Authors: Cat Miller
A Lucky Devil Novel
New York Times & USA Today Bestselling Author
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Copyright ©2016 Cat Miller
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or my any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, or otherwise, without expressed written permission of the author.
Cover design by Jules Godfrey
Cover models: Scott King and Abigail Katie Lambert
Formatting by Joseph Hunt
OTHER BOOKS BY CAT MILLER
FORBIDDEN BOND SERIES
I lovingly dedicate this novel to Jennifer Swiger and Stacey Rourke, two wonderful women who’ve supported my career since the early days. Thank you both for being great friends and shoulders to lean on, as well as for being an awesome sounding board when I need to talk out a plot. I’d also like to thank you both for having a great sense of humor and for allowing me to talk your friendship to unexpected places.
I respectfully dedicate this novel to the hundreds of thousands of American service members, past and present, who suffer from PTSD after their experiences while serving our country. I thank you for your service and your sacrifice.
As always, when I finish a novel, my thoughts return to my father. I wonder if he would have been proud of me. I wonder if he’s watching. This novel in particular has special meaning for me. My father was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam. He served his country with honor during a very difficult time in our country’s history. The male protagonist in this romance has none of my father’s physical attributes, but all of his moral fiber. He was a strong, God-fearing man with love for his country and complete dedication to the people he loved.
Daddy, if you’re watching, this one is for you. I love you and miss you every day.
The strongest bonds are often not formed through blood, but earned through friendship and shared experiences. Kinship is a better word for the connection between Rourke and his two best friends, Luc and Dolce. At the moment, Rourke’s oldest friend in the world was sorely testing the strength of that bond.
It had taken Rourke five long fucking days to get from Kabul to Las Vegas. He looked down at his feet where the dust of that far away land still clung to his boots, and Rourke prayed for patience. Unfortunately, Rourke was not a patient man. He was tired, hungry, and ready for a long awaited break.
“What did you say?” he asked Luc Christianson because Rourke was sure he hadn’t heard the man correctly. There was no way he’d just been ordered to report for duty.
“I said get your ass over to the church by two o’clock. Pastor Davis is expecting us to serve Thanksgiving dinner in the soup kitchen tonight,” Luc repeated.
Rourke hadn’t misunderstood. His arrogant ass of a best friend had actually lost his fucking mind. Rourke dropped his duffle on the sidewalk and hailed a cab while taking a few deep breaths of the balmy morning air. The weather in Vegas was similar to the weather in Kabul this time of year. It was sixty-four degrees Fahrenheit in Vegas, but unlike in the Middle East, the sights, sounds and smells surrounding Rourke meant he was home at last. He was breathing fresh air, not the recycled oxygen of an airplane, aircraft carrier, or a submarine. It was a glorious thing.
“Why, exactly, would Pastor Davis be expecting me, Luc? He didn’t even know when I’d be getting back to town. Nobody did, not for sure, anyway.”
“I was hoping you would be home by Thanksgiving. So I volunteered you along with Dolce and myself,” Luc explained as if it were the obvious conclusion.
Usually, Rourke wouldn’t mind spending the day at the church he and his friends had grown up in to serve in any way the pastor needed. However, he was exhausted, and all he wanted was a hot shower and his own bed after nine months overseas. He wanted to sleep until he woke up on his own. No duty call. No operations. No sleeping on the ground in shifts amongst his teammates or not sleeping at all for days. Just a long, uninterrupted day or two of sleep on his cozy, California king, pillow-top mattress with the air conditioning blasting and his thermal curtains blocking out the sun.
“Fuck, Luc! I just got off the goddamn boat!” Rourke exploded, startling a couple nearby. He would apologize if he weren’t so fucking annoyed.
“The fucking boat? Really?” Luc replied calmly, not at all moved by Rourke's outburst.
“Don’t be an ass. You know what I mean, man. I’m a fucking sailor,” he barked.
“Yes, and clearly you also have the mouth of a sailor. I always thought that was just a cliché. I guess I was wrong.”
There was a long disapproving silence on the other end of the line while Rourke cursed in every language he knew. He tossed his bag in the back of a cab and climbed in. This was how Luc worked Rourke and Dolce. Luc had always been their unofficial leader, even though Rourke was older than Luc. Luc had a need to be in charge that Rourke understood and accepted as a part of his personality. Most times Rourke and Dolce went along with Luc’s schemes. If they didn’t, Luc became silent and brooding.
“I’ll let the pastor know you’re unavailable. Dolce will be upset. She’s missed you. The woman has been a pain in my ass for the last nine months.”
Rourke cracked a small smile. He was sure it was the first time he’d smiled since he left home. Dolce was the only one who’d missed him, huh? Rourke was sure Luc hadn’t even noticed he was gone. Sure. He’d believe that line of bullshit. Not!
Again, Luc knew how to work him. Dolce was a soft spot for both of them. She was like their little sister and had been since they were kids and she’d moved to the same street he and Luc had grown up on in North Vegas. Neither of them liked to see Dolce upset.
“How did you know I was back in town? I just walked out of the airport.”
“I had the IT department tracking your phone,” Luc responded as if it were the obvious answer.
Just over a year before, Luc had won ownership of his bastard of an absent father’s hotel and casino in a game of cards. Luc had prepared for the confrontation since the day he learned who his father was and what he’d done to Luc’s mother before her unfortunate death in childbirth. It was a long painful story Luc was doing everything possible to forget, but failing.
What Luc was doing though, was keeping busy turning the declining casino and hotel into a lucrative business again. His father had only wanted the property to hide the immensely profitable illegal gambling and entertainment club it housed within its walls.
Luc wasn’t about to close down the illegal operation. No, it was, after all, where the real money was for the time being, and he needed the income to renovate the legal casino and dated hotel. Luc took over and made the illegal operation an even bigger success in short order. Having the hotel and casino refurbished and rebranded was an enormous expense. Luc needed every penny to get the job done right.
Luc also had an IT department that was just as willing to perform discreet illegalities, as his exclusive contracts department was to write questionable contracts. Rourke tried not to think about that end of Luc’s business. It was an illicit enterprise and against everything Luc was raised to believe in.
“Why are you tracking my phone?”
“Dolce was worried. She missed you. I was just looking out,” Luc coughed and cleared his throat.
Yeah. Dolce was worried. Rourke sighed into the phone and rubbed his temples. Fuck. He loved his friends so much. They were tremendous pains in his ass, but he loved them and missed them more than he’d be willing to admit. Well, maybe he’d admit it to Dolce if she pushed him.
“No, don’t tell Pastor Davis anything. I’ll be there.” He looked at his watch. It was ten hundred hours. There was no sense in him going to bed now. He’d never get up in time. “I’m going to stop by Mom’s house. I might as well get that over with today, or I’ll never hear the end of it. I’ll meet you at the soup kitchen by fourteen hundred.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you then.” Luc disconnected.
Rourke dropped the tracking device, otherwise known as his cell phone, into the breast pocket of his jacket. The cab driver was glaring at him in the rearview mirror, waiting for his destination.
“North Vegas,” he told the driver. “Take me home.”
He was home, and it was a damn good feeling. Finally, the stress of the last nine months began to melt away from him. He smiled again, and it felt strange to him. He wasn’t generally given to smiles, but today he was home. He’d kiss his mother, do some community service at the church that had been his second home, and spend some quality time with the other two stooges before he found his bed. Overall, it was a good day.
* * *
Rourke hustled past the community garden located on the rear of the church property. They had expanded it to include a flower garden all around the perimeter. Rourke had spent many hours working in the vegetable garden with his mom over the years. It was a fond memory from his childhood, except for those damn garden gnomes. A shiver ran down Rourke’s spine. There were dozens of them peeking out from the vegetation. Those things still freaked Rourke out. He could swear all of those beady, little eyes watched him as he passed the garden. Were they breeding in there, or what? It was like gnomageddon!
Rourke entered the soup kitchen as if those damn gnomes were on his heels. If he were late, Rourke would never hear the end of it from Luc. It would be better to be eaten by the gnomes.
“Rourke!” Dolce squealed and threw herself into his arms.
Dolce’s eyes lit with surprise, and her china doll face flushed with pleasure when he walked into the soup kitchen behind the church and dropped his duffle to the floor with a thud.
Dolce was tall, so Rourke didn’t need to bend much to catch the woman who was the closest thing to a sister he knew when she came running to embrace him after the long separation.
Rourke scooped Dolce up and hugged her tight. Her long dark hair was loose around her shoulders and hung in a sleek curtain to tickle his arms where they were wrapped around her trim waist.
After kissing both of his cheeks and practically strangling him with an enthusiastic hug, Dolce finally pulled back to look him over. He set her feet back on the floor so she could examine his face and everything else she could see for injuries like a worried mother.
Her midnight eyes were glassy with unshed tears, but her expression was joyous. She was indeed the little sister he never knew he wanted. Dolce and Luc might not be his blood, but they would always be his family.
“Why didn’t you let us know you’d be home, Rourke?” she accused, and hugged him around the waist. “We would have picked you up at the airport.”
Rourke looked questioningly over her shoulder to Luc, who had been talking to Dolce when Rourke arrived. Rourke was under the impression that it was Dolce’s nagging that had Luc tracking him. So much for that excuse. She worried about him all the time, Rourke knew that, but she hadn’t even been aware he was due home. Luc had come closer with a smile on his face, but he wasn’t a touchy-feely sort of man who would join in the hug.
The expression of relief on Luc’s face told Rourke all he needed to know. Luc had missed Rourke and worried the whole time, but Luc would never admit it aloud. He preferred to pretend it was all Dolce’s fault. That was okay. Rourke wasn’t about to tell his honorary brother that he’d worried just as much about him. Luc had changed since the death of his grandmother. Neither Rourke nor Dolce knew how to help him. Luc looked guiltily back at Dolce, who spun around to glare with her hands on her hips.
“You knew he was coming home today?” she asked Luc, annoyed, the toe of her running shoe tapping on the floor.
“I knew he’d be home soon, but you know how these things are, Dolce. He could have been called back at the last minute to some super-secret-squirrel duty that he’d never be allowed to tell us about.”
Dolce’s frown deepened. Her left eye twitched. She was annoyed that Luc hadn’t confided in her. This was how Luc operated now. Everything was on a need to know basis, and he decided what you needed to know, like whether or not he was tracking your phone.
“Don’t give me that look, woman. I didn’t want to upset you if Rourke was late. You’d be pacing the floors and fussing until he was home. I hoped he’d make it in time to surprise you for Thanksgiving, and he has. That’s that.” Luc strode off into the kitchen. He’d become an influential executive who didn’t like explaining himself. He was the king of his domain, and he wasn’t used to answering to anyone. Not even his oldest friends.
“I swear I’m going to strangle him,” Dolce growled.
“Wait until he helps serve dinner. If you’re going to kill Luc, let the man go to God on his good side,” Rourke joked.
Dolce turned back to him, and the look of concern on her face spoke volumes. “He’s changed so much, Rourke. I’ve tried to talk to the man, but he hides behind his massive desk and shoos me away as if I’m just another employee. Though I suspect if I were anyone else, he’d fire me for annoying him. He won’t open up to me. I don’t know what else to do.” Tears filled her eyes again, but this time, they weren’t tears of joy. Rourke hugged her again.
“I know, honey. I noticed the difference in him over the last few years. He has some personal demons he’ll have to fight on his own. He feels guilty for breaking the promise he made to his grandmother. The last thing she wanted was for Luc to hunt down his father for revenge. That was the first thing he did after her passing. It haunts him. I think he’s also struggling to reconcile his business practices with the belief system we were raised to obey. All we can do is to be there for him when that wall comes down.”
“When will that be? I miss him, Rourke. He’s distancing himself from everyone and everything except for his business.” Dolce huffed despondently.
“I can’t tell you when, but it will happen one day. When it does, we’ll be there.” Rourke rubbed Dolce’s back reassuringly.
She was wearing a heather gray Inferno Hotel and Casino sweatshirt and blue jeans. It was odd to see Dolce in such casual clothing. She was generally very polished. Her mother and grandmother had both been true ladies. They were the kind of women who were always perfectly styled and painted, even when they had nowhere to go, despite their meager wages. They also knew how to shop for clothes and shoes to get the most for their money. Dolce inherited that talent. Seeing Dolce so casually dressed was something he felt he should mark on the damn calendar or something. It was that rare.
“Oh, please excuse me,” a sweet feminine voice said from the doorway Luc disappeared through when he’d had enough of being questioned by Dolce.
Rourke looked up just in time to see the shapely backside of a blond woman in sky-high heels scurry back into the kitchen. The kitchen door swung in her wake and closed, hiding her from him his sight.
“Who was that?”
Dolce was wiping the moisture from her eyes. “Her name is Jennifer. She’s been helping at the church. Pastor Davis just introduced her to us before you arrived.”
The woman was helping at the church in a silk wrap dress and red bottom stilettos. Who did that? He was still staring at the door when Dolce grabbed his hand and tugged him toward it.