Cant let go, p.1
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       Can't Let Go, p.1

         Part #5 of Original Heartbreakers series by Gena Showalter  
Can't Let Go


  New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter is back with a sizzling Original Heartbreakers tale about an icy war vet and the only woman capable of melting him...

  With trust issues a mile long, Ryanne Wade has sworn off men. Then Jude Laurent walks into her bar, and all bets are off. The former army ranger has suffered unimaginably, first being maimed in battle then losing his wife and daughters to a drunk driver. Making the brooding widower smile is priority one. Resisting him? Impossible.

  For Jude, Ryanne is off-limits. And yet the beautiful bartender who serves alcohol to potential motorists tempts him like no other. When a rival bar threatens her livelihood--and her life--he can't turn away. She triggers something in him he thought long buried, and he's determined to protect her, whatever the cost.

  As their already scorching attraction continues to heat, the damaged soldier knows he must let go of his past to hold on to his future...or risk losing the second chance he desperately needs.

  Praise for New York Times bestselling author Gena Showalter "Showalter...rocks me every time!"

  --Sylvia Day, #1 New York Times bestselling author "Showalter writes fun, sexy characters you fall in love with!"

  --Lori Foster, New York Times bestselling author "Sassy, smart characters and an expertly woven, unconventional plot, The Closer You Come showcases Gena Showalter in all her shining talent."

  --Kristan Higgins, New York Times bestselling author "Showalter makes romance sizzle on every page!"

  --Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author "Emotional, heart-tugging, kept me turning the pages!"

  --Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author "With compelling stories and memorable characters, Gena Showalter never fails to dazzle."

  --Jeaniene Frost, New York Times bestselling author "The Showalter name on a book means guaranteed entertainment."

  --RT Book Reviews

  "The versatile Showalter...once again shows that she can blend humor and poignancy while keeping readers entertained from start to finish."

  --Booklist on Catch a Mate "Gena Showalter is a creative genius."

  --Hypable

  Also available from Gena Showalter and HQN Books Can't Hardly Breathe

  The Darkest Promise

  The Darkest Torment

  The Harder You Fall

  The Hotter You Burn

  The Closer You Come

  All for You (anthology featuring "The One You Want")

  The Darkest Touch

  Burning Dawn

  After Dark (duology featuring "The Darkest Angel")

  The Darkest Craving

  Beauty Awakened

  After Moonrise (duology with P.C. Cast)

  Wicked Nights

  The Darkest Seduction

  The Darkest Surrender

  The Darkest Secret

  The Darkest Lie

  The Darkest Passion

  Into the Dark

  The Darkest Whisper

  The Darkest Pleasure

  The Darkest Kiss

  The Darkest Night

  The Vampire's Bride

  The Nymph King

  Jewel of Atlantis

  Heart of the Dragon

  Twice as Hot

  Playing with Fire

  Catch a Mate

  Animal Instincts

  The Pleasure Slave

  The Stone Prince From Harlequin Nonfiction Dating the Undead (with Jill Monroe) From Harlequin TEEN

  Lifeblood

  Firstlife

  A Mad Zombie Party

  The Queen of Zombie Hearts

  Through the Zombie Glass

  Alice in Zombieland

  Twisted

  Unraveled

  Intertwined And coming soon...

  Everlife

  from Harlequin TEEN

  and The Darkest Warrior

  from HQN Books

  GENA SHOWALTER

  Can't Let Go

  This book would not have been possible without three amazing ladies: To Jill Monroe and Kresley Cole for the invaluable brainstorming. And laughs. And fun. And heck, for being you.

  To my amazing editor Emily Ohanjanians for incredible feedback. I love that you just get me! Even better, you get my quirky characters.

  And I have to give a second, special shout-out to Jill Monroe, who spent 8 hours holed up in a hotel room with me one day, helping work through the kinks in the story.

  I'm blessed!

  Contents

  CHAPTER ONE

  CHAPTER TWO

  CHAPTER THREE

  CHAPTER FOUR

  CHAPTER FIVE

  CHAPTER SIX

  CHAPTER SEVEN

  CHAPTER EIGHT

  CHAPTER NINE

  CHAPTER TEN

  CHAPTER ELEVEN

  CHAPTER TWELVE

  CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  CHAPTER FOURTEEN

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

  CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

  CHAPTER NINETEEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY

  CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

  CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

  CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

  CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  EPILOGUE

  EXCERPT FROM CLOSE CONTACT BY LORI FOSTER

  CHAPTER ONE

  HE WAS BACK.

  Ryanne Wade poured her world-famous fruit cocktail moonshine--affectionately known as CockaMoon--into a small mason jar and, as discreetly as possible, watched as Jude Laurent prowled through her bar. And okay, the moonshine wasn't exactly world famous but regionally famous. Okay, almost regionally famous; made from her personal recipe, it was distilled at a local brewery and sold exclusively at the Scratching Post.

  Jude had once called the drink Downfall in a Glass. Or DIG. Like, you're digging your own grave, Wade. Just to get a rise out of her, she was sure.

  The former army ranger was a new resident in her hometown, and one of three co-owners of LPH Protection, a security firm. Sometimes he looked like a brawler from the maddest, baddest streets, yet other times he looked like a businessman fresh from a boardroom negotiation--and he'd won. Tonight, he was a bona fide brawler, ready to throw down and heat women up. He wore a black T-shirt, ripped jeans and combat boots. Leather cuffs circled his wrists, and three silver rings glinted on his fingers. His version of brass knuckles?

  No matter his persona du jour, he was always as gorgeous and tempting as sin--and an all-around pain in Ryanne's backside.

  He really churned her butter.

  Usually he only blessed the Scratching Post with his exalted presence when one of his two friends required a designated driver. He never ordered anything but water, and never spent a dime or even left a tip for the waitress unlucky enough to serve him. Namely Ryanne. Not even the insulting kind of tip: a note on a napkin. Fetch my drinks faster next time, and you'll get cash.

  The worst thing about him? He liked to stand at the jukebox and intimidate patrons with a death-ray glare. Oh, and let's not forget how he sometimes attempted to police the door, commanding people to sit and stay as if they were dogs, simply because they'd had a sip of something--anything--alcoholic.

  The nerve of the man. And the body on him...

  Ryanne fanned her flushed cheeks. Time to crank up the air conditioner. Because no, her boiling blood had nothing to do with Jude's sexy, muscled, delicious, sexy, mouthwatering, sexy good looks.

  Not too long ago--okay, okay, soon after meeting Jude--Ryanne had decided to nix her ban on romantic relationships and pick someone to date. The timing was purely coincidental, of course, but her hormones had been out of whack ever since.

  Besides, even if she did want Jude, she wouldn't go after him. Despite his surly attitude, females young and old continued to approach him in droves, stealthily or not so stealthily dangling their bait, but he never even nibbled. He might as well have Off Limits tattooed on his forehead.

  Was tonight the night he relaxed and had a little fun?

  Shivers rained over her as he cast a dark, brooding glance in her direction. He had collar-length blond hair with the slightest wave, eyes bluer than a morning sky, and the body of a surfer: lean, muscled and bronzed. But he also had a perma-frown. To her knowledge, he'd never smiled, joked or laughed, and he'd always radiated scary-hot menace and aggression.

  If he ever smiled...goodness gracious, her hormones might explode from lust overload!

  Of course, he had a good reason for his bad attitude. A few years ago, he lost his entire family in a terrible car accident; his wife and twin daughters were gone in the blink of an eye. Talk about the ultimate heartache. Ryanne reckoned guilt and grief ate at him on a daily--hourly--basis. And she absolutely 100 percent empathized.

  But come on! His troubled past didn't give him the right to accuse her of duplicitous flirting practices in order to boost return visits, and oversalting snacks to ensure patrons remained thirsty. First, she wasn't a plain, ordinary flirt; she was flirtish, and there was a difference. She wasn't after conquests but smiles. Second, how would Jude know anything about the food? He hadn't tasted a single dish she served.

  For some reason, he'd pegged Ryanne as a villainess at their first meeting, and his opinion of her hadn't changed.

  Dang him. I'm as sweet as sugar, and probably tastier to boot!

  When he turned on his heel and headed her way, a frisson of electricity raced through her. Their gazes locked once again, and his step hitched--so did her breath. The sight of him, drawing nearer while fully focused on her...

  Keep your cool, mi querida.

  Impossible! Her heart thudded against her ribs, and sweat glazed her hands.

  Attraction gave way to irritation, but irritation gave way to compassion when she noticed his limp. Poor guy. It was more pronounced than usual.

  On a mission overseas, he'd lost the bottom half of his left leg. Now he wore a prosthesis.

  Fingers snapped in front of her face, and she blinked. Cooter Bowright, one of her regulars, stared at her with concern. "You all right, Miss Ryanne? You've been spacing while I've been foaming at the mouth. Dehydration is deadly, don't you know."

  Ugh. Caught ogling a man who despised her. Feigning nonchalance, she topped Coot's CockaMoon with a sprig of mint and slid the jar in his direction. Since she'd begun selling the fruity specialty, her nightly revenue had increased over 20 percent. Maybe because the cocktail consisted of strawberries, blueberries and grapes, a tribute to the three Oklahoma towns that surrounded the bar: her childhood home Strawberry Valley, Blueberry Hill, where the Scratching Post was located, and Grapevine. Or maybe because the cocktail utterly rocked.

  "I'm all right enough to know this is your last moonshine of the night," she said. "If you get to feeling dehydrated again, I'll pour you a sweet tea."

  Coot took a long swig, draining half the glass, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Come on, Miss Rye-anne." He sometimes drew out the syllables in her name when trying to make a point. "Don't cut me off just yet. The night's barely even started."

  "You know the rules. Three CockaMoons, no exceptions." No one got blackout drunk on her watch. Actually, if anyone slurred their words or staggered while walking, regardless of the limits, she pulled a Jude and stole keys. One, it was illegal to sell alcohol to anyone who appeared intoxicated and two, no, just no.

  Safety first, sales second.

  The difference between her and Jude? She called a cab afterward and never judged.

  "I'd say you suck rotten eggs, but I love you too gosh dern much," Coot muttered, only to brighten. "Hey, you gonna be singing tonight?"

  Sometimes she enjoyed performing a couple sets with the band, but she couldn't sing, mix drinks and make snacks. "Not tonight. I--"

  Jude reached the bar, and the rest of her response died in her mouth. Sex made flesh. He leaned against the polished wood and--shocker--glared at Coot. "Public intoxication is a crime."

  Coot withered. "You're right, Jude. I'll be more careful next time. Honest."

  Hoping to lighten the mood, Ryanne winked at Coot and said to Jude, "Your shirt is a crime." The black cotton was far too tight and likely to cause riots. She wiggled her brows. "How about you do us all a favor and take it off?"

  See? Flirtish.

  He frowned at her and, right on cue, she withered just like Coot.

  The old man patted her hand in a show of camaraderie. "I ever tell you two about the night I let the wife use zip ties in the bedroom?"

  Yeah, he'd told her about a dozen times. Mrs. Bowright had tied him up all right, only to fall off the bed and knock her head on a side table. Cooter had to crawl bare-butt naked across the floor to get to the phone stuffed in the pocket of his discarded jeans. He'd ended up using Google to find a way to free himself from the ties before the paramedics arrived--something about spreading your elbows, raising your arms and slamming your joined hands into your torso--but not before he'd mistyped and found himself on a zit-popping site.

  Ryanne listened, anyway. She loved the old man.

  For once, Jude refused to be ignored. He stepped into her line of vision, their gazes tangling together. Blood fizzed in her veins as her stomach performed a series of flips.

  How did he affect her so quickly and intensely?

  Easy: her romantic past was basically a blank slate. She had no experience, so she had no means of fighting her attraction to this--any man.

  Bottom line, she'd gone two and a half years without dating. Before that, she'd only gone out a handful of times, too distrustful of the male species to offer more than a handshake at the door.

  Why bother doing more? In high school, her mother slept with not one but two of her boyfriends, and Ryanne had feared it would happen again (and again).

  Just wanted to know if they'd cheat on you, carino.

  Yeah, right. You don't betray your "sweetie."

  Ryanne's trust issues had only gone downhill when she'd started working here. Before taking over ownership, she'd balanced the books, bused tables and waitressed. Every night, someone had propositioned her, pinched or swatted her butt, or groped her breasts. Supposedly devoted husbands had picked up singles, and women who'd left with a man one weekend had cried a week later when he'd gone home with someone else.

  As a child, some of her mom's "special friends" had gotten handsy. Once, Ryanne had overheard one of those special friends laughing with coworkers, bragging about easy conquests and sneering about "clingy bitches."

  It was a miracle Ryanne had gotten over her issues, and a bigger miracle someone as cranky as Jude had set her fantasies aflame. He really, really wasn't her type.

  Was anyone?

  Surely! She would find a candidate sooner or later, and he would be everything she'd ever wanted, everything she'd ever needed. Honorable, loyal to the bone. Kind. He would prize and cherish his significant other, no matter how long or short their relationship.

  He would be like Earl Hernandez, who'd had a heart of gold.

  When Earl died of pancreatic cancer a few years ago, her entire world had come crashing down.

  Only recently had she cracked open the journals he'd written throughout his life. His devotion to his first wife, who'd died before him, had shone as brightly as a star in the darkest of night. If those two had lived, they would still be together.

  "I need to speak with Ryanne privately," Jude said to Coot.

  He did? About what?

  "Course. No problem, Jude." Coot blew her a kiss before wandering off.

  "So...how are you?" Jude said, now looking anywhere but at her.

  Going to exchange pleasantries, were they? Okay, fine. "I'm well. How about you?"

  He shrugged and said nothing else.

  Oookay. Exchange over. "What can I get you? Liquid Viagra? Blowjob on the rocks? Screaming Orgasm?"

  "Water." His voice was a little hoarse, and she fought a grin as she filled a glass with his beverage of choice. "And add a lemon," he said.

  Ooh la la. Lemon. She wedged a slice on the rim. "That'll be two dollars and fifty cents."

  His gaze zoomed back to her, his lips pursed, pulling his scar taut. "Two fifty for water that's never before cost me a dime?"

  Was he such a miser at other businesses or just hers? "My mistake. Tonight I'm charging you for my time and energy. And if you think you're getting a bargain, you're right." While everyone else tiptoed around him, afraid of making him unhappy--well, unhappier--she often bristled like a porcupine.

  Unfortunately, she'd inherited her mother's hair-trigger temper.

  He stroked two fingers over his beard stubble before placing a five-dollar bill on the counter. "Do not keep the change. And since we're on the subject of time and energy, you'd do well not to waste mine by admitting you need me."

  You need me.

  Was this an attempt to ask her out? "Excuse me?" she said, and grudgingly handed him two dollars and fifty cents.

  "Your security--" air quotes "--wouldn't stop an accident much less a deliberate crime. You need me to fix the problems before someone gets hurt."

  Nope, he wasn't trying to ask her out, and she wasn't disappointed.

  "No one's going to get hurt." Her "duplicitous flirting" helped maintain the peace, preventing fights. When one happened to break out, she handled it.

  "You're too trusting," he said.

  What! "Too trusting? Me?"

  "You must think the best of people. Otherwise you'd fix your ancient locks, and better watch your customers. You have four employees, and there's no way the five of you can keep track of everyone at once. What if someone steals money from your register? How will you know, until it's too late? Plus, there are too many dark corners in and around your bathrooms. What if a woman is assaulted? And do you have any idea what's going on in the parking lot?"

  The thought of anyone being assaulted in her establishment sickened her. "Just so you know, I'm not responsible for the decisions others make. And my locks do their job, which is all that matters. But what do you suggest I do about the dark corners? And what's going on in the parking lot?"

  "Add motion sensitive lights, as well as hidden cameras." He said no more, ignoring her second question.

  "Lights, yes." Even though the constant on and off might be annoying. "Cameras, no way. They're a violation of privacy."

 
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