Home > Ravaged With You (Stark Security #7)

Ravaged With You (Stark Security #7)
Author: J. Kenner

 

Prologue

 

 

He wasn’t supposed to be the one. This man who watches me with sensual, luminous eyes, his hair like a crown of fire. This battle-scarred warrior who so tenderly holds my life in the palm of his hand.

My life ... and, yes, my heart.

So many lost years hang between us, along with the weight of so many bad choices, each a scar on my soul. And yet when I look in his eyes and see those dark and haunted shadows, I can’t help but think that mine was the easier burden.

Now tragedy and danger draw us together, but we can’t ignore the electricity that crackles around us. And that is an altogether different kind of peril.

I’m not a fool; I know I can’t have him forever. And I fear that his scars have hardened his heart too much to ever completely let me in.

But as we scramble day after day to stay one step ahead of our enemy, I can’t deny one simple truth: I only feel truly safe and happy when I’m in the warm, protective circle of his arms.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

“Hey, Mel, I’m here. Sorry I’m late.” Charlie “Red” Cooper paused in the doorway of the Swift Red Distillery’s public tasting room and breathed in deep. God, he loved this place. The look of it, all wood and steel and glass. The handcrafted bar he’d tooled and polished himself. The fixtures he’d chosen after countless hours in the Pacific Design Center.

And, oh, the scent of it, that enticing aroma of fine whiskey. Wonderfully heady, and all the more appealing because the place belonged to him.

Well, part of it did, anyway. He and Mel Swift, his best friend since high school, ran the place. And the two of them owned it together with Mel’s wife, Jo, the third member of their three-pronged friendship that had started back in college.

Was it only two years ago that they’d celebrated the distillery’s grand opening? Now, Red could hardly imagine any other life. Which, considering he woke up each morning trying to forget the past, was something else in the distillery’s favor.

He frowned, suddenly uneasy, those long ago days creeping up on him like shadows. Back it down. It’s nothing.

He took a breath, then another, all the while cursing himself for opening the damn door in the first place. The door to the dark place where the memories lived. The past. His subconscious. Whatever the fuck the shrink-of-the-week wanted to call it.

Red just called them flashbacks, and those memories had no business here. He might have been the one who’d opened the door, but now he was damn well shutting it again.

“Mel? Hey, buddy, where are you?” He moved through the tasting room as he called, then pushed through the swinging doorway that led to his and Mel’s private offices. “You back here?”

Silence. Red frowned, then shot his buddy a text. He waited for the three dots that signified an impending reply, but the screen stayed stubbornly blank.

His frown deepened, then he sighed, shaking his head as reality struck him. Of course. He should have gone straight to the distillery. Red loved the business as much as his partner did, but to Mel, it wasn’t about the public-facing side, but the magic that turned grain into drinkable alcohol.

In contrast, Red got off on the knowledge of what they’d accomplished. That the public came in, tasted their bourbon, and bought their own bottles to take home. They’d built a business from nothing and had made a drink from grain and chemistry. It was enough to make a man giddy.

Still, he should have known that when Mel said to meet him at work, he didn’t mean the public tasting room or even their private offices. What he meant was the solid oak table he’d set up in the rickhouse where he could sit and peruse the books or do paperwork while surrounded by white oak barrels full of aging bourbon.

Now confident he knew where to find his partner, Red headed through the tasting room’s back door and toward the huge, corrugated steel building where the real magic happened.

They’d lucked into the property. A former prop warehouse for a company that had supplied to the studios back in the heyday of Hollywood, its location on Santa Monica Boulevard near the Hollywood Forever Cemetery meant they had a lot of walk-in customers, both locals and tourists.

Best of all, the property consisted of two separate buildings. The front was where the original owners had showcased their various props and set pieces. The back building was a warehouse in which they’d manufactured everything from period-specific furniture to crazy hotrods for seventies-style action movies. Back then, it had been one huge space, but Mel and Red had subdivided it into the various rooms that aligned with the distillation process.

A small dirt area separated the two buildings. Or it had until Red spent a full month converting the space into a garden paradise, complete with outdoor seating for guests, along with a secondary bar.

Now, he walked the flagstone path from the public area to the actual distillery. It was a journey he’d taken hundreds—probably thousands—of times since they’d bought the place, and yet he never stopped enjoying it. The way the area smelled of flowers and fruit trees. The way it looked with the stone tables and the fire pit.

It was calming, and God knew that calm had been what he’d been looking for when he’d come back to Los Angeles. He’d needed peace after the hell he’d experienced in Romania.

Not now. Just back it down, buddy.

Red’s body tensed from the rising memories, his blood pounding harder in his veins.

Don’t go there. Just chill. Think of sunshine and the beach and puppies so goddamn adorable it’s a wonder they don’t melt in the rain from their sugary sweetness.

Anything. He needed to think about anything other than those years.

Like, for example, catching up to his elusive partner.

With a sharp tug, he pulled open the main door to the distillery and stepped over the threshold and into the rickhouse with its racks of aging bourbon and rye, including Cooper’s Slow Burn Rye. A great label, if Red did say so himself.

He saw Mel’s table right away, a few papers scattered on top, held down by one of the Swift Red paperweights that Jo had given each of them as a grand opening present.

Mel, however, was nowhere to be found. And he still hadn’t answered Red’s text.

Again, Red reminded himself that he was the one who’d arrived late, and he set out in search of his partner. He passed through the aisle formed by two racks, then hooked a left toward the long hall that led to the stillhouse. He passed through the series of doors that helped regulate the temperature, then entered the room itself. Immediately, he started sweating, the heat all part of the process.

At first glance, everything in the room looked just fine. The three stills were doing their thing—the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, and Firefly. The only thing missing was either Mel or the floor manager, because their number one rule at Swift Red was to never leave the equipment unmonitored.

Frowning, he checked all the gauges himself, saw that everything was well, then shot off a text to Jessn, the floor manager on the schedule for Monday, the one day of the week they were closed to the public.

You with Mel?

Jessn’s reply came quickly: He gave me the day off. Said he wanted to hang at work and catch up on stuff. I’m at the beach. You didn’t know?

Red’s fingers hesitated over the phone, trepidation rising. But all he wrote was, Crossed-wires. It’s fine. Have fun.

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