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Black Hearted debuts this fall!

Black Hearted debuts this fall!

Red Delilah’s Biker Bar, Chicago, Illinois

“Ya know how they say a watched pot never boils? The same is true for cell phones. Ya keep starin’ at that thing and it’ll never ring.”

Samuel Harwood turned his phone facedown on the table. “Sorry. Just a little distracted tonight.”

Which was an odd thing for a man famous for his focus to say. A man who’d become one of the deadliest Marine Raider snipers ever to graduate the program because he had the rare ability to concentrate on a fixed point for hours on end.

Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who found his absent-mindedness unusual. Fisher, his teammate at Black Knights Inc., lifted an eyebrow. Fisher’s signature Louisiana drawl sounded round and sonorous compared to the flat Midwestern accents heard around the bar. “Anything ya want to share with the group?”

“Nah.” Sam shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

Or it’d be nothing if she’d just text me back.

“Hmm.” Fisher narrowed his eyes. “That hang-dog expression says otherwise. Looks like you’re sufferin’ from a bad case of woe-is-mes. Careful there, brother, those can be fatal.”

“Leave him alone, Fish.” Eliza reached across the table to smack Fisher’s arm. “Just because we live and work together doesn’t mean you have the right to shove your nose in everyone’s business.”

“Says the woman who knows everything about everyone,” Fisher countered. “I mean, ya could probably tell me what color underwear I’m wearin’ and what I had for breakfast this mornin’.”

“Your underwear is black because that’s the only color you own. And no.” She lifted a finger when Fisher opened his mouth to say something salacious. “I haven’t been snooping through your dresser drawers because I have some sort of weird boxer-brief fetish. We share a laundry room, and you have a bad habit of leaving your clothes in the dryer.”

“Add that to the list of transgressions ya keep against me,” Fisher grinned at her. “Lazy launderer.”

“As for what you had for breakfast.” She ignored him as she continued. “It was biscuits and gravy. I know that because I made it. And it’s not that I know everything about everyone. It’s just that I have an eye for detail. Which is undoubtedly one of the reasons you all decided to hire me.”

We”—Fisher pointed to his own chest and then indicated the gathered group of covert operators—“didn’t have any say in that. As I recollect, la jefa herself insisted ya be brought in under pressure from your dear ol’ daddy.”

If indignation had a face, it would’ve been Eliza’s. “Are you saying nepotism is the only reason I’m here? If you don’t think I’m pulling my weight, Fish, I’d be happy to hear what you think I should be—”

“Now, hang on a minute.” Fisher had the good sense to interrupt. Then he proved he didn’t have any sense at all when he added, “Don’t go gettin’ your panties in a wad.”

Eliza’s top lip curled until her teeth showed. “I despise that phrase.”

“Likely ’cause ya got a bit a class and talk of a person’s britches goes beyond the pale.” The last three words were said in a posh, East Coast accent that mimicked Eliza’s. She opened her mouth to let him have it, but he rushed ahead. “My point wasn’t that you’re not good at your job. My point was that none of us had any say in the matter. That’s all.”

“Well, thank you so much for clearing that up.” Her tone was the same one she’d have used had Fisher insulted all her ancestors.

Fisher Wakefield and Eliza Meadows were oil and water. Except, instead of not mixing, they mixed it up on the reg. The two of them couldn’t be in the same room without bickering like siblings stuck in the backseat of the family Volkswagen on a long summer road trip.

Which, if Sam was being honest, was part of the charm of Black Knights Inc. The people who lived and worked there were more than coworkers or colleagues. They were family. The only family he’d ever known since he’d been the only son of a couple of South Side methheads and since his ex-wife had been little more than a stranger who’d accepted his ring and lived in his off-base condo for a short period of time.

His parents had spent his formative years cooking up the poor man’s coke in the abandoned warehouse down the road from their shitty apartment. Which meant he’d been left to raise himself.

Feral. That was a good word to describe his pre-pubescent self. Neglected and helpless and malnourished all worked too. In fact, were it not for his high school baseball coach seeing something in him and giving him a purpose, he might’ve ended up another sad South Side statistic.

Lucky for him, instead of slinging dope he’d learned to sling curveballs. Not well enough to make it to the Majors, but well enough to get his team to the state playoffs two years running. Which is where he’d met a Marine Corps recruiter. Which is how he’d become a Raider. Which is the reason he’d popped up on Madam President’s radar when she’d been looking to put together her very own fast-action response team.

And, yes, somewhere in the middle of that he’d popped the question, walked down the aisle—er, the steps at the courthouse—and tried as an adult to build what he’d never had as a kid. But that’d been little more than a blip on the radar of his life, over before it’d even begun. And his ex-wife certainly hadn’t filled the hole left behind by his lackluster upbringing.

Which brings us full circle, all the way back to Black Knights Inc.

Sam celebrated the day two Secret Service agents knocked on the door of his quarters in Camp Lejeune and told him the leader of the free world was making him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He celebrated because that offer hadn’t just given him the opportunity to do the kind of work he’d always dreamed of doing—taking on the missions that were too hard, too hot, or too politically unwise for the armed forces or the alphabet soup of American agencies to handle—but it’d also made him part of a family.

A loud, sarcastic, often quarrelsome family. But a family all the same.

And sure, there were times he missed the routine and regimentation of the Marine Corp. Missed the structure and the stability that came from working under a strict chain of command. But he wouldn’t trade the time he’d spent at BKI or the relationships he’d built there for anything.

The Marine Corp had given him people to fight beside. Black Knights Incorporated had given him people to fight for.

Turning his attention away from Fisher and Eliza, he avoided reaching for his phone by forcing himself to focus on his environment. On the clink of beer bottles and the smooth, driving beats of Chris Stapleton crooning from the jukebox. On the leather and denim covering the clientele packed into the place because it was 10PM on a Saturday night and everyone who was anyone in Chicago’s biker scene considered Red Delilah’s the place to be. On the aromas of hops and barley mixed with the saltier, earthier smell of the crushed peanut shells strewn across the floor.

Red Delilah’s Biker Bar was a home away from home for the Black Knights. Owned by the wife of one of the original BKI operators, it was just about the only place where a group of big, bearded, leather-wearing men could gather without drawing attention to themselves. In fact, at Red Delilah’s the Knights were just another band of tattooed, motorcycle-riding guys in a room full of tattooed, motorcycle-riding guys.

Okay, that’s not exactly true.

It was still tough to blend in when every woman within thirty feet couldn’t stop sneaking peeks their way. Blame it on Fisher, who looked like he should be on billboards hocking designer jockey shorts. Or Britt Rollins, who had the kind of boy-next-door face that made women want to ruffle his hair before taking him home to bounce up and down on his lap. Or Hewitt Burch, who’d been told he looked like Sam Heughan’s beefier, handsomer brother. Or Graham Colburn, whose six-feet-five-inches of hardpacked muscle and dark, fulminating stares drew women in like moths to the flame. Or Hunter Jackson, who was…

Currently lip-locked with his fiancée.

Sam rolled his eyes at the couple snugged into the corner of the large booth the crew appropriated anytime they came to the bar. It afforded them unimpeded views of both the front and the back doors. Instinct, intuition, and too many missions to places where dangerous men toting deadly weapons might burst in meant the Knights couldn’t turn off their training.

Even when they had a night off.

“You two remind me of teenagers in the back row of a dark movie theater,” he told the canoodling pair, thinking it a wonder either of them had any skin left on their lips as often as they tried to eat each other’s faces off.

Hunter came up for air, his hair mussed from Grace’s busy fingers. “Jealous?” His grin was more than a little self-satisfied.

“If I’m being honest?” Sam nodded. “Yeah.”

Ever since coming to live and work at the old factory building on Goose Island, he’d realized missions and mayhem, and the monotony of one-night stands, weren’t enough to satisfy him.

He wanted more.

The kind of life he’d only ever seen on TV. The kind of life he hadn’t thought he could have until he’d given up the career that had shaped him into the man he was—because if his ex-wife had taught him anything, it was that covert operations and matrimony didn’t mix.

Then he’d seen Boss and Becky, Ozzie and Samantha, Christian and Emily, and all the rest of the OG Knights, and he’d come to realize that with the right woman, it was possible to make things work. And when Hunter—a man who epitomized the phrase lone wolf—told the group he was ready to settle down with Grace, that realization had been cemented.

Something Britt had recently said drifted through Sam’s head. “Whoever builds souls, built Hunter’s and Grace’s the same.”

Even though Sam wasn’t much for religion—hell, he wasn’t sure he even believed in the concept of a soul—he knew Britt was right. Hunter and Grace…fit.

And that’s what he wanted.

To find the person who saw him for all he was, from his smallest weakness to his greatest strength. The person who would cry and laugh with him through all of life’s sorrows and joys. The person who was as happy sitting beside him at a Sox game as she was sitting beside him on some romantic getaway.

The woman whose soul matched his own.

But where would I even begin?

The dating apps weren’t helpful. A man in his line of work couldn’t exactly be up-front in the whole getting-to-know-you game. And it wasn’t as if he’d have any luck finding love at the office. The only women working at Black Knights Inc. were either already married or…Eliza. And as beautiful and smart as Eliza Meadows was, he couldn’t think of her as anything other than a sister from another mister and—

“Not to be cliché or anything.” Grace dragged him from his thoughts. “But it’ll happen for you when you least expect it.” She squeezed his hand and he couldn’t help but smirk at the proprietary spark that ignited in Hunter’s eyes. “Take it from me,” she continued. “One minute I was investigating the Michigan Militia. The next minute this one”—she jerked her chin toward Hunter—“moseyed into my life.”

“I never mosey. And that’s enough of that.” Hunter snagged Grace’s hand from Sam’s and placed it inside his own.

Until Grace, Sam would’ve sworn Hunter didn’t have a possessive bone in his body. Now? The former Green Beret seemed to be made of possessive bones. Or, at the very least, greedy ones.

Hunter was happiest having Grace all to himself.

“Grace is right,” Eliza chimed in from beside Sam. “With those ocean eyes and that John Hamm jaw, the minute you’re ready you’ll have no trouble finding someone to fall into your lap.”

Tell that to the woman who refuses to text me back, he thought grumpily.

Although, if there was anyone on the planet he would never consider for the role of Mrs. Harwood, it was Hannah Blue. Hannah, whom he’d watched trade in her undershirts for training bras. Hannah, whom he’d consoled when the “cool girls” in middle school mercilessly teased her about her new braces. Hannah, who’d been the closest thing he’d had to family before BKI had come into the picture.

That’s it. One little peek.

Flipping over his phone, he checked to see if one of those wonderful red numbers had appeared beside his Messages app.

Nothing.

What the hell, Hannah?

“Good lord, brother,” Fisher muttered. “Ya got it bad.”

Grimacing, he slammed his phone facedown on the table. “I don’t have it bad. Having it bad implies I have romantic feelings for Hannah. Which I don’t. She’s like a kid sister.”

Visions of Hurricane Hannah flashed through his head. Big, dark eyes that took up too much of her face. Small, Cupid’s bow of a mouth that covered a set of train-tracked teeth. SpongeBob SquarePants pajama bottoms that were frayed around the hems from her walking on them.

Except…

That wasn’t Hannah anymore, was it? That was the girl from sixteen years ago.

The women she’d grown into had amazing purple hair, an hourglass figure, and porcelain skin that looked too soft to touch. The woman she’d grown into had come back into his life like a breath of fresh air, reminding him that not everything from his past was dark and disturbing. Reminding him there had been parts of his formative years that were sweet and uncomplicated. And then she’d disappeared without a word, taking that breath of fresh air with her, and leaving him with—

“I call bullshit.” Once again, it was Grace who dragged him from his thoughts. “No one obsesses over their kid sister not texting them back. Take it from me. I have a kid sister.”

“I’m not obsessing.” He realized his tone might invite a response of me thinks he doth protest too much. He tempered his next words. “I just owe her a steak dinner for helping us out two weeks ago, and I’m trying to nail her down on a time. We’re flying outta here in three days, and I hate leaving loose ends behind.”

Especially because, in their line of work, there was no telling if they’d make it back home in one piece. Or if we’ll make it back home at all.

“Whatever ya need to tell yourself.” Fisher smirked.

Sam was usually immune to the good-natured ribbing that came with being part of such a tight-knit crew. But something about this ribbing hit a nerve.

He told himself it was because what they were insinuating gave him the ick. To think he could view Hurricane Hannah as anything more than the funny, sarcastic younger sister of his high school girlfriend was…well…gross.

“You guys dunno shit.” His South Side accent had grown right alongside his temper. “Not every relationship has to look like that.” He gestured toward Grace, who’d leaned in to catch Hunter’s earlobe between her teeth. “Now, what were we talking ’bout before this discussion got turned on me?”

The look on Fisher’s face made Sam think he was in for more ridicule. He was relieved then when Fisher only shrugged. “We were talkin’ about how Graham here has been campaignin’ for an ass whoopin’ for years now.” Fisher nudged Graham with a not inconsiderable amount of force. “And how he just won the election by honin’ in on my newest conquest. I mean, I go to the bathroom for two minutes and come back to find he’s seduced the woman I’ve been makin’ eyes at all night.”

Sam lifted an eyebrow at Graham, awaiting the big man’s response. He should’ve known better than to think Graham might rise to Fisher’s bait.

To say Graham Colburn was the strong, silent type was an understatement. Graham rarely spoke. And when he did, it was more of a low grumble that forced everyone to lean in to listen.

Ignoring Fisher completely, Graham hitched his chin toward a dark-haired woman in skintight jeans who sat with a group of ladies two tables over. Raising his deep voice above the din of the bar, he called out two words. Just two. “You ready?”

The woman’s face lit up like a kid whose Christmas wishes were about to come true. And the way she launched herself from the table, it was a wonder she didn’t knock over her chair.

Graham was a little slower to his feet. The big guy spent most of his life moving at a snail’s pace. Which just made his occasional bursts of speed that much more astonishing.

Sam remembered the time he’d watched Graham run across the Saharan Desert like a freight train pegged to full-tilt. A truckload of armed enemy fighters had been trying their level best to gun him down. And even as Sam had been laying down cover fire, his jaw had slung open to witness that much bulk moving so quickly.

Graham towered over the petite brunette when she joined him beside the table, her eyes wide with excitement as she stared up at him.

“I’m musical.” Fisher pulled the harmonica he always had on hand out of his pocket and wiggled it at the brunette. “Does that change your mind?” When the woman only blinked at him, he sighed. “I get it. It’s cuffing season. And according to SZA, all the ladies are lookin’ for a big boy.”

The woman’s friends clapped and cheered when Graham placed his big, meaty mitt on the small of her back to escort her from the bar. And Sam caught the eye of one of her friends.

The blonde had a mouth made for sin. And the smile that curved her lips when their eyes collided could only be described as an invitation.

“See?” Eliza said from beside him, having caught the exchange. “The ladies are waiting in the wings, eager for you to say the word that you’re ready to take the leap.”

He waited for that burst of adrenaline, that kick of hormones that usually went hand-in-hand with a beautiful woman’s come-and-get-me-big-boy look. But…nada. All he felt was irritation that his phone was resoundingly silent.

After tipping his chin toward the blonde in a gesture that conveyed a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, he flipped over his cell.

Damnit! Why won’t she respond?

Casting his memory back to the day she’d come to the BKI compound, he replayed their conversations in his head. Saw her smile in his mind’s eye. Recalled how her mouth had puckered into a perfect moue as she’d concentrated on the computer screen while her sparkly blue fingernails had clacked on the keyboard.

Aside from their teeny, tiny squabble over her not flirting with him because, while it’d been endearing when she’d been thirteen and trying out her feminine wiles, at twenty-nine it’d just made things awkward between them, he couldn’t think of a single exchange that should’ve had her ghosting him.

And she is ghosting me, isn’t she? Or maybe…

His blood froze when an alarming thought occurred.

Had she been hit by a cab while crossing the street? Had she fallen through a missing manhole cover and been trapped in the god-awful labyrinth of Chicago’s sewer system? Had she been swept into Lake Michigan by a rogue wave?

“For fuck’s sake, Hannah,” he grumbled while quickly typing yet another text. If you don’t text me back in 5 seconds, I’ll assume you’ve been kidnapped & I’ll send the CPD out looking for you.

He counted the seconds in his head. One. Two. Three. F— When he saw those three gloriously scrolling dots appear on his screen, a breath of relief gusted from him.

Of course, the instant her response appeared he was back to scowling. I’m fine. Just not feeling carnivorous. Thanks for checking in. Goodbye, Sam.

Goodbye, Sam? Goodbye, Sam?

Why did that sound so final?

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