Read Hard to Hold on To Online

Authors: Laura Kaye

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Suspense, #Adult

Hard to Hold on To

Dedication

Dedicated to all those who serve and the people who love them.

Chapter 1

A
S THE BLACK
F150 truck shot through the night-darkened streets of one of Baltimore’s grittiest neighborhoods, Edward Cantrell cradled the unconscious woman in his arms like she was the only thing tethering him to life. And right at this moment, she was.

Jenna Dean was bloodied and bruised after having been kidnapped by the worst sort of trash the day before, but she was still an incredibly beautiful woman. And saving her from the clutches of a known drug dealer and human trafficker was without question the most important thing he’d done in more than a year.

He should feel happy—or at least happier—but those feelings were foreign countries for Easy. Had been for a long time.

Easy, for his initials E. C. The nickname had been the brainchild years before of Shane McCallan, one of Easy’s Army Special Forces teammates, who now sat at the other end of the big backseat wrapped so far around Jenna’s older sister, Sara, that they might need the Jaws of Life to pull them apart. Not that Easy blamed them. When you walked through fire and somehow came out the other side in one piece, you gave thanks and held tight to the things that mattered.

Because too often, when shit got critical, the ones you loved didn’t make it out the other side. And then you wished you’d given more thanks and held on harder before the fires ever started raging around you in the first place.

Easy would fucking know.

The pickup paused as a gate
whirr
ed out of the way, then the tires crunched over gravel and came to a rough stop. Easy lifted his gaze from Jenna’s fire red hair and too-pale face to find that they were home—or, at least, where he was calling home right now. Out his window, the red brick industrial building housing Hard Ink Tattoo loomed in the darkness, punctuated here and there by the headlights of the motorcycles belonging to some of the Raven Riders who’d helped Easy and his teammates rescue Jenna and take down the gangbangers who’d grabbed her.

Talk about strange bedfellows.

Five former Green Berets and twenty-odd members of an outlaw motorcycle club. Then again, maybe not so strange. Easy and his buddies had been drummed out of the Army under suspicious, other-than-honorable circumstances. Disgraced, dishonored, disowned. Didn’t matter that his team had been seriously set up for a big fall. In the eyes of the U.S. government and the world, the five of them weren’t any better than the bikers they’d allied themselves with, so they’d have a fighting chance against the much bigger and better-armed Church Gang. And, when you cut right down to it, maybe his guys weren’t any better. After all, they’d gone total vigilante in their effort to clear their names, identify and take down their enemies, and clean up the collateral damage that occurred along the way.

Like Jenna.

“Easy?
Easy
? Hey, E?”

The voice reached him as if he were underwater—distant and indistinct. Blinking out of his thoughts, Easy turned to find three sets of eyes staring at him. Shane was already out of the truck and offering a hand to Sara. From the looks on their faces, it was pretty clear they’d been trying to get his attention for a while. Derek DiMarzio, another of his former SF teammates, had turned in the driver’s seat to look at him, too.

“Okay, man?” Marz asked, his expression unusually serious. Normally, the guy acted like he was on a perpetual sugar high.

Easy was so far from okay, he didn’t think he could get there with a fleet of cars and a limitless gas card. He gave a nod, popped open the door, and carefully guided Jenna and himself out. God, her weight and her warmth felt so good in his arms.

Shane and Sara met him at the back of the pickup, and Sara smoothed her hand over Jenna’s forehead.

“Sweetie, it’s me. You’re okay. We’re both okay,” Sara said, her voice cracking. Easy had some major respect for Sara—for both the Dean girls, really, because the Church Gang had put them through some serious hell the past few years yet they were still standing.

Shane wrapped his arms around Sara from behind, devotion and concern clear in his expression. “She’ll be all right,” he said, pressing a kiss into Sara’s light red hair. “Let’s get her inside so Becca and I can check her out.” Though Shane’s primary occupation on their team had been intelligence specialist, he was secondarily trained as a medic.

Swiping at her eyes, Sara nodded. “Yeah.”

As their little group turned to cross the parking lot, three people burst out the back door of Hard Ink, a German shepherd puppy hot on their heels. Becca Merritt was an ER nurse, their deceased commander’s daughter, and the reason Easy and his teammates had been reunited a week ago. She’d come to Nick Rixey—formerly the team’s second-in-command and co-owner of Hard Ink—for help to find her missing brother, who had also been taken, as it turned out, by the Church Gang. Charlie Merritt was now safe and hanging back at the door, watching them. Next to Becca was Nick’s younger brother Jeremy, who’d never been military but had still stepped up and helped them every way he could this whole past week.

“Marz radioed in that you’d gotten her, but it’s really freaking good to see it with my own eyes,” Becca said, running up to their group.

“They did it. Just like you said they would,” Sara said, as they exchanged a quick hug.

While it sucked that the women had the kidnapping of a sibling in common, at least they had each other to turn to. Everybody should have the kind of friend who understood your fears, accepted you even at your weakest, and held you up even when you couldn’t do that shit on your own. He’d had that, once, back when he’d been a better man than he was now. Behind his temple, pain throbbed in time with his pulse.

“Thank God it’s over,” Jeremy said, raking a heavily tatted hand through his dark hair.

The words settled a leaden weight on Easy’s shoulders. Not by a fucking long shot. Hell, this snafu might never be over. “For tonight,” he said.

Becca tucked her long, blond hair behind her ears and turned her attention to Jenna. Her expression went serious, and Becca’s eyes focused as she scanned her gaze over the young woman’s face. “I’ll do an exam.”

Take care of Jenna. Yes. Easy gave a nod, and they moved as a group across the lot. As long as he concentrated on Jenna, Easy found he could block everything else out, or at least dial it down. The aches that tightened his joints. The yearning for what he’d once had and who he’d once been. The insidious little thoughts that told him it would all be better if he could just fall the fuck to sleep—and not wake up again. Ever.

When they reached the back door of Hard Ink, Easy traded glances with Charlie, who’d scooped under his arm the three-legged puppy Becca had brought home, and they’d collectively named Eileen. Charlie had shaggy blond hair, dark circles under his eyes, and a bandaged hand following the gang’s severing of two of his fingers before the team had rescued him five days ago. Church and his thugs had targeted the Merritt siblings because their father, Colonel Frank Merritt—Easy’s former SF commander—had been dirty and somehow in bed with the gang, a fact Charlie had apparently gotten too close to revealing using some better-than-average hacking skills.

So their colonel’s betrayals hadn’t just rained down on Easy and his teammates. Sonofabitch

Charlie looked both relieved and uncomfortable as he held open the thick industrial door and watched Easy sidestep inside. No doubt, seeing Jenna put Charlie right back into his own experience with the Churchmen. Easy knew how that was. When you’d lived through a worst-case scenario come true, your mind became a little house of horrors, finding something that triggered the memories you most wanted to forget in every little thing.

Sometimes it made you question what it actually meant to survive.

Before the door clicked shut, the rumble of engines idling at the gate next to the building followed them in.

“Oh, God, please let that be Nick. Take her up. I’ll be right there,” Becca said, bolting back out the door. Before their operation had gotten under way earlier in the evening, the team and its biker allies had divided into two units with separate missions against the Churchmen at two different locations. B-Team’s returning home safe from intercepting a large weapons sale would be a load off everyone’s mind.

The loud revs of motorcycles sounded a minute later. “You guys do your thing,” Marz said. “I’ll see if Nick and Beckett need help handling the Ravens.”

“Roger that,” Shane said, passing the darkened first-floor door to the tattoo parlor and rounding the bottom of the cement-and-metal steps. As they started upstairs to the floors where they were all crashing, Shane shook his head. “If you’d told me a week ago I’d be caught up in the middle of paying off hired thugs with stolen guns, I’d have told you to stop watching so many Jerry Bruckheimer movies.”

“That’s the fucking truth,” Easy said, his voice gruff. And then he winced at the curse and his gaze cut to Jenna’s face. Still out.
Have a little respect, Edward
, came the deep baritone of his father’s voice from the depths of Easy’s memory. His father was a deeply religious man and had had no tolerance for . . . well, much of anything wasn’t an unfair way to put it.

Shane was right, though—the Ravens’ assistance hadn’t been free, and they were either gonna have to pony up the two-grand-per-rider fee or part with the assets that had been acquired in their confrontation with the Church Gang tonight. The guns were a windfall in more ways than one. First, since Nick’s team had stolen them, they’d hurt the gang’s bottom line and hopefully their reputation, too. Second, the guns represented assets that allowed the Hard Ink team to save their cash for a rainy day. And goddamnit it all to hell but it’d been pouring on them nonstop.

When they hit the landing, Shane reached for the keypad next to the door to Nick and Jeremy’s big loft apartment. The refurb on the place kicked ass, but that wasn’t where Easy wanted to go.

“She can have my bed,” Easy said. “Apartment’s pretty full, and my room will give her privacy.” Besides, he couldn’t sleep worth a motherfuck, so the bed was about as useful to him as a screen door on a submarine.

Shane’s gaze cut to Sara to get the okay on the idea, and she gave a shaky nod. Easy started up, and the couple followed.

“You guys need help?” Jeremy asked from down below.

“Bring up my kit?” Shane called. “And let Becca know where we went.”

“And a bucket or something?” Sara said. “In case she wakes up and gets sick.”

“Got it,” Jer said.

The mere idea of Jenna’s pain made Easy’s stomach roll in sympathy. He might’ve only known her a couple of days and talked to her a handful of times, but she’d been the first person since forever to look at and talk to him like he was just any regular fucking guy. For a single night, he’d been her protection detail. She hadn’t known about his past or his failures or the black hole inside him, and it was so goddamn
freeing
that Easy had felt like he could fill his lungs for the first time in a year. In the course of a few hours, she’d sassed him, disobeyed him, and rolled her gorgeous blue eyes at him, and he’d . . .
felt
. Annoyance. Humor. Exasperation. Any and every frickin’ one of those was light-years better than his norm. Her smiles and her feistiness and her sweet curves had made him feel like a whole man again. And it had all been such a fucking revelation that Easy hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Jenna—or worrying about her—since.

How Easy wished he’d been able to
stay
on
as protection for Jenna, so none of this would have happened to her, but they hadn’t realized the danger was so great . . .

Guilt tossed Easy’s gut.

Letting people down seemed to be his specialty.

At the next landing, Easy turned left and pushed through a door without a knob or any locking mechanism. Jeremy had been renovating the old warehouse a bit at a time, and the two big apartment spaces on the third floor were still works in progress. Beige cement floors and unpainted drywall stretched for miles, but the electricity and plumbing were good to go, and all this empty space had allowed Nick, Jeremy, the other SF teammates, and Becca and her brother Charlie places to crash for however long the team’s investigation into the clusterfuckery of their past went on. And now Sara and Jenna were calling Hard Ink home, too.

The light over the unfinished kitchen counter guiding the way, Easy crossed the big rectangle that would one day become a living room and carried Jenna down the hall to the first room on the right. “Hit the light, would ya?”

Shane flicked the switch, casting a golden glow over the beige.

The windowless room’s innards consisted of nothing more than a queen-size mattress-and-box-spring set perched on a metal frame. A duffel of Easy’s clothes sat on the floor against one wall, along with a gray gun case. His cell phone’ charging cord hung from an outlet. The only color in the room came from the dark blue sheets and comforter tucked military tight around the mattress’s four corners.

Settling Jenna on the bed, Easy regretted having to let go. Story of his life right there. He stepped back, clearing the way for Shane to crouch beside her.

Moments later, the twelve-by-twelve felt jam-packed. Jeremy had arrived with Shane’s big first-aid kit, Charlie in tow, hanging back in the doorway again like he wasn’t sure if he was welcome. Becca came soon after.

Easy didn’t want to leave, but he didn’t want to be in the way, either. He retreated to the hallway and leaned back against the wall like it was the only thing keeping him vertical. Jeremy and Charlie joined him a minute later. They shut the door behind them and settled side by side against the facing wall, Charlie in the same sweats and T-shirt he’d worn earlier in the day and Jeremy in another of his apparently endless supply of raunchy shirts. This one said, “Blink if you’re horny.”

“Long fucking night,” Jeremy said, scrubbing his hands over his face. Letters on the backs of each of his fingers spelled out N-O-R-E-G-R-E-T. What Easy wouldn’t give to feel that way. Just for five fucking minutes.