worth the battle (heaven hill series)

Worth The Battle

Book #4 of the Heaven Hill Series

By Laramie Briscoe

Copyright © 2014 Laramie Briscoe

Kindle Edition

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted downloaded, distributed, stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without express permission of the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, or any events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used. Except for review purposes, the reproduction of this book in whole or part, electronically or mechanically, constitutes a copyright violation.

Edited by:
Lindsay Gray Hopper

Cover Art by: Kari Ayasha,
Cover to Cover Designs

Proofread by: Dawn Bourgeois

Formatting: Paul Salvette,
BB ebooks

Cover Models: Rainey Wilson and Justin Hadden

Cover Photo: Mandy Hollis of
MH Photography

Dedication

To the readers who love the Heaven Hill boys as much as I do. To the amazing people I’ve gotten to meet so far this year and the great times this journey has taken me on—I have all of YOU to thank! Thank you!

Summary

Movie star running from her life.

Secret writer of erotic romance.

Trusts only Layne O’Connor of the Heaven Hill MC.

When Jessica Shea fears that her privacy is in danger, she takes the drastic step to leave her life behind and escape to the only person who’s never treated her like the movie star she is. He’s the one person who’s never sold a story to the tabloids and who knows the real Jessica, the one underneath the makeup and high-gloss shine of Hollywood.

Their friendship has stood the test of time. Now, someone has stolen private photos and writings from her home. Things that she doesn’t want the public at large to see. There’s only one place she knows she can go to be under the radar and lick her wounds.

That place is wherever Layne O’Connor is.

War Veteran.

Striving to live a normal life.

Member of the Heaven Hill MC.

Layne left a piece of himself in the war zone. Fighting PTSD and demons that he can’t explain has left him tired and changed from the man he was before he went overseas.

The only thing he feels like he excels at anymore is being a criminal, and he gladly does it for his brothers of the Heaven Hill MC. The only people who took him in when no one else knew what to make of his anger and frustration.

When Jessica arrives, however, she’s a trigger for everything he’s trying to forget. She makes him remember who he was before his life went to hell; she makes him want to get himself back. While working through those issues, he and Jessica are racing against an unknown enemy.

As they both work to trust each other and figure out just who her enemies are, they learn that love is never easy. They have to decide if the victory is worth the battle.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Summary

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 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

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Connect with Laramie

Coming Soon: Heaven Hill #5

The Heaven Hill Series

Chapter One

N
ashville traffic sucked a big one—especially when it kept Layne O’Connor from getting to the one person in the world who had the power to make him drive seventy miles without questioning why. His fingers beat a rhythm against the steering wheel in time with the rock station he listened to. Today, the music that normally calmed him down set his nerves on edge.

“Move your ass,” he shouted as the person in front of him tapped their brakes. It was times like this he wished he could always drive his motorcycle. If he had been on the back of his bike right now, he could have maneuvered through this mess in ten minutes flat. Instead, he had been sitting in almost gridlock for over an hour. He’d also been flipped off more times than he cared to count, what he wouldn’t give to show these drivers the kind of artillery he carried with him.

A trip that should have taken an hour and a half at most was well into its second. Cursing loudly, he picked up the phone that sat in his cup holder and dialed Jessica Shea’s number. The fact that she was on his speed dial was telling. The only other people on speed dial were Liam and Jagger. He refused to look deeper into that as he waited on the ringing of his phone.

“Hey,” he forged ahead when she answered. “I haven’t forgotten you. This traffic is a motherfucking mess. I’m tryin’ to get there, but there’s a shit ton of Sunday drivers,” he yelled for good measure.

“I know.” Her voice was soft and understanding on the other end. “I figured you were on your way.”

“You’re okay, right?” He had to ask her because something didn’t sit right with him. They were friends, great friends, and at one time—lovers, but never in the way that you just show up at each other’s home. In the past when they had gone to see each other, it was planned well in advance. His intuition and instincts were on high alert.

The silence was deafening. “I’ve been better, but I’ll be fine until you get here. I’ll just find a place to sit. Let me know when you’re close.”

A harsh laugh escaped from his mouth. “I’ve been close for over an hour, but this damn traffic won’t move.” He honked his horn and disconnected, throwing the phone back into the cup holder.

Traffic made him twitchy. In his time in the Army, he had seen more than one roadside bomb on a highway as congested as this. Another reason he loved his bike, he wouldn’t be on this congested road if he was on the back of that thing. He would have easily taken the emergency lane and gotten to his destination. Finally inching up so that he could see the exit he needed to take, he noticed there in fact was an emergency lane. Using his training from the military to his advantage, he looked behind him, noting there was just enough room for him to back up. Throwing it in reverse, he jerked the wheel hard, ignoring the horns honking at him, and then maneuvered the front end of the car so that he had enough room to jockey it out of line. Clear of the car in front of him and the car behind him, he checked his rearview to make sure no cops were around. Once he saw he was in the clear, he used the Dodge Charger (thank you Uncle Sam for your disability compensation when medically discharged honorably) to its full capability, blowing past the line of vehicles.

Now on a clear stretch of road, he could breathe easier. The hair on the nape of his neck didn’t stand on end; his palms weren’t sweaty, his stomach not rolling with awareness. He took a deep breath as he eased his foot off the accelerator. He didn’t need to get a ticket—not after everything he’d already gone through to get to the airport. Finally, after what seemed like forever, he saw his destination and picked up the phone, once again calling Jessica.

“I’m almost there. Where are you?”

She rattled off a coffee shop inside the airport, one he wouldn’t have to pass through security to get to while he went to find a parking spot.

“I can come out to you,” she offered.

“I’ll be damned. You aren’t carrying your luggage through that place. I’m parking right now. See you soon.”

He got out of his car, leaving his cut inside for the time being. Airport security tended to get nervous when they noticed the leather and patches that showed his membership into the Heaven Hill Motorcycle Club, Bowling Green Chapter. Going through the automatic doors, he took his sunglasses off and let his eyes adjust to the muted light inside the building. Quickly reading the signs, he made his way towards where Jessica had indicated she would be.

Jessica sat in the corner of the coffee shop, her head down, bent over her phone. A couple of people had recognized her, even with the changes she had tried to make to her appearance. A hat covered her tell-tale red hair, and plain jeans and t-shirt didn’t do the trick on this day. What she wanted was to be out of this place and soon. Glancing up, she caught sight of Layne making his way towards her. Tamping down the urge to run to him and throw her arms around his waist, she quickly got up from the table and slowly walked towards him.

“Layne,” she called out to him once she was close enough.

The smile that spread across his face told her more than words that she had taken the right chance. She had come to the only person that could help her, that could make her feel like she was home.

“You wanna get outta here?” he asked, as he put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her tightly to him.

The kiss he dropped on her forehead caused her to close her eyes. She breathed deeply and willed the tension to leave her body. “I do,” she nodded.

“How much luggage do you have?”

“It’s over there.” She pointed to the table she had been sitting out.

There he saw a duffle bag and three suitcases. “You plannin’ on stayin’ a while?”

She nodded but didn’t comment. She planned on staying forever, but he didn’t have to know that yet.

If there was one thing Layne didn’t like, it was flying blind. “You know that when we get back on the road, you’re going to have some explaining to do.”

“I know,” she nodded, swallowing hard against the lump that had risen in her throat. “I didn’t mean to put you out at all.”

“Now, I didn’t say you put me out. I just want you to understand, there’s a lot of shit going on right now in Bowling Green and with the club. You sure you want to be involved with that?”

The double meaning didn’t escape her. She knew the things he was involved in were sometimes illegal. He’d let her in on that much of his life since he had joined the Heaven Hill Motorcycle Club. “I just need to get away, and you were the first person that I thought of. I need to disappear for a while.” A
while
was a relative term for what she really wanted to do, but it sounded good for the moment.

“You sure nothing is wrong?” His tone indicated that he didn’t believe a word that had come out of her mouth.

“Can you just respect that I really don’t want to talk about it right now?”

That
he could respect. There were a lot of things he didn’t want to talk about. Didn’t mean that he didn’t want to talk about what was bothering
her
, but even he could tell that she was distressed.

“Okay.”

And like that, he didn’t ask her another word. As they walked to his car, she looked around at the landscape and did her best to keep up with his long legs.

“Is it always this hot?” she asked, pulling her shirt away from her sticky body when they made it to the car and he popped the trunk.

“If you’re plannin’ on stayin’—you might as well get used to it. Hot and muggy ain’t even started yet.”

She nodded as she watched him lift her luggage into his trunk and then slam it shut. Walking over to the passenger side of the car, she opened the door and slid into the seat, breathing easily for the first time since she had left Calabasas. He watched her closely as she removed her sunglasses and the hat that had obscured her red hair.

“I haven’t been able to say it, but thank you for coming to get me.”

Layne took her hand in his and rubbed the back of it. “It’s not a problem at all. I’m glad that you came to me—even if you haven’t been forthcoming in what the fuck is going on. I’m glad that we still have that kind of relationship.”

“There’s nowhere else I knew to go, nowhere else I felt safer.”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “So you’re feeling unsafe?”

“Please don’t try to read into this.” Jessica shook her head, looking out the window as he directed them back onto the interstate.

“I’m not; I’m just trying to figure out what you want from me here.”

She knew that was a fair way to feel, but she just didn’t want to get into it. “All I want is for you to be non-judgmental.”

“Then that I can do,” he smiled across to her.

Jessica sighed deeply and leaned her head back against the seat. Within minutes, she was fast asleep, leaving Layne to wonder just what he had gotten himself into. As he drove north towards Bowling Green, he glanced over at her a few times. There were dark circles under her eyes and stress lines around her mouth. The last few times they had spoken with one another, she had vaguely eluded to the fact that she was unhappy with her current life—unhappy with the Hollywood scene. Did the duffel bag and three suitcases mean she was done with it forever?

Chapter Two

T
he drive back to Bowling Green didn’t take as long as the drive to Nashville and for that Layne was thankful. His ankle and leg hurt if he was cramped in a car for very long, not to mention it just flat out irritated him.

“Jess.” He shook her arm, trying his best to be gentle, even though he could barely remember how.

“Yeah.” She turned her head towards him, breathing deeply as she realized where she was. “Did I fall asleep on you? I’m so sorry.”

“You were tired, it’s fine. I like driving in peace and quiet, with just the radio on anyway, unless I’m on my bike.”

Glancing out the window, she looked to the left and right. “Where are we?” There was a large building that looked like a hospital on her right.

“Liam’s old lady had just gone into labor when you called. I got a text on the way back that she delivered. All the brothers are there; it’s customary that I make an appearance.”

“I’m not going to pretend like I understand a damn word you just said.” She popped a piece of gum into her mouth to get rid of the taste of sleep and rubbed a hand over her face. “But I’m interested in learning about your life here.”

“I hope you’re a quick study, because you’re about to be dropped straight into the belly of the beast.”

Those words did not make her feel any better as they got out of the car and walked towards the hospital. It was important that she not lie to herself, and she realized just how awkward she felt. The only person she knew here was the man who walked beside her, and she wasn’t even sure about him anymore.

“Are you going to see Liam?” The words caught her off guard; she’d had her head down with her hand in Layne’s as they made their way to the building. Glancing up, she saw that a member of law enforcement stood in front of them.

“Why else would I be here?” Layne asked, his tone was as smart as she’d ever heard it.

The officer ignored the tone and took a glance at her, recognition and appreciation sparking in his eyes. “Ma’am, welcome to Bowling Green.”

Layne pulled her behind him. “Nobody knows that she’s here, Rooster. You got that?”

“She’s an actress. How is she going to hide that? And anyway, what’s she doing with you?”

Jessica opened her mouth to answer, but Layne beat her to it. “None of your damn business.”

“Did he kidnap you?” Rooster grabbed his radio and keyed the mike.

She gasped when Layne knocked it out of his hand, shoving him backwards from it. “Why she’s here is our business, none of yours. You just make sure nobody asks any questions, and if they do, tell them that she’s under Heaven Hill’s protection. Is that easy enough for you?”

“I’ve never had a problem with you, Layne. Don’t start one now,” Rooster warned.

“I’m not.”

He grabbed her hand, dragging her into the building. When she glanced back, she saw the officer shaking his head. To say she was nervous was a gross understatement. Her hands actually shook as they made their way up to the maternity floor.

“Are you sure it’s okay for me to be here,” she whispered as the elevator stopped and the door opened. If she talked louder, she was afraid she would startle him after the encounter they’d had downstairs.

“You’re with me, just be sure and stay close.”

She did as she was told when they exited the elevator. Neither one of them spoke as they turned the corner. Jessica gasped as she saw the people standing in front of the glass window that housed the babies. All of the men wore what she knew to be cuts, and they all wore the patches that she also knew proclaimed them being members of the Heaven Hill MC. It was breathtaking really, to see the group of them standing together. They formed what looked to be a unified front—some women stood interspersed among them, and Jessica couldn’t help but wonder what they had to do with the group.

“’Bout time you made it.” A tall man of what appeared to be Native American descent stepped forward, holding his hand out to Layne.

“Nashville traffic fuckin’ sucked,” he explained, clasping hands with the big man.

“Tyler, everybody, this is Jessica Shea.”

A blonde woman with dark highlights stepped forward, raising her hand in a wave. “Welcome to Bowling Green, I’m Bianca.”

Jessica grinned at the woman who looked like they might be around the same age, but then again it was so hard to tell with other people. “Thank you.”

“So did I read my text right? It’s a girl?” Layne asked as they made a space for him at the window.

“Sure is.” Tyler gripped Layne’s shoulders and directed him to the black-haired baby at the front.

“Tatum, huh?”

“That’s what they named her. Tatum Meredith Walker.”

Layne raised his eyebrows and looked back to where Meredith stood with Bianca. “I know, right?” she laughed. “I was just as surprised as everyone else.”

“What do you know? You went from Heaven Hill enemy number one to having the princess named after you.”

“I still don’t know what to say,” Meredith admitted as she stepped up and stood next to Layne.

“She’s pretty,” he whispered as Tatum’s eyes opened and she looked right at him. “Black hair and blue eyes. What a combo.”

“Liam’s gonna have his hands full,” Jagger commented.

“You seriously don’t have to remind me,” a voice said from behind the group.

Layne turned around as he saw his president approaching them. Reaching over, he held Jessica’s hand in his, nodding at the leader of the group.

“Was this your pick up?” Liam asked, offering a small smile to Jessica.

“It was.” He pulled her forward so that they stood even with each other. “Jessica Shea, this is Liam Walker, president of the Heaven Hill MC.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” She held out her hand for him.

Liam licked his lips and tilted his head before smiling at her and clasping her hand. “Somehow I don’t think you would be here if you had any other choice, and I’ll just say that’s something I understand.”

She nodded; let them believe what they wanted to, and Layne spoke up beside her. “She’ll be staying in my dorm indefinitely.”

“It’s your dorm. You can have whoever you want there, just make sure she knows what the hell she’s getting into bein’ around us.”

“Trust me,” she interrupted. “I would rather be with a bunch of law breakers than be with people I
thought
cared about me.”

The group got silent.

“I’m so sorry,” she rushed on. “I didn’t mean to offend anyone.”

“No,” Tyler said. “You got it right; we
are
a bunch of law breakers. However, most women have the decency not to mention it.”

Jessica knew her face was flaming, and it wouldn’t help to apologize, instead she kept her mouth shut.

“Are Drew and Mandy on their way?” Layne asked, trying to fill the gap in the silence.

“They should be getting here anytime,” Liam confirmed, looking at his watch. “Roni is going to bring them.”

They all stood there for a moment, and Jessica felt like maybe the awkwardness that rolled off Layne was because of her.

“Do I need to be here for anything else? It’s been a long day,” Layne asked, rubbing his leg for affect.

“Nah, go on back to the clubhouse,” Liam told him. “We’ve all had a long day. I’m sending the rest of them back after Roni leaves with the kids.”

Layne said a few words to a couple of the members and then steered her back towards the elevator they had come in on. Jessica hoped her mouth hadn’t gotten her in trouble. But if it did, it wouldn’t be the first time.

The clubhouse was like nothing Jessica had ever seen before. It looked almost like a movie set—even though it was much darker.

“My room is over here,” Layne directed her to a row of doors and then used a key to open one of them.

“Who else stays here?” she asked, seeing just how many doors there were.

“Everyone pretty much has their own room. It depends on what we have going on within the club as to who stays, but there’s always an option.”

“Do you stay here all the time?”

“I do, I don’t have another apartment or house like some of the other members.”

He let her in and turned on the overhead light. Jessica turned around in a circle, taking in the room.

“I know it’s probably a lot smaller than what you’re used to,” Layne said as he set her luggage down. “But it’s kinda what I got right now.” He didn’t want to admit this was all he could handle at the moment.

“This is perfect.” The smile she pasted on for him didn’t meet her eyes.

“It’s not,” he laughed. “But it’ll do.”

“Really, Layne, I’m putting you out, so I appreciate this.”

For someone who had spent most of his adult life in barracks and tents around the world, this was home. The only one he had known for a long time. Layne couldn’t expect other people to understand what it meant to have a bathroom that you didn’t have to dig a hole for, a shower that constantly had hot water, and a bed that actually had a mattress on it. For most people those were everyday rights, not luxuries.

“You’re not putting me out, I’m happy to share anything that I have with you, but I know this isn’t what you’re used to.”

“What I’m used to and what I want are two totally different things,” she sighed as she had a seat on the bed. Looking around, she realized there was only one bed in the room.

He caught her look—he caught nearly everything. His time in the military had trained him not to miss anything. He was one of the most observant in the club. Not much escaped him. Although he had to question why she acted that way—it wasn’t like the two of them hadn’t shared a bed before. They had shared one both ways, the sleeping sense and the carnal sense. “Your virtue is safe with me.” He pointed to the chair in the corner. “That folds out into a bed.”

“Then I’ll take that,” she insisted as she squared her shoulders. It didn’t matter to her that there was only one bed, but it obviously mattered to him. For some reason it had taken her by surprise, and she hadn’t had time to hide that surprise. Now she felt like he was offended.

“The hell you will.”

“No.” She shook her head. “I invited myself, and I don’t expect you to go out of your way for me.”

Layne grabbed her hand to keep her from flailing. “I don’t mind it. Like I told you, I’ve slept in some crazy places in my life. A smaller bed won’t be the worst place I’ve ever laid my head at night.”

She thought for a moment, still not feeling right about this. In Calabasas, when she had picked up the phone, she hadn’t been sure who she was going to call. Her fingers had automatically dialed his number. When he hadn’t answered that number, she dialed one that he had given her for emergencies. “Thank you,” she told him softly.

“That’s not to say I’m gonna let you stay here without asking some questions first.”

The fierce glint in his eyes told her that she wouldn’t be able to talk her way out of it this time.

“What do you want to know?” she sighed, wringing her hands together.

“Do I look like the type of man that does anything half-assed?”

Those words scared her, and she ran her tongue over suddenly dry lips.

“I don’t want to make you uncomfortable,” he assured her. “But you came here for some reason, and I need to know what I’m facing. You have got to be honest with me, Jessica.”

Since the night the two of them had met, he’d called her Jessica a handful of times. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you…” she started.

With a voice that could only be described as one used by a drill sergeant, he cut her off. “Then tell me.”

Fighting for the words, she opened and closed her mouth.

“Tell me,” he commanded again, his tone growing harsher.

“I wanted to disappear.”

“But why?” He ran a hand over his head. The peach fuzz was left over from his Army days. He couldn’t tolerate to have hair as long as the rest of them. “I’m gonna tell you this once and once only. You can’t be honest with me; you can take your shit and leave. I don’t put up with liars.”

His words shocked her. She had never known him to speak to anyone that way.

“Don’t look at me like you’re scared of me. I’m being honest with you. Now you be honest with me.”

Her face burned. “Tomorrow a story is going to drop in gossip magazines and on gossip sites along with some pictures.”

“Pictures? All of this over some pictures? Give me the whole story, Jess.”

“They’re nude pictures,” she blurted out.

His eyebrows were almost touching his hairline. “Seriously?”

If Jessica wasn’t mistaken, Layne looked interested. “Yes, seriously.”

“Those pictures are a dime a dozen. Most of young Hollywood has them now.”

“They do,” she nodded. “But there’s a problem with mine.”

He rolled his eyes to the ceiling. “There’s always a catch where I’m concerned. What is it?”

“Two things, actually. One, I have a morality clause in my contract with the studio that’s produced my last four films, and there are a handful of sponsorships that I’m going to lose. The contracts that my dad signed for me before I got emancipated have not been able to be voided. Not only am I screwed, but he’s also going to lose a lot of money. Two, I had the only copy of those pictures, and three days ago my home was burglarized—those pictures were stolen along with other
personal
items and writings.”

The way she said personal items caused goose bumps on his arms. “What do you mean personal items and writings?”

“Underwear, my date book, a private notebook or two.”

“So whoever this is knows a lot of information about you, as well as where you’re supposed to be for the next few months.”

“Yes,” she nodded. “It scared me.”

Layne could see exactly why she was scared. He wasn’t sure she had a stalker, but someone was very interested in her personal life. “No need to be scared here.” He put his hand on her arm. “Anybody who comes after you while you’re with Heaven Hill will have to go through me.”

That was exactly what she had counted on, and for the first time in days, she breathed easier.

Chapter Three

T
he room was still and quiet, the only sound coming from the bed where Jessica slept. Most people wouldn’t be able to hear her breathing, but it was the only thing he
could
hear. At night when he had been overseas in the military, that was the one sound that kept him grounded—that let Layne know he was still alive. He clung to that sound again tonight; not sure why, just needing a sense of familiarity.

Rolling over onto his side, he used his arm as extra support. The pillow he had for this chair wasn’t that great and again reminded him of his time in the Army. There were a lot of things he had learned during his time there that he wanted to completely forget, but there were some things he also coveted. One of those things slept in the bed across from him.

“C’mon, some chick got Justin Timberlake to go to her ball. Why don’t you ask Jessica Shea? You’re a good lookin’ guy, I’m sure she’ll say yes.”

Layne laughed, shaking his head. It was a late night in Fort Benning, Georgia, and the whole group had been drinking more than they should have. That had to be the answer as to why they wanted him—of all people—to make a YouTube video asking an actress to come to his military ball.

“Why me?”

“You’ve got that dark, brooding thing going on. You don’t smile often, and women make it their mission to make you have a good time. Imagine what kind of a good time this woman could give you.”

One of his fellow recruits threw a magazine at him with Jessica on the cover. He wouldn’t lie and say that he’d never watched one of her movies or looked at her and wondered what it would be like to meet her. With red hair and green eyes, her looks were striking. If he wanted to be completely honest with himself, he would admit she was fucking hot. But actresses just didn’t go out with men in the military from backwoods Kentucky.

Somehow during that night, as they took more shots of Southern Comfort and got more daring, he ended up making a video that invited her to his Ranger ball. Miracle of all miracles, she had accepted his invitation.

Layne still wasn’t sure why she’d accepted. Maybe it was fate, maybe it was a divine plan. He figured he would never be able to know for certain. The friendship had completely changed his life, and he would always question what had made him different from every other guy who had asked her to other events. Never before and never again had she said yes.

“I can hear you thinking over here.”

It hadn’t escaped his attention that she had stopped her deep breathing and was now awake.

“Can’t help it. At night I tend to think instead of sleep like normal people do.”

“That must be thanks to your overseas service. You weren’t like that when I first met you.”

She’d hit the nail on the head with that one. It was thanks to his overseas service that left him one fucked up individual, even to this day. On impulse, he asked. “How did you see me when you first met me?”

The silence from her told him just how surprised she was to hear that question. “You sure you want me to answer that?”

“I don’t ask anything I don’t want an answer to; it’s a waste of time.”

“All right. When I first met you, you had this air about you. It was dark, much like you are now, but it wasn’t deadly. It was obvious that you could do what Uncle Sam asked you to, that you could get yourself out of any situation that you found yourself in, but there was still a sense of innocence about you.”

He snorted and interrupted. “There’s never been a damn thing innocent about me.”

“Yes, there was,” she argued. “When you came back, you were a completely different person. Now, you’re different than even that.”

“I had to be,” he answered, his voice flat. He didn’t tell her that being different was the way he made it through his days—it was how he kept himself from going crazy. Most people didn’t understand it, but then again, most people he hung out with hadn’t known him before his military time. They didn’t know how much he really had changed.

Jessica sat up, and with his eyes adjusted to the dark, Layne could make out every feature. Her shirt slipped from her shoulder, showing an expanse of creamy white skin. The purity he saw there made him feel like a piece of shit.

“I had to do things that I wasn’t proud of there,” he continued. “Then I decided to just keep doing those things when I came home.”

She licked her lips, not sure of how she wanted to say this, she wanted to use her words carefully. “I don’t think you’re a bad person at all. You made decisions you had to, to deal with things you saw.”

He closed his eyes, seeing some of those things again. “You make it sound so heroic,” he spat.

“It is. You fought for our country.”

“Tell me, Jessica…out of all the men, boys really, that asked you to come to their balls, why did you pick me?”

“I just liked you.” She shrugged.

“No, I’ve never asked you this question before, and I want a serious answer,” his voice was hard. Waiting for her to speak made him nervous. He tightly gripped the blanket that covered his body and waited to hear what she would say.

“You looked like you needed a friend.”

“So it was pity?” The word tasted bad in his mouth. His heart kicked up a beat, and he began to feel sick. This whole friendship was based on pity? This fucking sucked, and for just a moment he wished that he had never given voice to the question.

“No, not at all.” Jessica shook her head and sat up fully so that she could push her legs over the side of the bed. “I saw something in you that I needed too.”

It took everything he had not to cuss her. “Don’t try to pacify me. I got enough of that in the military.”

“I’m sure you did, but I’m not pacifying you. We’ve been friends for years, Layne. Do you think I would have kept this going over a damn
ocean
if I felt bad for you?”

He shrugged and turned so that he didn’t face her anymore. “I’m sure it was good publicity.”

“Don’t insult me, Layne. It pisses me off. You know I never told anybody about our relationship after that banquet. The only people that knew about it were people that were close to me. I didn’t use you in any way. I was too scared to. Scared that they would target you. I did everything that I could to protect you.” She got up and walked over to him, touching him on the shoulder.

She must have been quieter than she thought because in the blink of an eye, he had her on the ground, his body over hers, her hands trapped at her side. Breathing heavily, she looked him in the eyes. “That was uncalled for.”

“That’s what happens when you fucking sneak up on me. Another residual effect from being overseas.” He got up off her and sat on his bed.

“That doesn’t scare me.”

“Then you’re a damn fool. I don’t know why I agreed that it would be a good idea for you to come here. Much less sleep in the same room as me. I’m a live wire.”

“You’re not going to hurt me, and I want you to stop talking like you’re going to.”

“Then stop talking like you don’t pity me.”

She rolled her eyes, getting frustrated. “Think about it, Layne. I could have gone anywhere in this world to get away from the scandal that’s about to erupt. I didn’t. I came to bum-fuck Kentucky because this is where you are. You, out of everyone I’ve ever known, make me feel the safest. Don’t act like our friendship doesn’t matter. It does.”

“I’m not saying that it doesn’t,” he argued.

“Saying that I’m your friend out of pity says our friendship doesn’t matter.”

They were quiet after those words left her mouth, both of them lost in their own thoughts. Finally, Layne spoke.

“Sorry. I’m kind of rough when it comes to certain things, and I really don’t know how to be any other way. I’ve always wondered why you picked me.”

“I just did,” she whispered. “Even though you smiled and looked happy in the video, I could see in your eyes that you weren’t happy. I could see you needed a friend, and so did I.”

“I did,” he admitted, swallowing hard. “I still do.” Those words were hard to say. The admittance about killed him.

“Then don’t turn your back on me. Let me be here for you.”

That was so hard for him to do with people besides the members of this club. He didn’t really have any female friends. Bianca and Meredith didn’t count as far as he was concerned. Since he had come back from Iraq, he hadn’t even allowed himself to spend the night in the same bed as a woman. Having her here scared him.

“I want you to be my friend, but I have to warn you. I could hurt you.”

“You won’t,” she assured him. “I know you won’t.”

He wasn’t sure, and that was the worst feeling in the world. The happiness he felt when she had decided to turn to him for help was now replaced with an overwhelming anxiety that he would do something to run her off. Mix that with the fact that just being around her made him want to dig his fingers into her hair and tilt her head back so he could bury his mouth against her throat, and he knew the two of them were a deadly combination.

“Being mean to me isn’t going to run me off, ya know. I deal with much worse than you’re giving me every day. Producers, directors, tabloid magazine writers—they are assholes. You’re just a guy trying to protect others from himself.”

She was right; he was trying to protect her from himself. “I just don’t know what I’m capable of. The only people I’ve allowed myself to be around are outlaws and whores, to be perfectly honest with you. I don’t know how to be around the public at large.”

Very delicately, she took his hand. She didn’t hold it, but she let it rest in hers, offering him just a tiny comfort. “Then I’ll do what I’ve done every day since you shipped off to the sandbox.”

Those words made him curious. “What’s that?”

A soft smile played on her lips. “Pray for you. I’ve done it every day. It started out as a prayer that you would come home, then as the days got closer to you being done; it was that you would come home safe. After a while, it was that you would sound normal when I talked to you again on the phone, and lately it’s been that you wouldn’t turn me away. Now, I’ll pray for peace, because it’s obvious that you need it. Something is eating away at you.”

It was, but it wasn’t something that he could put a finger on. It was a restlessness in his body, a churning in his gut, a ringing in his ears when he was given a few moments to himself. He had to get a grip on it.

“I won’t bug you about it, just like I don’t want you to bug me about what I’m doing here.”

“That’s fair,” he answered. “But you’re going to have to give me the whole story soon. If you want me to protect you, you’re gonna have to be honest with me.”

Those were the words she had been waiting on. “And if you want me to be honest with you, you’re gonna have to be honest with me. Friends are honest, friends help each other, and friends don’t put up with other friends’ bullshit.”

A rare smile tilted up the corners of his mouth. It stopped right before it became a full one, but she took that little expression and tucked it away in her pocket for later. Maybe, just maybe, the two of them could figure this relationship of theirs out.

Chapter Four

T
yler grunted loudly when Layne landed a well-timed punch to his gut before backing away against the ropes of the boxing ring. “Give me a minute,” he heaved.

“What’s wrong, old man?” Layne taunted.

The only person that was allowed to taunt Tyler like that was Layne while they boxed. Not many people did anything better than the new vice president, but Layne flat out kicked his ass when it came to boxing. That was the only reason Tyler gave him any leeway.

“Not old, you’re just hitting hard today.” Tyler bent at the waist, trying to get air into his lungs.

Immediately, Layne stood up straight. “Am I? Sorry, sir.”

“How many times do I have to tell you to stop with the sir bullshit? I’m a superior, but you ain’t in the Army anymore. You start with that, and I’ll beat the shit out of you just for the hell of it,” Tyler threatened. He wasn’t exactly sure he
could
beat this younger man up, but he absolutely hated the way Layne reverted back sometimes. He no longer had a contract signed with the government over his head, and it was important to make Layne remember that.

Putting his gloved hands behind his head, Layne walked over to the other side of the boxing ring and leaned against the ropes. So many thoughts rushed through his head. He was off balance, and sometimes that could be detrimental to him. “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he told the big man across the ring.

“Now you’re just gonna piss me off.” Tyler lifted himself up off the ropes and walked over to where Layne sat on one of them. Usually his height advantage intimidated people, but he could tell it didn’t this time. “You didn’t hurt me, you winded me. If you hurt me, I’d let you know.”

Layne nodded, swallowing roughly against the panic that was beginning to seize his throat.

“Are you having trouble with Jessica being here?”

His eyes widened as he looked up at the larger than life Native American. It was highly unusual for him to check on others like this. That is, unless you were a certain female about 5’3”, 140 pounds, had dark hair, and a necklace around your neck.

“Kind of.”

Tyler sighed and had a seat on the mat. “Do you want to talk about it? I’m not gonna pretend I even know what the fuck to say to you. But, as your friend, and your superior…I don’t like the look in your eyes. Liam has a new baby, Jagger’s got a new love, and Steele is as busy as ever. So if you need someone to talk to, I’m making myself available to you.”

His first instinct was to be flippant. “It’s not like I’m going to eat my own gun.”

“Nobody said you were. In fact, if you were gonna do that, you probably would have done it when you first came back. Don’t be a shit. I’m being serious here.”

“I just get this overwhelming sense of panic sometimes. It normally comes around women because I’m afraid I’m going to hurt them. I got back from Iraq three years ago. In three years I haven’t had a woman in my bed for longer than it took to get my rocks off. I don’t hang out with women, the exception being the few who are around here all the time. I just don’t trust myself,” he admitted.

“Why?”

“There’s things I can’t talk about, that I won’t talk about. At night I still have dreams.”

Tyler interrupted. “That doesn’t mean you’re going to hurt someone.”

“But do you know how many men from my unit have?”

“Those men aren’t you.”

“They could be, they so easily could be, and I just don’t trust myself,” Layne whispered.

The words he spoke were telling. This was the man who never asked why when he was told to do something; his hand never shook when he held a gun on another person. There was something else going on here.

“Is it just with women? Or is it this woman?”

Tyler was too observant for his own good. “All of them, but this one especially. This one means more than the rest of them combined.”

“She knew you before you went to Iraq, right?”

Getting up, Layne took the gloves off his hands and threw them down on the mat before running his hands over his wet scalp. “She did.” He blew out a deep breath. “Not many people did, but she did.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I’m not that same guy. I came back completely different, and if she spends enough time with me, she’s going to see that. Hell, she already does.”

It was obvious that this was weighing heavily on Layne’s mind. That made it important to Tyler, but he had to wonder when exactly he had become the father-figure head for all of these young men. It made his palms twitchy and made him nervous to not steer them wrong. The only thing he could do was give Layne advice from his own experiences. “Who stays the same, Layne? We all grow, we all change, my brother.”

“Like this?” He put his hands on his own chest. “Sometimes I feel like I want to rip the skin off my body—it’s so suffocating.”

“Look,” Tyler shifted his legs and motioned for Layne to have a seat next to him on the mat, “the only thing I can tell you is from my experience, and I’m not going to pretend like I have any kind of experience with what you’re dealing with. While I have seen, done, and been a part of some crazy shit in my life, I’ve never been overseas with the Taliban chasing my ass. Please don’t think that I’m comparing myself to you.”

“Even if you were, you’re a great big motherfucker, I think I’d let you get by with it.” Layne made a rare joke.

Not able to help himself, Tyler chuckled. “You keep that attitude with me. Seriously though, like I was saying…we aren’t the same people any of us were a few years ago. Do you think that our life choices haven’t affected each of us? Personally, Meredith’s rape affected me in ways I’m still just beginning to come to grips with. I look at women differently; I look at my friends differently. It affected every part of my life. It’s not like tomorrow I’m going to wake up and feel like everything is a-fucking-okay with every part of it. I still get angry, and I still want to kill the bastard one more time. I have good days and bad days, just like she does.”

The silence between the two of them really was deafening, Layne could hear it echoing in his ears as he flipped the words over and over in his brain. “I feel defective in some way.”

“You aren’t,” Tyler told him again.

Shutting off the part of his brain that wanted to share these feelings with another human being, Layne put his wall up. “You know what, just forget it. You’re never going to convince me that something’s not wrong with me. So just stop it.”

The tone he used was that of a bratty teenager, and Tyler wanted to scream. Instead he did what he figured any father did that was worth his salt and brought out the disappointed shame. “I just told you not to ‘sir’ me, but you can damn well guarantee that if you take that flippant, know-it-all, smartass tone with me again, I’ll jerk a knot in your ass so fast that your head will spin. I’m trying to help you, and if you don’t want that help—then that’s fine, but don’t throw my goodwill back in my fucking face. You got that?”