Hard ever after, p.1
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       Hard Ever After, p.1

           Laura Kaye
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Hard Ever After


  Dedication

  Dear Readers,

  This book is my love letter to you.

  Read hard, always and forever,

  LK

  Contents

  Dedication

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Acknowledgments

  An Excerpt from Ride Hard

  Chapter One

  The World of Hard Ink

  About the Author

  By Laura Kaye

  An Excerpt from Everything She Wanted by Jennifer Ryan

  An Excerpt from When We Kiss by Darcy Burke

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Chapter One

  “I DON’T WANT to let you go,” Nick Rixey said, lying on his back in bed with Becca Merritt sprawled half on top of him. Dawn was already around the corner, but neither of them had slept much. At least he wasn’t the only one who was a little stressed out about life returning to normal. You’d think it would be the opposite. But it’s funny how your body and brain could get used to operating in crisis mode—­and resist the reality that the crisis was over.

  Becca traced a ticklish pattern across his chest with her fingertips. “I’m just going to work,” she said. “I’ve been off for two months. It’s time.”

  “I know,” he said, pressing a kiss to her soft blond waves.

  “But we might have time for a proper good-­bye before I have to go,” she said, a smile plain in her voice.

  Nick couldn’t help but grin, and Becca was a big part of why that was so much easier to do these days. “Might we now? And what would a proper good-­bye look like?” Against his belly, his cock hardened.

  “Mmm, a back rub might be nice,” she said, her tone full of teasing.

  “That’s all?” He reached down to stroke his cock, and her head shifted, following the movement. And fuck if her watching him jack himself didn’t get him even hotter. How the hell was he supposed to let her out of his sight for a twelve-­hour shift at the hospital after they’d been around each other twenty-­four/seven for most of the last two months?

  “Maybe this, too.” Becca slid down his body and joined her hand with his. Her tongue swirled around the head of his cock and her lips sucked at the tip as their hands moved together.

  “Fuck, Sunshine. Take all of me,” Nick rasped.

  She pushed onto her knees, her face so filled with desire—­for him—­that it blew his mind. Every damn time. Looking him in the eye with those pretty baby blues, she leaned over and swallowed his length inch by maddening inch until he was buried in the back of her throat.

  His hand went to her hair and his hips surged. “God, yes.” For a few long moments, he savored the pleasure she was pulling out of his body with her lips and tongue and hands. And then he cupped her cheek in his palm. “Lay down,” he said.

  Smiling at him, Becca stretched out on her belly and laid her head on folded hands. Nick straddled her upper thighs, his cock rubbing against her ass as he smoothed his palms over her beautiful golden skin. To think that for most of the past year he’d been lonely, purposeless, angry, battling with demons so numerous it was hard to believe that they’d mostly been slayed. And it was Becca’s walking through the door of his tattoo shop that had put him on the road to getting justice, having his honor restored, and clearing his name—­not to mention finding love.

  Becca Merritt had saved his life in every way that mattered.

  Because of her, he had purpose again in a new business. His surviving Army Special Forces teammates—­his family by choice if not by blood—­were back working and fighting at his side. And he had hope for the future in a way he hadn’t in a very long time, not since a roadside ambush in Afghanistan had killed half his team, sullied the name of his mentor and commander, and ended in the other-­than-­honorable discharge of Nick and his team. Not to mention injuring him and two of the other survivors. Although, shit, they’d all walked away with soul-­deep wounds even if they hadn’t been visible to the eye.

  But that was all behind them now. After weeks of investigations, fighting, and off-­the-­books operations against a shit-­ton of enemies, he and his team had come out on top and the bad guys were either dead or in custody. And now Nick could see the future stretching out in front of him. And this woman was at the very center of his vision.

  “How’s that feel?” he asked, kneading at Becca’s shoulders. The position tugged at the lingering injuries he bore in his hip and lower back, where he’d taken two rounds during the ambush, but fuck if he was letting his body ruin this perfect moment of peace and closeness between them.

  “Really good,” she whispered.

  He worked his way down her spine in a series of slow, deep massages. When he got to her ass, he pressed his cock between her cheeks and slowly stroked himself against her. Becca moaned. And Nick couldn’t wait anymore. He had to get in her. “You wet for me, Sunshine?” He slipped his fingers between her legs and found her hot and slick and more than ready. “Aw, fuck, yeah you are.”

  “Always wet for you,” she said, arching her back.

  Straddling her thighs, Nick penetrated her, both of them moaning as he slid home.

  “Oh, God, Nick,” Becca rasped.

  Grasping her cheeks, he began to move, his eyes trained on where he disappeared inside her. “So good together. Every damn time.”

  “Yes,” she said, arching into him, urging him faster, harder.

  Nick braced his arms against the bed and gave her everything he had—­his body, his heart, his soul. The sounds of panting breaths and pleasured moans and slapping skin filled the gray-­lit room. “Touch yourself,” he said. “I want you to come on me.”

  Becca slid a hand between her legs, and Nick closed every bit of distance between them, his body coming down and covering her from head to toes. He wrapped one arm around her shoulder and another around her head, his fingers tangling in all that beautiful, soft blond hair. “Love you so fucking much,” he rasped into her ear.

  “Nick,” she whispered, her tone tortured and needy. Her movements grew jerky and desperate beneath him, and then she was moaning and coming, her body fisting around him and stealing his sanity.

  “Aw, God, Becca,” he groaned as his orgasm nailed him in the back. On a series of punctuated thrusts, he sought to get as deep as he could as he poured himself into her.

  When their bodies calmed, Nick shifted, but Becca grasped at his hip. “Don’t leave yet.”

  “Don’t want to crush you,” he said, kissing her temple.

  “I like the feeling of you on top of me.”

  Nick chuffed out a small laugh. “Keep talking like that, and I’m gonna get hard again.”

  Becca smiled. “I wouldn’t complain.”

  His head resting against hers, Nick sighed. Contentment. Such a foreign feeling. And yet he found it in Becca’s arms. And had, from the very beginning, even when he’d been too stubborn and too proud to see everything that she was.

  And that was the moment Nick knew what he was doing during Becca’s first day back to work. He wanted her in his life. He wanted that life to start now. Hell, to start yesterday. And he wanted it to be forever.

  And that meant he needed a ring. The rightness of the idea settled bone-­deep inside him. As much as anyone, he knew how life could change in a single unexpected instant. No way did he want to wait even a secon
d more for their future to start.

  “Nick?” she said, pulling him from the plans taking shape in his head.

  “Yeah?”

  “Will you do something for me tonight?”

  He finally shifted off her, his body settling alongside hers so he could look at her while they talked. “You can always assume the answer to that will be yes, Sunshine,” he said, brushing her hair back off her face.

  “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’d like you to give me a tattoo tonight,” she said, bright blue eyes looking up at him with so much warmth.

  The request sent his heart beating a little faster. Nick was half owner of Hard Ink Tattoo, though he’d only been working as a tattoo artist on a part-­time basis since he’d been discharged from the Army. “You know I’ve been dying to put my ink on you,” he said with a smile.

  She grinned. “Well, now’s your chance.” She pointed toward the drawer on the nightstand. “I printed something out to give you an idea.”

  Nick couldn’t move fast enough. After all the times they’d talked about what she’d want if she ever got a tattoo, and after all the times he’d drawn on her body with skin markers just to put his mark on her—­even if only temporarily—­he couldn’t wait to see what she’d finally decided she wanted on her skin. Forever. He sat on the edge of the bed and unfolded the sheet while Becca knelt behind him, her front pressed tight to his back, her arms wrapped around his stomach.

  It was three intertwined cursive words.

  Only. Always. Forever.

  “Fuck, Sunshine,” Nick said, remembering the night he’d shown her the tattoo he’d gotten on his forearm for her and she’d written the word YOURS over her heart with a marker. That had set off a raw, urgent lovemaking that had included them writing words of claiming and love and intention all over each other.

  Only. Always. Forever.

  “What do you think?” she asked.

  “I think it’s perfect,” Nick said, staring at the page. Damn if his throat didn’t get a little tight at the thought that she wanted to put their words on her body. “Do you know where you want it?”

  She kissed the side of his neck and her breath caressed his ear. “On my right shoulder.”

  Nodding, Nick could already picture it—­and it made him even more certain about what he needed to do today. “It’ll look beautiful there, Becca.” He shifted to the side so he could wrap her in his arms. “You make me fall in love with you a little more every day. You know that?”

  “I think that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.” Her kiss was slow and sweet and lingering. “I don’t want to, but I should get moving.”

  “I know,” Nick said, standing and giving her a hand off the bed. He watched her walk into the bathroom, his mind back on his plan for the day. Because he was giving her more than a tattoo tonight. And he couldn’t fucking wait.

  Chapter Two

  A FEW BLOCKS away from the hospital, the nerves Becca had been shoving down all morning finally pushed through. Ridiculous to be nervous about returning to a place where she’d worked for years. But she was. Because the last time she’d been there, a man named Tyrell Woodson had grabbed her from behind, jabbed a knife into her ribs, and tried to abduct her from the staff lounge. Only her struggling—­getting cut in the process—­and Nick arriving, well, in the nick of time, had saved her from God only knew what horrible fate.

  Even worse? The man had gotten away and tried to grab her again, though the team had caught him that time and made sure he wouldn’t be a problem anymore. So Becca shouldn’t be nervous. She shouldn’t be worrying. And she certainly didn’t want to let on to Nick that she was.

  They caught the red light a block away from the hospital’s downtown Baltimore campus, and Nick turned to her from the driver’s seat. “I’ll pick you up at seven, and then we can grab some dinner and head down to Hard Ink.”

  “Sounds like a plan,” she said with a smile, looking forward so much to finally getting a tattoo—­from Nick. He brought their joined hands to his mouth and kissed her knuckles. God, she loved this man. He’d insisted on driving her. Truth be told, she hadn’t minded the extra time with him. It was going to be weird to go back to work in the emergency department after all these months off. All the ­people at Hard Ink had come to feel like her family now in addition to her brother, Charlie, who was in a relationship with Nick’s younger brother, Jeremy. She was going to miss seeing them all the time.

  Moments later, Nick pulled the car over to the curb in front of the hospital. “Have a great day, Sunshine,” he said, leaning over the center console. His kisses made her want to stay. “Be safe.”

  “I will,” she said, ignoring the butterflies in her belly. It really was ridiculous. “Miss you already.” And then she was pushing out of the car and crossing the wide sidewalk plaza in front of the hospital’s tall glass entrance. She’d purposely arrived close to the beginning of her shift so that she wouldn’t have much time before she’d be busy, which she knew would be the perfect cure for her nerves.

  A chorus of greetings rose up from the nurse’s station of the emergency department. Becca made her way inside and gave a round of hugs. Luckily, things were busy enough with the shift change that no one had time to linger. She headed to the staff lounge to stow her belongings.

  Alison Harding came out of the lounge just as Becca reached for the door. “Oh, Becca, it’s so good to have you back,” the woman said, a hint of sadness in her bright green eyes. Becca had been subbing for Alison the day the attempted abduction had occurred, and Alison had sent more than one guilt-­ridden, apologetic text. Not that Becca blamed her. It was hardly Alison’s fault that the undercover military investigation into narcotics smuggling that Becca’s father had been investigating in Afghanistan had spilled over into the United States. Or that the bad guys had been selling their heroin to the Church Gang, headquartered just across the city in Baltimore. Or that somehow the bad guys had discovered that Charlie had stumbled onto his father’s activities, leading them to grab him and attempt to grab Becca as well.

  “It’s good to be back,” Becca said.

  “How are you doing? Did the police ever catch the guy?” Alison asked, tucking a strand of light brown hair behind her ear.

  “No, they didn’t,” Becca said, unable to share what she did know—­that Nick’s team had caught and interrogated Woodson, and that Nick had threatened the man within an inch of his life. “But I’m good. Really good.”

  Alison frowned. “God, it’s scary that he’s still out there, isn’t it?”

  Becca’s belly did a little flip. “No, I really think he’s long gone,” she said. Marz had taken video of him spilling his guts about the Church Gang’s secrets, which Nick had promised to put in the gang leader’s hands should Woodson ever come near Becca again. Already beaten up for having failed to capture Becca, Woodson had tripped all over himself promising to stay away for good.

  “Well, I hope so.” Alison gave her an unconvincing smile. “All right. I’ll see you out there.” She squeezed Becca’s arm and headed down the hall.

  Taking a deep breath, Becca pushed into the room where she’d been attacked, worried that it was going to be filled with all kinds of ghosts. Instead, she found a big bouquet of balloons, a sheet cake that read, Welcome back, Becca! and a plastic-­wrapped bunch of flowers lying on one of the tables. The overhead lights and morning sunshine spilling through the window near the door—­the door through which Woodson had tried to drag her—­made the room bright and cheery, not the scary, dark place her nightmares sometimes depicted.

  Shaking her head at herself, Becca crossed to her locker and ditched her purse. She made a small corner piece of cake with a big pink frosting flower her breakfast, then found herself so immersed in patients that it was noon before she knew it—­and time for the other thing she wasn’t looking forward to: an appointment with a hospita
l psychologist. It was standard operating procedure after the attack and the long leave of absence, but Becca wasn’t relishing being asked to talk about what had happened. And she was well aware that medical personnel sometimes made the worst patients, herself included. She was way more comfortable taking care of others than being taken care of herself.

  She waited in the fifth-­floor mental health ser­vices suite. Finally, the door to the waiting room opened, and a tall, attractive woman in dress pants and a crisp blouse stepped out. “Becca Merritt?”

  “Yes,” Becca said, tossing the magazine she’d been skimming to the coffee table.

  “I’m Dr. Parker,” the woman said. “Please, come in.”

  Becca had seen her around the hospital a few times but didn’t know her well. “Thanks,” she said, slipping into the well-­appointed office—­all warm tones and relaxing landscape prints. She took a seat on the sofa.

  The doctor grabbed a pen and folder from her desk, then sat in an armchair and smiled at Becca. “How has your first day back to work been?”

  “Fine. Busy. But I’m right back in the swing of things,” Becca said, lacing her fingers in her lap.

  “Good, I’m glad to hear it. You know this meeting is routine. The hospital just needs to touch base, given the traumatic event that led to your leave of absence.” Dr. Parker scanned a sheet inside Becca’s folder.

  Becca nodded. “I understand.” Woodson had somehow managed to gain access to a set of hospital credentials and had posed as a maintenance man, so the hospital had been concerned that Becca would sue. But more than that, traumatic events could lead to bad decision making, which was never an acceptable risk when those decisions were of the life-­and-­death variety.

 
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