Beneath the Scars
MASTERS OF THE SHADOWLANDS, BOOK 13
Josie doesn’t need any help raising her son.
Pregnant at sixteen, Josie learned the hard way about men and their empty promises. She picked herself up and is raising her eleven-year-old son. By herself. And that’s the way she intends it to stay. Unfortunately, her impressionable boy becomes fascinated by the scruffy, intimidating biker who lives next door.
The scars on Holt’s face are only the most visible of his wounds.
Out of the hospital after being attacked in his own damn house, Holt is coming to terms with the fact that his scars frighten people. Like his now-ex-girlfriend who ran after one look at him. Like his redheaded neighbor who hauled her boy away as if Holt was a serial killer. Fine. He’ll give the pretty bartender all the space she wants.
The Shadowlands will bring them together…
When Josie starts bartending in the exclusive, private club, she discovers her neighbor is a member. And a Master--a skilled powerful Dom who can make her fantasies come true. Slowly, the firefighter breaks down the walls around her heart, teaching her how to trust. How to love...
But when her son’s choices lead to disaster, can their relationship survive?
PRAISE FOR THIS SERIES
"I love that I can dive into a Masters of The Shadowlands book and get lost and come out feeling warm, safe, and floaty. Just like being in ''sub space''." ~ Marie’s Tempting Reads
"Even with twelve books in the Masters of the Shadowlands series, Cherise Sinclair manages to make each book even more passionate than the last one. If you haven’t read this series, you’re missing out. Sinclair writes the best Doms. Period." ~ Under the Covers Book Reviews
"One thing that I really love is how Cherise took a series and turned into a family of characters that every time I read the next novel it feels like coming home to friends." ~ Boundless Book Reviews
Why was her kick-ass heroine drooling over the hero as if he was an ooey-gooey-chocolate chewy? Grumbling under her breath, Josephine Collier stepped out of her car. The half-written book was a teen fantasy—not a love story. Why couldn’t her heroine understand that romances rarely turned into happy endings? Honestly.
Then again, teens were naïve. Not to mention stubborn.
Her soon-to-be-a-teenager son jumped out of the car.
“Groceries, honey,” she reminded him as he turned toward the house, and his long-suffering sigh made her snicker. She ruffled his light brown hair. “My child, you sound as if Darth Vader has been torturing you with long needles.”
Three years ago, he’d loved helping with each and every chore. Now…well, now he was eleven years old and ever so jaded with life.
Grinning, Josie picked up a sack and glanced next door at the one-story duplex where her great-aunt, Stella Avery, lived. Where would Josie and Carson be without the wonderful woman? In fact, she’d become so beloved that Josie and Carson called her Oma, German for grandmother.
The bright tropical sun on white stucco made Josie squint, but she could see the driveway on the right side was empty. Oma must be at her Friday afternoon bridge club—her first recreational outing after spraining her ankle three weeks ago. After “serving time” in the rehab hospital, her great-aunt was thrilled to resume her busy social life.
Josie trotted up the porch steps and into her rent-with-option-to-buy house. Although the bungalow was close to forty years old, she hadn’t thought twice about signing the contract. Oma was getting older, and Josie needed to be close enough to help out.
She and Carson had only moved in a few days ago, and she already loved the place.
After weaving her way through the unpacked boxes, she set her sack on a kitchen counter.
Following, Carson left his groceries on the table, grabbed a bag of chips, and attempted a get-away to his room.
She cleared her throat. “There are several more sacks in the trunk. Please bring them in while I put stuff away.”
This time, she got his patented eye-roll.
She smothered her smile and said worriedly, “Oh, honey…if you do that hard enough, your eyes might pop out and fall onto the floor.”
Shocked, he paused for a whole second before catching on. Although he didn’t quite suppress a snort of laughter, he still managed to look put-upon as he stalked out the door.
She shook her head. Sometime in the last few months, her affectionate, funny, sweet son had been replaced by a moody adolescent. Wasn’t puberty supposed to occur later? More like thirteen or so? She wanted to bang her head on the wall and wail, I’m not ready.
Then again, according to her friends, no parent was prepared for the angel-to-demon transformation.
Ah, well, she’d cope. She’d had a fair amount of practice in surviving whatever the universe threw at her. By herself.
A wave of loneliness swept over her along with the longing for someone beside her. Uh-uh. Not going there. Remember how well being involved with a guy worked in the past?
Besides, she had no time for anyone. Not if she wanted to write for a living someday. Even though the four books she’d written were selling well, they didn’t bring in enough for her to quit her bartending job.
And she needed to keep things uncomplicated for her son, especially this year. Poor Carson. His transition from elementary to middle school in September had been…difficult. Now, he had the added trauma of moving away from the apartment complex and his buddies there. Losing friends and having to go through unexpected changes hurt; she’d suffered through those changes herself.
Seeing her baby unhappy was even more painful. Everything inside her wanted to help, to make it better.
Had he been more resilient when younger? Like when he first learned to walk? He’d been so adorable. Shaggy hair falling into his bright eyes. Adorable red overalls. Knees bow-legged from the diaper. An infectious giggle when he took three steps. A heartrending wail when he toppled over.
Falls and scraped knees could be quickly cured with hugs and kisses. It wasn’t so easy to ease the anguish of not being invited to a birthday party or sitting alone in the school cafeteria—and mommies were supposed to be able to mend everything.
Dammit. Her heart ached for him. Sadly, the best she could offer was stability and safety. A listening ear. And all the love in the world.
After stowing the groceries, she looked around. Where were the other sacks?
With a sigh, she walked outside. Car trunk open, groceries still there. Missing: one boy.
Aaaaand, he’d wandered next door and was talking to the tenant of the other half of Oma’s duplex.
Standing with his back to Josie, the man was pointing to parts of his huge black and red motorcycle. The bike was a Harley, according to Carson, who seemed to think a motorcycle was the gateway to heaven.
Every mother in the world knew a motorcycle was the gateway to the emergency room.
Even worse, men who rode motorcycles could be…questionable. Would Carson be safe around this neighbor?
Crossing her arms over her chest, she gave him a good looking-over…and got a bit short of breath.
The man was tall and lean. His faded, ripped jeans covered long powerful legs. A faded black T-shirt stretched over a broad muscular back. Circling his biceps, black and red tattoos were only partially covered by the sleeves. Muscles bunched in his shoulders as he stood the bike up to show Carson something. His dark blond hair was long enough to touch his collar.
Pure man-candy and definitely on the scruffy side. A black leather motorcycle vest had been tossed over a handlebar.
Her eyes narrowed. Carson was off for Thanksgiving vacation or he would have been in class. Shouldn’t this man be at work on a Friday? What did he do for a living? Then again, many people took time off at Thanksgiving.
Oma said the guy had assumed the lease from the previous tenant, Uzuri. Surely the property managers had done a background check and confirmed he was gainfully employed and all that. If nothing else, he’d managed to afford an SUV and a motorcycle.
Looking past the driveway, Josie noticed that the flowers Uzuri had planted in the front door pots were dead. How could he have let the defenseless plants die?
No, she probably didn’t want her boy over there. “Carson,” she called, picking up a grocery sack. “Let’s finish this up.”
Her son turned…and so did the man.
Her stomach tightened. A partially healed, red slash ran from his left temple, through his scruffy beard, to his jaw. A yellow bruise decorated his right cheekbone. More nasty cuts covered his forearms.
She stiffened. Maybe she was jumping to conclusions, but as a bartender, she’d seen far too many brawls. The man had been in a knife fight.
And he was talking to her son. Fear sharpened her voice. “Carson, now.”
With a sullen pout, Carson trudged toward her, so obviously unwilling she wanted to shake him.
To her dismay, the man accompanied him. He was a good six feet tall.
Taking a step back, she looked up and into eyes the blue-gray of Tampa Bay just before dawn.
“Your son says you’ve moved in next door. Welcome to the neighborhood.” He had a mesmerizingly smooth, deep voice.
His greeting was polite. Friendly. But, but, but… Biker. Fighting. Knives. She took another step back, and her response came out thin and unfriendly. “Thank you.”
His expression went blank. “I’m called Holt.” He waited a beat for her to introduce herself, then glanced at the car where Carson was pulling out sacks. Rather than offering to help—which, honestly, she’d have refused—he nodded at her boy. “Nice meeting you, Carson.”
As the guy headed for his house, Carson stared at her. “Wow, Mom, way to be rude.”
She had been, no doubt about it. When she looked over her shoulder, the black motorcycle in the driveway seemed to grow in size with her fears. “Maybe, but I want you to stay away from him.”
She grabbed the last sack and slammed the trunk shut. “Because I said so.”
Even as the words left her mouth, she winced. Throughout her childhood, her father had shouted that rejoinder whenever she’d asked why. When Carson was born, she’d sworn she would be a better parent than her father.
Her son stomped into the house, muttering, “I’ll talk with him if I want to.”
She stared after him, and her shoulders slumped.
Good job of parenting, Josie. FAIL.
* * * *
Jesus, the woman had looked at him as if his face was rotting off. Thoroughly annoyed, Alexander Sullivan Holt stalked into his half of the one-story duplex.
As he closed the door, a deluge of memories froze him in place. “Bastard! She’s mine.” A knife drove into Holt’s upper back. Holt spun and cold burning pain slashed his face. He punched. Connected. Even as the man bellowed in anger, warm liquid poured down Holt’s face—and more flowed down his back. Blood. A fiery pain blossomed over his shoulder blade.
After a second, he managed to pull in a breath and shake off the flashback. Hell. The slices on his gut and back were burning as if brand new—no, the pain was simply because every muscle in his body had tensed.
He moved on into his place. It was a shame his new neighbor hated the sight of him…because he’d enjoyed looking at her. Although he liked long hair on a woman, her short jagged cut was damned cute, reminding him of a sprite or pixie or something. And the color—like burnished copper with lighter gold streaks—was amazing. Green eyes. Freckles sprinkled over her face and arms. Very Irish, he’d guess. She had an average sized, sturdy body, and rather than artificially glamorous, she seemed refreshingly real.
And direct. She sure hadn’t hidden the fact that she wanted her kid to stay well away from him. He’d never thought a soft Texas accent could contain so much ice. Of course, he had to appreciate a woman who looked out for her cub—he’d seen too many who didn’t.
Still… It sucked to be looked at as if he was Freddy Krueger.