been hiding out in the restaurant kitchen ever since then. You won’t even wait tables or seat people anymore.”

Her tension started to build again. “I like my privacy,” she muttered.

Nate waited for more. “I drowned that dickhead’s camera for you,” he prompted when she didn’t elaborate. “Come on. Tell me what gives.”

“I appreciate the gesture,” she said tightly. “And I don’t want to seem ungrateful. But I don’t owe you anything. And I don’t feel like sharing.”

Nate sighed. “Fine. Will you at least come back inside the restaurant now that they’re gone? The last time a woman I was protecting came out into this alley, she got abducted by a mass murderer. I’d really like to avoid a repeat performance.”

Elisa cringed at thought of confronting Fi or any of the other restaurant staff in her current rattled state. “Ah…not quite yet.”

“Please,” Nate said, steel in his voice. “It’s not safe out here. Indulge me.”

“Actually, I’m not going back inside at all,” she said, rising to her feet. “I’m going to run up to my apartment for a while. I need a time-out. So I’ll, ah, see you all later. Really, you don’t have to worry about me. The door is right around the corner. Nobody’s going to abduct me between here and there.”

“I’ll walk you.” He rose up to his feet, towering over her. “No problem.”

In her rattled state, Elisa could think of no good way to dissuade him, so they walked in silence down narrow alley. Around the corner. Through the breezeway in between the buildings to her entryway.

Elisa inserted her key, and stopped breathing when Nate put his hand gently on top of hers. “Tell me something.”

“Um…what?” she asked nervously.

“Are you uptight with me because of that thing with the box-cutter? Don’t give it another thought.”

She winced at the memory. “I could have killed you.”

“But you didn’t,” he said. “It’s not your fault. We startled you. I’m a combat veteran myself, and so are Eric and Mace, and with his background, Anton might as well be. We’ve all had stress flashbacks. Nobody’s judging you.” He paused. “About that, anyhow. You won’t tell me what’s going on. I do judge you for that.”

She snorted. “There’s plenty of drama to go around in Shaw’s Crossing. You guys don’t need mine. Trust me on this.”

“That’s exactly what I want,” Nate said. “For you to trust me.”

Elisa’s reply died away in her throat as she looked into the hypnotic depths of his dark eyes. He was drawing her slowly into a seductive trap. She shivered as tendrils of warmth slowly stole around her like an invisible embrace.

She was being pulled from the inside. This instinctive longing to tell him all of her troubles. But she remembered every detail of what had happened the last time she tried to enlist someone to help her.

That disaster would be on her conscience to the end of her days.

She looked down at his big hand resting over hers, fighting the urge to turn her fingers around and grab his long, warm, callused fingers. She would twine them through hers and yank him in the door after her, up the narrow flight of stairs and into the tiny studio apartment. Her bed up there was a narrow futon mat, barely wide enough to cover a lawn recliner, but she had no intention of lying next to him. She would climb up onto that great big hot mountain of a guy and let the buzz of sexual excitement push the bad stuff in her mind away as she rode him into screaming oblivion. As she let pleasure wipe out the past, the future. Her fear.

It would be such a fucking relief to just breathe. Even for a couple of minutes.

She shook her head. Her lips formed words, but she couldn’t pull in enough air to voice them. No. Not safe. She couldn’t put Nate in danger, too.

“Tell me who messed up your life.” Nate’s deep voice was mesmerizing. “I want to fuck that guy up. Until he is no longer a problem. We’re talking, pulped.”
Elisa let out a shaky burst of laughter. “Is this your idea of seduction?”

His sexy mouth curved, and his warm breath caressed her ear as he leaned closer. “When I start seducing, you won’t need to ask.”

The air hummed with tension. She craned her neck to look up at him.

Suddenly her head was cradled in his hand and she was tipping closer, as if she were floating in space and needed the faintest touch to finish in his arms—

And then she was kissing him.

Raw emotion tore through her system. Jagged lightning. It made her shake, but she didn’t pull away. His lips were so warm, moving over hers so gently. Seeking, slowly asking for more, daring more. Getting bolder and bolder, until the gentle invitation blossomed into a carnal promise.

Her body lit up with urgency, with sharp hunger. All for him. So hot. So bright.

People walked by on the sidewalk. She heard muffled laughter, and rocked back, breaking free of his embrace. Pressing her hand to her tingling mouth.

She’d forgotten everything. Her problems had vanished. At least for the duration of that kiss. So hot and sweet and searching. She ached for more.

“My God,” she whispered. “What the hell was that?”

Nate smiled again. “Me, being seductive. In case you were wondering.”

She was torn by fear and longing. Struggling for words. Trying not to pant.

“I expect you need to, ah, go guard Fiona now,” she finally forced out.

“Yeah. I’ll take her back to Demi’s house with the food. But once she’s there, she and Anton will be covered by Jim and Mitch at the house right now. So I could take a break this afternoon. If you want to hang out. Talk about stuff.”

The implied invitation made her head spin. She could make this fantasy come true before she left this place forever. She could do it today. She wouldn’t have to wonder what it would have been like for the rest of her life.

However short that might be.

Then she saw it again in her mind’s eye. She always saw it, on some level of her consciousness. Flashing lights, crime scene tape. The pool of blood on the kitchen floor tiles. Her friend Willis’s body, zipped into a black bag.

Her fault, for involving him. For underestimating the danger.

“I’m not free to hang out, or talk,” she said, edging away. “I have a million things to do. I need to finish those menu boards, and help finish up the ravioli downstairs, and we all have to go up to set up the kitchen at Bluff House. I won’t have a second to spare today. Sorry.”

Nate looked crestfallen. “See you at the wedding, then. Save me a dance?”

“I’ll be working the wedding,” she told him. “Working like a galley slave. That’s our wedding present to Demi. A delicious, perfectly catered feast.”

Nate shrugged. “I’ll be on duty, too. Keeping you safe. But I should be able to swing one dance.”

Oh, man, those smile lines. The charming glint in his eye, wheedling her. Not fair. “What part of ‘working like a galley slave’ do you not understand?” She unlocked the door and gave him an awkward little wave. “See you tomorrow.”

At the top of the stairs, she turned to look. Nate was still looking up through the glass. He’d waited to make sure she got inside. He gave her a wave and vanished.

She felt so deflated, looking at the empty window frame. She wanted to run down the steps and yell after him. Beg him to come back and fulfil all her overheated erotic fantasies. Drive away the dark with his hot magic.

But she had bigger problems than unfulfilled lust. She needed to stay focused.

Elisa unzipped her little rolling travel bag and pulled out her laptop. She needed to remind herself of what was at stake, so she opened the file of links. She’d seen these videos a thousand times, and every time they killed her a little bit more.

The one she set to play was an archived clip from a Portland TV station. Her husband, Gil, gazing into the camera as he addressed the kidnapper who’d abducted his bride.

Gil continually repeated her name. Spoke of how special she was. How unique. How much he missed her. That would have been grotesque even if he hadn’t been looming right behind Elisa’s younger brother, who was seated in a chair in front of him. Josh, nineteen years old next month. He was supposed to be safe and far away, studying at MIT. Gil had dragged him home and displayed him on TV for her to see.

Josh’s thin, beaky face was deathly pale. He was all nose and wild dark hair, staring up at the TV camera with haunted eyes while Gil spouted his bullshit.

Gil’s hands rested on Josh’s shoulders. To anyone else, that would come across as an affectionate, reassuring gesture. Gil’s handsome, chiseled face was solemn as he pleaded for compassion from the kidnapper who had stolen his wife.

Was she the only one who saw the cruelty in his eyes? It was as obvious to her as fangs and horns.

She had the means to take that lying, murdering bastard down. A weapon to destroy him completely. But she was frozen in place. She couldn’t use it against him.

Not with Gil looming over her little brother, fingers angled toward Josh’s throat. His message drowning out every other thought in her head.

Don’t. You. Dare.

End of Excerpt

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Shannon McKenna | Fall 2020