CINDY GERARD - New York Times Bestseller
 

 

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Excerpt

OVER THE LINE

Prologue

Saturday, June 21st, Reliant Astrodome, Houston, Texas

Sixty-eight thousand screaming, swearing, jeering, hard drinking World Wrestling Alliance fans rocked the dome to various chants of, “Death Mask! Death Mask!” and “Bull! Bull! Bull!”

Jase didn’t exactly get it. But then, he didn’t exactly care. He wasn’t a headliner like Death Mask or The Bull. In fact, he’d barely made the roster. What he was, was filler. Half of a warm up match – veteran Bruiser Cahill VS the rookie, ex-U.S. Army Ranger, Jason Plowboy Wilson – for a crowd that thrived on mayhem and muscle and blood.

Jase could give them all three. Although at the moment, he had less of one commodity than he’d had when he’d entered the ring. His nose gushed blood like a gas pump.

“Take it easy, will ya?” he muttered as Cahill – two-hundred eighty pounds of steroid-pumped flesh and nasty body hair – locked him in a half-Nelson and tried to bury his ass on the stinking mat.

“W’sa matter, hero?” Cahill mocked. His was rank and his BO even ranker adding insult to injury as he cranked the Nelson tighter. “You bite off more than you could chew when you decided to take me on? Shit. You ex-army Ranger types are all alike. Think you’re tough. You’re just a pansy-ass pussy punk.”

Ho-kay. That did it. The fun and games were officially over. Jase had been putting up with Cahill’s shit for close to ten minutes now. He was willing to play the patsy – hell, a buck was a buck and this gig kept his belly full – but insult the Army? Insult the Rangers? Screw that.

Cahill may out-weigh him by a hundred pounds but the fact was most of Cahill’s muscle was in his head. Jase was smarter. He was faster. And he out-meaned the WWA veteran half.

“You just couldn’t keep your mouth shut, could you Cahill?” Jase muttered, knowing that what he was about to do would probably cost him his paycheck. He didn’t give a shit. Putting this asshole in his place would be worth it.

One hard kick for momentum, a hard chomp on Cahill’s forearm and Jase was off the mat and riding the Bruiser’s back like an organ grinder’s monkey.

The crowd roared and booed and hurled cups of warm, foaming beer at the ring. Cahill bellowed and stumbled to his feet. Jase clung like Velcro, locked one forearm around Cahill’s throat and the other over his mouth and nose so the old boy couldn’t breathe.

Bruiser lurched around the ring, trying to shake Jase off. He clawed wildly at Jase’s hands but Jase had sealed them tighter than a wrestling promoter’s wallet. Out of breath, Bruiser dropped to his knees again; Jase used the downward momentum to flip Bruiser to his back, wrestle him into a cradle and pin him. It was all over in less than thirty seconds. 

Over. Done. New champeen of the who-gives-a-shit-let’s-get-to-the-main-event match.

“I’m gonna kill you!” Bruiser screamed with a feral growl as he staggered to his feet to the taunts of the irate crowd who’d laid out hard earned money and side bets with chumps stupid enough to play the odds that Bruiser wouldn’t win. 

Score one for the chumps.

“Kill you, you little bastard!” Bruiser roared again.

Jase ducked between the ropes and jumped out of the ring onto the arena floor. “Promises, promises,” Jase muttered, dodging a flying cup as he headed for the back stage locker room beer mixing with the blood that dripped down his face. 

In one way or another, Jase had been half-ass trying to kill himself since he’d DX’d out of Ranger Bat six months ago. And he’d gone at it with some pretty good ammo; this counterfeit WWA gig was his latest attempt. Which meant he highly doubted that Bruiser Cahill could accomplish what he, himself, hadn’t been able to do.

When he swung open the locker room door, his Army duffel hit him square in the chest. He caught it, then looked up from the blood dripping from his nose and into the eyes of Clem Lamont, the promoter for the Houston event.

Lamont looked like he’d been chewing nails and one had stuck in this throat. His normally pasty white face was fire engine red. His blood-shot gray eyes bulged. A vein in the center of his crow magnum forehead throbbed like a bitch.

“You stupid shit!” Lamont roared.

Jase held up a hand, not up to putting a helluva lot of effort into supplication or apology. “Yeah, yeah, I know. I was supposed to lose.”

“You’re the biggest loser I know, asshole. And you just proved it. You’re through. Finished! You’ll never get another gig in this business.”

“My life is over,” Jase said in a bored monotone. “How ever will I live with my dreams shattered?”

“You know you’re problem?” Lamont rolled a shoulder, all jerky and irritated beneath the raw silk of his royal blue suit coat. “You’re a smart ass. I was grooming you, kid. Grooming! I went out on a limb when I hired you. A no name. No brain.”

Lamont had the last part right. Jase had been a no brain for ever thinking he was cut out for this sideshow. “I’ll just shower and get out of your hair.”

“You’ll just leave, damn it! To hell with the shower. Boys.” Lamont stepped aside as the back stage security crew – Mutt, Jeff and Leon, three cement blocks on legs, knuckles dragging on the floor – came ambling toward Jase, fists clenched, jaws tight, smiles nonexistent.

“You’re shit’s in the bag,” Lamont added and walked away, shaking his head.

“And the check’s in the mail, right?” 

Lamont flipped Jase the bird over his shoulder. If Lamont had anything else to say, Jase didn’t hear it. But he got the message just the same as Mutt and Leon each grabbed one of his arms and assisted him outside.

Jase leaned back against the building as Jeff slammed the alley door shut behind him. He told himself good riddance and breathed in air that wasn’t scented of blood, sweat and beer. Instead car exhaust, Texas dust and the pungent scent of the downside of a hundred plus city day filled his lungs. 

An hour later, he was flat on his back on a cheap motel bed staring at the ceiling. A neon light blinked on and off through the grimy window. A cockroach crawled across the cracked wall.

Other than that, he was alone – a not so nice place for a man who was a far cry from a loner.

And he was damn weary of the solitude. He was also very alert, suddenly, of the most acute stab of honest emotion he’d let himself feel in six empty months: shame.

He was so ashamed.

This is what he’d become. A loser. A brawler. A phony gladiator who couldn’t even throw a fight he’d been paid to lose.

How had that happen? How had an apple pie and ice cream farm boy from Clear Creek, Iowa, who’d been raised on responsibility and spoon fed integrity come to this? How had a boy who’d dreamed of becoming a cop become a joke? How had a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, a decorated U.S. Army Ranger – Hooah! – fallen this far from grace?

And how much farther could he actually fall? 

He covered his eyes with a forearm. Heaved a deep breath. Yeah. He’d sworn off the booze several months ago after he’d come to face down in a gutter and robbed of everything but his humility, but he was still as shiftless and aimless as a drunk with a case of Mad Dog. The thing was, booze hadn’t been his answer. It had only dulled the pain. Jase didn’t want it dull. He’d needed to feel it. Feel something, anyway.

He dragged his sorry self out of bed. Stared at his bruised and bloodied face in a smoky mirror. And almost buckled under the wave of disgust that swamped him.

His eyes were supposed to be blue but they looked gray and gritty with strain, his color pasty from lack of sleep. The ringing in his ears was a constant, steady annoyance – one of the only constants in his life these days. A constant reminder that his dream job considered him a nightmare. 

“Sorry, son. We’re damn proud of what you’ve done for our country. Damn proud. And we’d love to have you on the force but-“

But Jase couldn’t pass the police department hearing test. Same story no matter where he applied.

“So far, civilian life hasn’t worked out real well for you has it, chump?” he muttered dragging a hand over his buzz cut blond hair.

Nope. Not working out so great.

On a weary grunt, he ambled toward the shower to wash off the blood and the beer and the sweat. He twisted the faucet, let the water get good and hot. Then he just stood beneath it and let it scald his skin and drown out the scent of mold.

Not only was he a man without a purpose, he was a warrior without a war. And he was still trying to figure out where that left him.

He hadn’t been able to stay in the Army, that was for certain. Not with Sarah still at Benning and probably married to Debrowski by now.

Sarah. God, he loved her. Adored her. And he’d told her so. After she’d healed. After several months had passed from the day she’d buried her husband. A husband Jase had fought along side in Iraq. A husband who’d come home safe and whole then taken his own life – but not before he’d tried to take Sara’s, too.

“I love you, Jase. I will always love you for being here for me and the boys. But I’m not in love with you. I’m so, so sorry.”

She’d had tears in her eyes when she’d said it. Tears of pity. Tears of regret.

Jase lifted his face into the shower spray, ignored the sting as the hot water shot needles of pain into a fresh, raw cut on his cheekbone. 

He’d had to get away. Away from Benning where there was a chance he’d run into Sarah every day. Re-upping hadn’t been an option. He sure as hell couldn’t go back to Iraq, even as an independent contractor. His concentration was for shit. And his hearing – well. He’d have gotten someone killed for certain – and the sad truth was, it probably wouldn’t have been him.

God, he thought, twisting off the faucet. He was such a pathetic loser.

He stepped out of the shower onto mildewed tile and reached for a dingy ‘white’ towel. And wondered if No missed it. Missed the battalion. Missed his squad.

“Hell no,” he muttered aloud. Nolan miss the Army? Not in this lifetime.

Nolan – No-man – Garrett was married to the woman of his dreams, raising babies and doing legitimate security work with his brothers and sister in sunny West Palm Beach, Florida.

Jase dug around in his duffel until he found a clean pair of boxers. Stepping into them, he thought of his former squad leader.

Nolan Garrett was the man. If Jase had ever looked up to anyone other than his big brother and his father, it was No.

As it always did, thinking of Jeremy brought a dull, ache of loss. His brother had died way too young. And Jase had started drinking too young because of it - disappointing his father in more ways than one. 

Back in his heavy drinking days in the Rangers, No had bailed him out of more tight spots than Jase could count. He remembered a night in West Palm in a dive named Nirvana where No had backed down a pack of bad-guy biker types with nothing more than a pool cue and a feral scowl.

“Too bad No can’t get you out of this fix,” Jase said aloud thinking about the mess his life had become in the year since.

He froze with his white t-shirt half way over his head. Then slowly tugged it down over his bruised ribs as his heart rate ratcheted up a couple of beats. 

Too bad No can’t get you out of this fix.

The words echoed around in the spot where his brain was supposed to be.

Maybe … hell, he thought as a kernel of an idea took root. Maybe he could. Maybe Nolan Garrett could do exactly that.

Two hours later, Jase was on a flight to West Palm. And he felt the first swelling of excitement in a very long time. 

The next afternoon, short on sleep but long on hope, he stood in the reception area of E.D.E.N. Securities, Inc., the firm Nolan ran with his brothers, Ethan and Dallas and his sister, Eve. 

“Who shall I say is here to see him?” A cute brunette who smelled like heaven and introduced herself as Kimmie, sat behind a reception desk smiling up at Jase when he asked if he could see Nolan.

“Just tell him Plowboy’s here,” Jase said, then glanced to the right when he heard a door open down the hall.

No, looking all professional and businesslike in a pair of classy charcoal slacks and white linen shirt, stepped out an office door. 

When he spotted Jase, he did a double take. 

“For the love of Mike,” No said, with a trademark grin that Jase had seen reduce a woman to drools. “Would you look what high tide washed in.” 

Jase’s former squad leader walked down the hall toward him, a curious look on his face. “Guess the rumors are true. Nobody’s killed you yet.”

Jase grinned and accepted the hand No offered. “Not for lack of trying.”

No laughed. “That, I can believe. Great to see you man. What brings you to the sunshine state?”

This was the hard part. But Jase hadn’t cut it as a Ranger by being soft.

He cleared his throat and went airborne. “That job offer you made me six months ago … the one I was stupid enough to turn down. Don’t suppose it’s still open.”

If he was surprised, No didn’t show it. What he did show was exactly what Jase needed to see. Understanding. Stark and simple. One warrior for another. One man who knew where the other had been.

But most of all, he saw relief – not some hackneyed attempt to muster up enthusiasm.

“It’s still open,” No said. “And you’re timing couldn’t be better. We’re spread so thin we’re turning work away.” 

And just that easy, just that fast, Jason “Plowboy” Wilson, stepped out of the land of the lost and back to the land of the living.

CHAPTER 1

Three weeks later
Tuesday. July 11th concert center, West Palm Beach, Florida 

She was a bustier wearing, hard living, tabloid headlining, top of her game rock star. And as of tonight, he was responsible for keeping her alive.

Lord Jesus God, what had No gotten him into?

Arms crossed over his chest, legs set wide, Jase stood well back in the wings, watching Sweet Baby Jane Perkins gyrate to a hard and heavy rock beat then strut her stuff across the stage on needle sharp high heels as she geared up to close the first of her West Palm bookings.

Sweet mercy, did the woman have stuff to strut.

No wonder they called her sold out tour “Fire and Soul”. Sweet Baby Jane was the flesh and blood component of both the fire and the soul.

A wild thick tangle of long, streaky blond hair bounced on top of her head. Her lips were fireball red. She had a face made for magazine covers and from where he was standing, put the wet in wet dreams. And her body – whoa. That was someplace he wasn’t going to go within a Baghdad mile of.

She wasn’t any bigger than a bug, her waist so small he figured he could span it with his hands. Best guess, without those heels she’d probably top out at a little over five feet. 

It was more than obvious that she was in great shape. Fighting shape. All slim limbs, toned muscle and steady agility, she moved tirelessly and sometimes frenetically all the hell over the stage, her skin covered in a glittering sheen of perspiration. 

Wet, he thought again. Very wet dreams.

He shook off the thought, tuned into her performance. She had a set of pipes, he’d give her that. Although why she wanted to belt out that rock crap when she could groove on a sweet country ballad was beyond him. So was the reason she wanted to wear all that make-up and those skimpy, outrageous clothes – not to mention she seemed to have a thing for tattoos. Small ones – one on her neck, another on her bicep and one just above her right breast. Probably more he couldn’t see, no doubt all with some deep, mystical meaning known only to her. Babes, he’d learned, were like that.

Then there was the pierced belly button. For some reason, he actually found that scary as hell.

But he wasn’t here to critique her choice of music – or her wardrobe or her body art. Or for that matter to wonder what she saw in Derek McCoy, the pretty boy drummer with the ostrich skin pants painted on so tight they announced to the world that he dressed to the left.

To each his own. Jase was here to provide security, not judge rock world’s best bad girl and her bed partners as reported by Entertainer Magazine and half a dozen other rags.

And he was here to prove himself. If not in No’s eyes, in his own. He had a lot of proving to do. 

Who’d a thunk it? Plowboy Wilson, country boy with a capital C, a personal securities specialist to a rock star. And not just any rock star. According to her file, she was big business, big draw and major star power. 

She was also in a little bit of trouble. Trouble of the crazed stalker fan variety.

He scanned the auditorium and the sea of fans rocking to the music and crowding the stage. What a mob. Seemed big venues had many things in common – where it was the WWA drawing the crowd or Sweet Baby Jane. The scent of beer, weed, BO and about a hundred or so different perfumes and colognes hung in the charged air like smoke.

House security was doing a good job keeping them from charging the stage but since Jase was officially on the payroll as of tonight, he was ready to move in if things got out of control.

The only thing out of control right now, though, was Sweet Baby Jane. Damn, she was a sight. And though she was a mite of a thing, on stage and in person she projected a much bigger presence than on TV or in print. Sure, he’d known who she was. He wasn’t a rocker but he didn’t live under a rock either.

She was ‘the next big thing’, the current decade’s answer to what you get when you cross Janice Joplin, Cheryl Crow and Madonna.

And No trusted him to protect her. He shook his head, still bowled over by that fact. Never figured he’d see that one his resume.

“Max Cogan is an old friend of Dad’s,” No had informed him at staffing yesterday, explaining about a call from a new client. “They served in ‘Nam together.”

Ethan, Dallas and Eve had also joined them at morning staffing where they doled out assignments and briefed each other on their current clients.

“Anyway, Max manages Janey Perkins—“

“Wait, wait, wait,” Eve McClain interrupted her brother, her blue eyes wide with excitement. “Dad’s friends with rocker Sweet Baby Jane’s manager? Holy shit. Do you suppose I could get her autograph?”

Three sets of eyes – all blue like Eve’s – turned on the little sister that no one in the group would ever mistake for ditsy blond. 

Jase had heard stories about Eve Garrett – Eve McClain now – from No. Some of them made his short hairs curl. She was sharp and she was shrewd and behind those cover girl looks and misty blue eyes, she could hold her own with a Ranger chalk if she had to.

She had to be tough to keep up with the Garrett brothers, all of whom Jase respected. Hell. More than respected. He liked them. Admired them. They were heroes. Veterans. All ex-special ops, like Jase, which, in a way, made them all brothers. Sure, one gene pool gave them all – Ethan, Dallas and Nolan – their tall, dark good looks and another gave Jase a fairer complexion and a little less height, so it was obvious there was no blood relationship but they were brothers, just the same.

And he was grateful as hell that all four Garretts – Eve, who’d once been a Secret Service agent included – had given him a thumbs up when Nolan had introduced him to them three weeks ago and they’d welcomed him to the firm. 

E.D.E.N. Securities, Inc. had been founded by their father, Wes Garrett. Now, under the Garrett siblings capable hands, E.D.E.N. had expanded and built on the principles of integrity, trust and excellence. 

Jase had spent the past weeks familiarizing himself with company protocol, done some job shadowing and had actually sketched out a plant security plan that had been implemented.

But he’d been itching for his first hard assignment. He’d do anything. Night security. Surveillance. Hell, he’d clean the head if they wanted him to but he was ready for something other than paperwork.

“I was just asking,” Eve had said with a roll of her eyes when her brother’s ‘give us a break’ stares told her what they thought of that idea of meeting the star.

“Cogan wants us to provide one on one security for Janey. Or Baby. Or Sweet. Or whatever the hell she wants to be called,” No had finished with a frown.

Then he’d tossed a file folder across the conference table toward Jase. “The tour moved from Miami to West Palm tonight and E.D.E.N’s been tagged to provide personal and ongoing security for the star. This one’s yours Plowboy.”

Jase had blinked. Stared at the folder. Looked around the table to see if anyone was laughing, like No had just pulled a big joke or something. No one was.

He picked up the folder. Squinted at No. “No shit?”

That did make them laugh.

“No shit,” No confirmed with a grin. “Read the file. It’s a six month contract, subject to renewal. Pack a bag and head over to the concert center. You’re about to break your cherry big time.”

And that had made Jase laugh. A nervous, thanks for the vote of confidence laugh.

He wasn’t laughing now. Lord Jesus God. Sweet Baby Jane rock star was a tornado. A firestorm. He was going to have to pull out all the stops to keep up with her.

“Whatever it takes,” No had said. 

Looked like it was going to take an army, Jase thought as she skipped across the stage then leaped gracefully up onto a speaker and fist in the air, belted out the last notes to a hard living, hard drinking song about life and love on the road.

Yeah. It was going to take an army all right. An army of one.

 

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