NY Times, USA Today & Wall Street Journal
Lowell “Black” Lockard, former Navy SEAL, has watched his fellow Mountain Mercenaries settle down with the women of their dreams, but he’s convinced he doesn’t need love. Then he gets a call from Harlow Reese—a chef at a local women’s shelter—and begins to reconsider his decision.
After being continually harassed by a local band of punks, Harlow asks Lowell to give the women of the shelter lessons in self-defense. She doesn’t expect him to take such a special interest in her safety, but he insists on escorting her to and from work, never taking no for an answer. Not that Harlow minds the personal touch…especially when it’s coming from her former teenage crush.
Despite her long history of bad dating luck, seeing Black again makes Harlow rethink her self-imposed celibacy. Easy on the eyes and hard to forget, the man has morphed into an alpha stud. And Harlow may be exactly the type of woman Black is looking for. Making her feel safe isn’t only a duty; it’s a pleasure. But the threats are escalating. The motives are a mystery. And as the danger burns almost as hot as their passion, there’s much more at risk than their hearts.
Harlow has given up on dating, she’s had so many terrible, and some positively atrocious first dates, it’s just not worth it anymore. She ran into Lowell ‘Black’ Lockard as he volunteered at the women’s shelter where she’s one of the chefs. She had a crush on him in high school, but they are both very different now. She had asked for his number since she wanted to take gun safety lessons at his shooting range.
Black was surprised when Harlow calls him, he thought she changed her mind about the lessons. Although he finds out there is something else bothering her. She is being harassed by men near the shelter and so are the women and children who live there.
As the guys start stepping up with more security at the house, Black also steps up his game. He wants to date her but somehow he has to convince her it’s not a date.
This is a favorite scene, the first surprise, ‘not a date’.
She hadn’t slept well the night before. She kept having nightmares about the shelter blowing up and watching from the outside as everyone burned to death inside. So when her alarm went off at three thirty, she was tempted to roll over and ignore it, but had a feeling that Lowell would drag her out of bed if he had to. She could tell he was excited about wherever they were going.
Besides . . . she was curious.
And she was looking forward to whatever he had planned.
It had been a long time since anyone had surprised her with anything. Generally, she didn’t like surprises, but she had a feeling whatever Lowell had up his sleeve would be epic.
She’d told him she trusted him, and she hadn’t lied.
So here she was. Four in the morning, tired as hell, but game for whatever Lowell wanted to do.
Harlow hadn’t had much time to explore the area, so when she finally thought about paying attention to where they were going, she was already lost. The darkness didn’t help her orientation either.
“Can you tell me where we’re going yet?” It was the first thing she’d said other than a mumbled “Good morning” when he’d knocked on her door.
Too tired to complain, Harlow put her drink in the cup holder and her head back on the seat and closed her eyes.
“Sleep, Harl,” Black said quietly.
She felt his hand on her thigh and looked at him. “I didn’t sleep well last night,” she apologized.
He looked upset at her words, but merely said, “I’ll wake you when we get there.”
She wanted to tease him by saying of course he’d wake her when they got to the mystery destination they were headed toward. It wasn’t like he was going to drive her somewhere, then let her sleep in the car while he got out and did whatever. But instead she said, “I’m just going to rest my eyeballs for a bit. I’m not going to sleep.”
He grinned at her. “Okay, baby. You rest your eyeballs.”
She shut her eyes again, and the last thought she had was how nice his hand felt on her leg and how glad she was that he hadn’t removed it.
What could’ve been seconds or hours later, Harlow felt a hand on her shoulder and heard Lowell’s low voice. “Wake up, baby. We’re here.”
Sighing, Harlow sat up and opened her eyes. If possible, she was even more tired than she’d been earlier. She looked out the windshield and blinked in confusion. They were sitting in front of a fairly large building. She didn’t recognize it and had no idea where they were, but a sign over the door said CHALLENGE UNLIMITED.
Running a hand over her face, she said the first thing that came to mind. “Um . . . I don’t like challenges. This isn’t one of those superhuman workout things, is it? Because I’m telling you right now that I’ve never done a burpee in my life, and I’m not about to start now.”
Lowell let out a loud guffaw, and she turned to look at him in surprise. She’d seen him laugh before, but it was a rare thing.
“I thought you trusted me,” he said when he had himself under control again.
“I do. But you also told me that you worked out every morning, and since we’re up at the crack of dawn parked in front of a business with the word challenge in the name, what else am I supposed to think?”
“I’m coming around,” he told her instead of answering the question. Harlow picked up her now-lukewarm coffee—they must’ve been driving for more than a couple minutes—and took a large sip. She figured that she would definitely need the caffeine for whatever Lowell had planned.
He opened her door and held out a hand. “You don’t have to chug that. Bring it with you.”
“You mean they allow coffee in hell?” she quipped.
He chuckled, and once again, the sound went straight to her belly. She accepted his hand to help her out of the low car, then clutched her travel mug in her other hand as he shut and locked the car door before they headed for the entrance to the building.
They walked hand in hand, and he opened the door for her. They entered a brightly lit retail space with everything from bicycles to clothing for sale. She looked at Lowell in confusion, but he simply strode to the back of the room, where a desk of sorts was set up.
“Lowell Lockard and Harlow Reese, checking in,” he told the teenage girl behind the large wooden kiosk.
The teenager greeted them with a smile and said, “Hi! Welcome to Challenge Unlimited. We’ve got a continental breakfast set up in the back room. There are waivers you’ll need to sign, and once everyone checks in, we’ll play the safety video. We should be ready to go in about thirty minutes. If you need to use the restroom, make sure you do so before we leave. You won’t have another chance once we get to the top.”
Harlow blinked. Top? Top of what? She opened her mouth to ask the girl in front of them, but Lowell spoke before she could.
“Thank you. We’ll be ready.” Then he pulled her in the direction the teenager had pointed. T
hey were almost through the door to the back room when Harlow tugged hard on Lowell’s hand, bringing him to a stop.
He turned to look at her, and she almost melted at the concern in his eyes. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Nothing’s wrong. I just want to know right this second what we’re doing here and what’s going on. Why can’t I pee later? And what are we going to the top of?”
Lowell looked at her for a beat, then said, “I’m a little stunned that you don’t like surprises.”
“I just never have. Especially not when it comes to doing something with someone of the opposite sex. It’s never turned out well for me, which you’re very aware of. I’m two seconds away from sitting on that bench over there”—she pointed at an uncomfortable-looking wooden bench along one wall—“and just waiting for you to be done with whatever it is you came here to do.”
“We’re going to be driven up to the top of Pikes Peak, and then we’ll come down on bikes,” Lowell told her without hesitation.
“Um . . . you do remember that I’m, like, the most uncoordinated person ever, right?”
“You don’t actually have to do much other than steer,” he tried to reassure her.
“Lowell, the last time I got on a bike, I was ten,” she told him.
He frowned. “You’re really worried about this, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” she practically shouted. Then took a deep breath. “Pikes Peak is, like, really high. I look at it outside my window at home. I’m going to fly head over heels over the handlebars or something. How fast are we going to be driving—er, biking? I’ll kill myself if I crash at high speed.”
Lowell took her head in his hands. “Breathe, Harl.”
“I told you once that I’m not an outdoorsy girl. I thought you understood. I just . . .” Her words trailed away.
“What?” he urged.
She’d never admit what she was about to say if they were on an actual date. The last thing she wanted to do was admit to something that would turn him off. But since things between them weren’t like that, she threw caution to the wind.
“I don’t want to embarrass you. I saw a few of the others who’ve already checked in milling about.
They’re all . . . athletic looking. Like you. My butt probably won’t even fit on the seat. I won’t be able to keep up with everyone, and then you’ll feel like you have to hang back with me, and you’ll be miserable.”
“Harlow, you could never embarrass me. I’m proud to hang out with you. You’re an amazing person and beautiful to boot. Even half-asleep, you’re exquisite. I thought you would enjoy this. There’s really no athleticism involved. I swear. I saw the bikes we’ll be using, and they aren’t anything professional. They have big, cushiony seats. Hell, you think I like sitting on bicycle seats? That shit hurts a man’s junk. Our balls get all squished and shit. And as far as keeping up, we’ll get on the bicycles at the top of the hill and coast all the way down. It’s not a race, just a nice, easy ride downhill. We’ll be wearing safety gear, and you only have to go as fast as you’re comfortable with. I just figured you might like to do something fun. To get your mind off what’s been going on. But if you really want to leave, we will. I’d never force you to do something you don’t want to.”
Harlow stared into his eyes and could see the sincerity in them. He had a point about the small seats and his manly parts. Thinking about his dick made her feel all squirmy inside, so she tried to distract herself. She licked her lips, and saw his eyes dart down to her mouth before meeting hers once more. She liked the look in his eyes, but she still wasn’t sure about this.
“I’ll make you a deal,” Lowell said. “We’ll watch their safety video, and if you still have doubts, we’ll bail. We can go out to breakfast instead. Then I’ll take you home.”
“But you already paid,” she protested.
He shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”
Hating that she was being a chicken, Harlow took a deep breath and nodded. “I can do this. I’m not going to wuss out. I just had a momentary freak-out. But if something happens, I get to say I told you so.”
Stoker, Susan. Defending Harlow (Mountain Mercenaries Book 4) (pp. 109-114). Kindle Edition.
Black plans many ‘surprises’ for Harlow in the process of protecting her. So much fun and the whole not dating thing kept made me chuckle every time.
I thoroughly enjoyed her bad date stories, they made me yearn for that HEA. It was great seeing the rest of the crew while also finding out some surprises, plus learning more about the mysterious Rex.
Lots of suspense, intrigue and a few confrontations with more than one person as they find the instigators. With just enough heat in more ways than one.
5 Contented Purrs for Susan!
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Susan Stoker is a New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal bestselling author. Her series include Badge of Honor: Texas Heroes, SEAL of Protection, Delta Force Heroes, and Mountain Mercenaries. Married to a retired Army noncommissioned officer, Stoker has lived all over the country—from Missouri and California to Colorado and Texas—and currently lives under the big skies of Tennessee. A true believer in happily ever after, Stoker enjoys writing novels in which romance turns to love. To learn more about the author and her work, visit her website, or find her on Facebook. Links below.