Barnes & Noble
Available in Print:
Barnes & Noble
Tanner Cycles Book One
Forbidden fruit is so much more tempting…
The one woman Coal Tanner was never supposed to touch was the very same he couldn’t resist. She was his best friend’s baby sister, putting her strictly off limits. Not to mention, she was ten years his junior. Yet, she was the only person who made him feel alive, wanted, and everything in between. When he gets a call from his friend asking him to protect her, it’s not just her safety that’s on the line but his heart.
Sydney Manor wants to turn her life around after her family is ripped apart. Alone, she’s doing her best to start over, until a man from her past swoops in, trying to save her from the dangers lurking around her. How can he protect her when he knows nothing about the sordid things her family became involved with once he’d left town, years earlier? How can she pretend they are just friends when, unbeknownst to him, he’s owned her heart since he’d come to her rescue on the playground when she was six?
Now that life has thrown them together again, he might have a second chance if he can keep his doubts from forcing him to push her away again—even if it’s for her own good. Coal’s business has taken off, keeping him working long hours, giving him everything he ever wanted. But now that she’s back in his life, he realizes something’s been missing—her.
Outside the office windows, the world went by unnoticed by Coal Tanner as he continued working late into the night. Work didn’t stop just because the day faded into darkness. He put his heart and soul into Tanner Cycles and his work was never done. There were always parts to be found and ordered, clients to contact, designs to be approved, and more. The business had exploded far beyond what he’d thought it would. While that meant he had to take on more of an administrative role, leaving the hands-on work to his brothers, he still received the same rush of adrenaline with each completed project.
His cell phone vibrated along his desk, stealing his attention from the computer screen. Unknown caller. For a moment, he debated not answering it. The only people who had his number were his brothers, and a few friends. Business calls went to his office phone first and if he wasn’t there, they would be directed to his cell phone. This call never came through his office, meaning it was either someone close to him or a wrong number. With everyone’s number that was important to him programmed into the phone, it was more likely the latter. Still, he found himself putting his work on hold and picking up the call.
“Fuck, man, I thought you weren’t going to answer.”
“Jay?” Coal’s original frustration fizzled out as the voice of his old buddy drifted through the speaker. “How’s it going?”
“Not so good. I was locked up tonight, but that’s not why I called.” Jay paused for a moment and lowered his voice. “It’s Syd.”
“Fuck, man!” He dragged his hand through his hair and leaned back in his leather office chair. “Tell me you didn’t get her involved in your shit.” It was bad enough that his old buddy couldn’t clean his act up but to bring his sister down with him took the whole mess to another level.
“Nah, but she’s in trouble. If they can’t find me…” Jay hesitated. “You know what will happen. Fuck! You’ve got to help me. That’s my baby sister.”
Yeah, he knew what would happen. They’d go after anyone connected to him, which would leave Sydney with a bullseye on her back that she might not even know about. “Where is she? Still living at your old house?”
“Yeah. I know it’s a few hours’ drive from you, but I don’t have anyone else to call that can keep her safe.”
“What about your dad? Can’t he watch out for her?” With the mention of Mr. Manor, Coal’s chest tightened. He didn’t like the idea of Syd being alone with him, even if he was her father. Whenever he was strung out on drugs, he turned abusive and Coal wouldn’t force anyone to suffer that torment, especially not Syd.
“He’s been locked up for a couple years now. Guess I’ll be joining him…” There was noise on the other end and Jay’s voice rose a notch. “I’m begging, man—you’ve got to help her.”
“Don’t sweat it. I’m heading out now. She’s not going to be happy, but I’ll have to bring her up here with me. It’s the best way to protect her. I can’t be gone from the shop for months.” Coal hit the save button on the document he was working on and shut down the laptop.
“I don’t give a shit if you drag her away kicking and screaming. Just protect her. If anything happens to her—”
The line went dead and Coal tossed the phone back onto the desk. No doubt his time was up. Coal didn’t need Jay to finish the threat for him to know his friend would hold him responsible if anything happened to Syd. Jay wouldn’t place the blame on himself for getting into this mess and leaving Sydney at risk. He would only see Coal’s inability to protect her.
Coal would drop everything to make sure she was safe. It didn’t matter, because there was no way he was letting her get caught up in the shit her brother left her in the middle of.
Shoving his laptop into his bag, he glanced at the clock on the wall, realizing it was past midnight. “Fuck.” It would take him at least twelve hours in the car, and that was with him breaking the speed limit and not hitting any traffic. He needed to get there quick if he was going to get her out of town before whoever Jay owed money to came looking for him. He grabbed his cell phone off his desk again and scrolled through his contacts. Knuckles.
The late hour didn’t faze him as he hit the button to call his old friend. Knuckles was a good guy, loyal to the family, and had been their pilot for more than ten years. There wasn’t a doubt in Coal’s mind that he could trust him to be willing to jump his aid now.
“Knuckles, I need a lift. How soon can you make it to the airstrip?”
“Tonight?” There was a hush of a female voice in the background, letting Coal know that Knuckles wasn’t alone. “Fine, man. Give me twenty. Will I be waiting for you? I have another run tomorrow afternoon, so I need to be back before then.”
“No, just drop me off in Pittsburgh. Then you can return, get some sleep, and be ready for Cal. File the flight plan. I’ll see you when you get here.” He didn’t give Knuckles a chance to respond before hitting end on the cell phone and placing it back on the desk. Who knew how long it would take him to convince Sydney she needed to get out of town? He wouldn’t hold Knuckles up when his brother, Callaway, needed him to pick up a cycle from Texas they were going to restore.
He left his laptop bag sitting by his desk and headed up the steps to his place. While his brothers shared a house on the other side of the landing strip, he preferred his privacy, so he’d turned the third floor of the warehouse into his own private condo. It had been used for storage but with some time, money, and a lot of cleaning, it had turned into a sanctuary where he could get away from work, at least as much as he would allow himself. He’d gather a few things in case he got tied up in Pennsylvania and once they were in the air, he’d arrange for a rental car.
Flying out of Pittsburgh’s airport with Syd would be too risky. Too many people could see them traveling through the terminals. He’d need to get her out of the city, possibly out of the state, before they could risk Knuckles flying them back to Minnesota. By then it would be easier to just continue the trip back by car, rather than wait for Knuckles. Especially if she’s fighting me every step of the way.
* * *
Every step Sydney Manor took in the old house produced a creak that seemed more sinister now that she was alone. It wasn’t the first time in her life she had been home alone, but this was the first time no one would be coming back to her. She was alone in the world and finding someone on the porch when she arrived home from work had left her uneasy. It was a friend of Jay’s but his cryptic warning told her he’d be trouble.
Terrified, she made sure every door and window was locked, before escaping to what had once been her sanctuary—her room. She needed to figure some things out. With her father and two brothers behind bars, how was she going to pay the bills, handle whatever legal fees they needed, and everything else? She needed to come up with a plan. Instead, all she could think was that she was the last Manor standing. All of the males in her family had ventured down the wrong route in life, while she’d vowed to stay out of trouble and away from the drugs that had ruined her family.
Maybe she needed to leave the area. The part of town they lived in had become so consumed by drugs and crime, it wasn’t safe there any longer—especially not without Jay or someone there. At eighteen having just graduated from high school a couple of months ago, surely she could find work somewhere else. A hundred bucks was all she had to her name, but there had to be something in this shit hole they called home that she could sell.
A fist pounded on the door, and fear rose within her. Without turning on a light, she reached over to her nightstand and grabbed the handgun she had placed there. The gun was her father’s, but he’d taught her how to use it years ago. He must have known he was going to prison and she’d be left with Jay. This had been his gift to her, so she could protect herself if the time ever came. Her brother had been into the same shit as her father so he had to realize that one day this would be her fate. They’d sheltered her, protecting her from the worst parts of their lives. Now, something about this whole situation screamed that she had been tossed directly into shark infested waters. What was she supposed to do?
The pounding on the door stopped, then resumed; whoever it was had gone to the back door. She wanted to creep out of her room and see who it could be but whoever was there in the middle of the night hadn’t come for a visit. They were coming because of something Jay had done. She didn’t want to die because he owed someone money, or someone wanted drugs. The hundred dollars she had in her purse was all she had. She couldn’t pay someone off.
The noise subsided and her breaths came easier. The person at the door would be back, though; she wasn’t going to get rid of her problems that easy. Knowing that she needed to get out of there, she eased off the bed and began to throw things into a duffle bag. There was no place to go but she couldn’t stay. She had to do something.
“Sydney.” The male voice was unfamiliar.
The stairs creaked and she pressed her back to her bedroom wall. She held the gun out before her, knowing she needed to relax, focus on the target, and be ready when he entered her room.
“Syd…” The soft, husky voice drifted through the door.
It can’t be. Maybe it was her ears playing tricks on her but she swore that voice belonged to someone she knew. Someone she could trust. With the gun at the ready, she couldn’t stop the dash of hope from blooming within her. Could he have known and come for her? All these years later, would he be her saving grace again?
Without a sound, the bedroom door handle turned and the door drifted open. Could she do this? Could she really pull the trigger? She didn’t know but her finger hovered over it. Give me the strength…
“Syd…” A man stepped through the open door and her heart skipped a beat.
“Coal!” Tears streamed from her eyes. She wanted to go to him and have him wrap his arms around her, but fear rooted her to the spot. How did he know she needed him?
“Damn it, why didn’t you answer me!”
“What do you want?” Suspicion crept into her words. Was he tied into the mess Jay was in? She knew he and his brothers had left the state and made it big but it didn’t stop the misgiving from tainting her thoughts. What was the big man behind Tanner Cycles doing slumming in her neck of the woods? Now that he was a rich man, he never came back to their old stomping grounds.
“Syd.” He stepped farther into the room. “I came for you. Get your stuff. We’re going somewhere safe.”
“I can’t…” She didn’t know why she said that. While she had dreamed about him coming and rescuing her from the mess she called her life, now that he was here, she was scared. But did she fear leaving everything she knew behind or her feelings for him? She wasn’t sure. He could have any woman he wanted. Why would he want her?
“Can’t?” He tipped his head toward the half packed duffle bag on her bed. “It looks like you were considering just that when I arrived.”
“They’re after me.” Her gaze drifted toward the window as she wondered if they were outside. Were they out there waiting for her to come out? Would they eventually make their way inside and find her? She couldn’t stay cooped up in the house forever. She’d have to go grocery shopping; after all, there was nothing left in the refrigerator expected a sour container of milk and Chinese food from three days ago. Damn you, Jay!
“I know. That’s why I’m here.” Watching her intently, he inched closer to her. “How about we put down the gun?”
“Huh?” She followed his gaze and realized she was still pointing the gun at his chest. “Shit!” Carefully moving her finger away from the trigger, she lowered it. In her heart, she knew she couldn’t shoot Coal, even if it turned out he was part of Jay’s mess.
“Give it to me.” He held his hand out for it.
“I might need it.” There was no safety on the gun and she already had one round ready in the chamber, just in case. “They were already here.”
He closed the distance between them and with one hand, he cupped the side of her face, while with the other, he reached for the gun that she now pointed at the floor. “Do you trust me, Sydney?”
“Yes.” The single word came out more like a squeak as she could finally take in the man before her. Before the darkness and shadows prevented her from getting a good look at him. The pictures in the magazines and online didn’t do him justice. His broad shoulders and thick biceps made her feel small. She wanted to reach around his neck and unravel the tie that kept his shoulder length, dark brown hair out of his face. In the years since he’d left the city, he’d transformed from a young man with an attitude to a man who was beyond sexy.
“Syd, are you listening to me?” He took the gun from her hand and placed it on the dresser.
“What?” She blinked away her thoughts and the anxiety rushed back. “I, umm…”
“Finish packing. We’re leaving.” He stepped back from her and she had to wrap her arms around herself to shake off the chill.
“I don’t have anywhere to go.” Even as she argued, she went to her dresser, pulling out the few things she wanted to take with her.
“You’re coming home with me.” He stepped to the window and glanced out at the street. “Take everything you need. You won’t be coming back here for a while, if ever.”
She tossed the last of her clothes into the bag before grabbing her purse and the money she’d hidden from Jay in her nightstand. “Maybe Jay will get out and…”
“I doubt it.” He stepped back from the window and nodded to the bag. “Ready?”
“Why do you doubt it?” While she could take a guess, she wasn’t even sure what he’d been arrested for. “He has to come back.” If he didn’t get out of jail and take care of whoever was looking for her, how would she be able to move on with her life? Wouldn’t they continue looking for her, until he squared things with them? She wasn’t sure if he owed them drugs or money but she had no doubt he owed them big for them to already be at the house looking for him.
“Syd…” As his gaze fell on her, the words faded away, and sadness shined back at her when she looked him in the eyes. “Fuck! I could kill him for putting you in the middle of this.”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” The pieces of the puzzle were falling into place and she realized it was worse than she thought. If Jay had called Coal to get her out of the city, her brother wasn’t coming home anytime soon. But it wasn’t even that; it was the caution in the way Coal acted. He hadn’t turned on any lights and he stuck to the shadows as if expecting someone to be lingering around the house, watching for her. “They’re going to kill me because of him, aren’t they?”
“No, baby.” He wrapped his arm around her and pulled her tight against his body. “I’m going to protect you, but we’ve got to go. Do you have everything you want? Anything that’s not important we can replace once we get where we’re going.”
When she nodded, he stepped back, grabbed her duffle bag, and slid it over his shoulder. “Let’s go.”
She reached back to the dresser, her hand brushing against the butt of the gun when his arm wrapped around her waist and pulled her away. “Wait.”
“No.” He tugged her toward the door and when she fought him, he pushed her up against the wall. “Can you guarantee me that gun isn’t stolen? That it hasn’t been used in a crime? Damn it, Syd, I know what Jay’s been doing all these years. Tim…your dad…do you want to end up like them? Getting caught with a stolen gun…using the fucking thing…what the hell are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking about staying alive. Just because they’ve done those things doesn’t mean I’ve done anything wrong.”
“Still so naïve.” He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear and shook his head. “The police know you. They know you’re connected to Jay. With him out of the picture, they’re going to be wondering if you’re picking up where he left off. Just like Jay took over from your dad. In the twenty minutes I’ve been here, I’ve seen two police cruisers. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Every single officer who knows your family is wondering if you’re in on it, too. They don’t have any proof, but you’re the last one left and look where you’re living. They’ll be watching you.”
“But I’ve never…” She tried to argue but he was right. Three months earlier, Jay was dropping her off at work and they were pulled over for speeding. The car was searched and Jay had drugs on him. He was arrested and she was questioned as if she was guilty by association. That was when she started putting money aside, with the intent on getting the hell out of town. Everyone who knew her family thought she was no good, just like them. “Why come back if you think I’m just like them? Surely you don’t want to tarnish your perfect appearance. Mr. Millionaire with it all together, what are you doing here? Slumming?”
The sound of glass shattering stopped him from giving an answer. Instead, he took her hand and pulled her down the stairs, toward the front door. “Stay behind me.”
“You don’t go toward the noise. That’s how everyone ends up dead in a scary movie. Shouldn’t we go back upstairs?” Upstairs they’d find them, but there, she had the gun. They could protect themselves. “I can’t run forever. Maybe I should just face them.”
“Bullshit.” At the bottom of the stairs, he glanced out the window next to the door before opening it. “Let’s go.” He pushed her out the front door, keeping her close to him, as a figure came out of the kitchen.
“Don’t fucking move!” the figure in black hollered at them as Coal slammed the front door behind them.
“Move!” He pulled her down the deserted street as bullets rang out behind them. They ran toward the car he pointed to, clicking the universal remote “Get in.”
As she climbed into the passenger side, she chanced a look back at the house in time to see a man lumbering off the porch, his weapon pointed in their direction. Coal got in the driver’s seat and started the engine. Moments later, gunshots echoed through the stillness of the night. Terror filled her, stealing her breath from her lungs.