Copyright © 2022 by Maura Troy

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Kylie Stuart and the other bridesmaids, wearing simple yet elegant gowns in varying shades of purple and lavender that matched the cascades of flowers festooning the small chapel, made their way to the altar. They turned to face the back of the chapel as the organist ceased playing Pachelbel’s “Canon” and began the familiar chords of Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus.” Fitz’s heart soared as he watched Erienne beaming her beautiful smile at him as she walked down the aisle. He barely noticed Marcus Stuart brimming with pride as he escorted his daughter to the altar. Fitz had eyes only for his future wife.

His future wife.

He couldn’t believe he was able to think those words. What’s more, he couldn’t believe that in less than thirty minutes he wouldn’t be able to say or think them anymore.

Because she would be his wife. His wife.

“How the hell did I get so lucky?” he muttered under his breath.

“Beats me,” Reeve Buchanan, Fitz’s best man, answered. “I’m still wondering that same thing for myself.”

Fitz cast a quick glance to the first row of pews in the chapel and spotted Jessie Buchanan aiming a smile at Reeve nearly as radiant as Erienne’s. Hell yeah, he and Reeve were two lucky bastards.

“It’s go time,” Reeve whispered as Erienne and Marcus reached the altar.

“Hooyah,” Fitz whispered back before taking Erienne’s hand in his. He didn’t think he’d ever been this happy in his whole life. Nor would he ever be again.

The ceremony went by in a blur, and before he knew it, Fitz was told he could kiss the bride.

“I was wrong,” he whispered after lifting his lips from Erienne’s, reluctantly ending their very first kiss as man and wife.

“About what?” Erienne asked, a note of surprise in her voice.

“About how happy I was twenty minutes ago. That was nothing compared to what I’m feeling right now. You are everything to me, and I love you so much.”

Tears filled her eyes, turning them into pale blue diamonds. “You are everything to me, too. And we are just getting started. I plan on making you happier every single day.”

His own sight grew a little blurry, and he could barely get the words past the sudden constriction in his throat. “Not as happy as I’m going to make you.”


Jake Hooper stood at the dedicated whiskey bar and sipped the 30-year-old Balvenie, one of the several varieties of two-thousand-dollar bottles of scotch Marcus Stuart had provided for the guests at his only daughter’s wedding. The reception was in full swing and the guests were enjoying not only the whiskey bar, but a number of other dedicated bars stationed throughout the enormous ballroom. One was dedicated to champagne cocktails and another to margaritas, all of them stocked with top-of-the-line liquors.

Not too shabby. Who’d have thought babe-hound, bad boy Fitz would have married someone in Erienne Stuart’s social circle?

They belonged together, though. Even a blind man could see how perfect they were for each other, and Jake wasn’t blind. They were as perfect a couple as Reeve and Jessie, who at that very moment whirled past Jake as they headed to the dance floor to join the crowd in a spirited conga line.

Jake chuckled quietly. If the opportunity to bet on whether or not Fitz or Reeve would happily join a conga line had ever come up, Jake would have lost his shirt betting the wrong way. Because there they were, bouncing around the room with their hands on the hips of the woman they loved and having the time of their lives.

The familiar scent of a spicy jasmine perfume invaded his senses, and, with a suddenly thudding heart, Jake turned to see Kylie Stuart, Erienne’s cousin, had slipped up next to him at the whiskey bar.

“Hi, Jake.”

Her platinum-blonde hair was slicked back, and glimmery green doodads were studded through it, sparkling like emeralds and lending her a mystical appearance that sent a fierce wake-up call to his groin.

“Hi,” he managed. He took another sip of his scotch as his mind raced to come up with something else to say. “All recovered, are you?”

She raised an elegant eyebrow at him, a soft smirk at the corner of her lips. Ruby-red lips. “Yes, thank you. I was released from the hospital quite some time ago. I thought you knew that.”

He had known that. What he didn’t know was why he couldn’t think a clear thought whenever Kylie was in the vicinity.

“In fact,” she continued, “I’m sure I saw you at the engagement party. And I’m quite certain you saw me.” She puffed her lower lip in the very slightest pout. “Even though you didn’t bother to say hello to me.”

Damn right he hadn’t. He’d taken one look at her in the backless, sparkling black jumpsuit she’d been wearing and known if he went near her, he wouldn’t be able to string two words together, never mind carry on a full conversation. He could only thank the excellent scotch for giving him the strength to talk to her tonight as he tried very hard not to stare at her delectable ass in the teal-green cocktail sheath she wore. It was a far cry from the demure lavender maid-of-honor gown she’d worn at the chapel earlier.

“So how come you’re not dancing?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you out there all night.”

She glanced at the dance floor and then leaned in a little closer to him, staring him right in the eyes. “Conga lines aren’t my thing. Besides, you don’t want to dance with me, do you?”

Her meaning was clear, and he swallowed another sip — make that gulp — of scotch. “Maybe I do want to dance with you,” he said, deliberately ignoring her innuendo. Frankly, not knowing what the hell to do with her innuendo and still feel good about himself. Because it was obvious she’d had a few drinks. Which meant he couldn’t trust her judgement.

The music changed to a love ballad, one sung by Whitney Houston if he wasn’t mistaken, and a mischievous gleam appeared in her eyes.

“Okay, let’s dance then.” Without waiting for an answer, she took his empty scotch glass and set it on the bar. She took his hand and towed him to the middle of the dance floor. “Well, big guy? What are you waiting for?” she asked as he stood there.

Jake froze. He wasn’t much for dancing, but the opportunity to touch her, to pull her against him, was a strong temptation. He fought the effects of the scotch he’d downed much too quickly and tried to remember he was a gentleman and a former Navy SEAL. He lived by a code of honor. “Kylie, I don’t think we sh—”

“Kylie! Babe! I’ve been looking all over for you.” A tall, brown-haired man swooped down and gave Kylie a sloppy kiss on the cheek. “C’mon, doll, they’re playing our song.” He reached to put his arm around her waist, but Jake slid between them.

“The lady is dancing with me.”

The man opened his mouth, but Kylie spoke first. “Not tonight, Mark. Maybe some other time.” She slid her arm around Jake’s waist.

Mark’s jaw dropped slightly in surprise before he mumbled an apology and moved away through the crowd. Jake turned to lead Kylie off the floor in the opposite direction, but she didn’t move.

“Hey. Where are you going?”

“I thought we could go sit down and talk.”

“No way, big guy. You promised me a dance.”

Jake started to protest, but she looped her arms around his neck and nestled her head into the divot of his collarbone. Her jasmine scent overwhelmed his senses, and he knew it was futile to resist. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close.

Heaven. Sheer heaven.

Her fingers played lightly in the hair at the nape of his neck, sending shivers of desire through him from top to bottom. He tilted his head downward to press a kiss in her hair, but spotted the bride and groom across the floor. Fitz was dancing with his wife encircled deep within his arms, but looking Jake right in the eye. Fitz slanted his head to the side and raised an eyebrow for just a second before closing his eyes and pressing his cheek to Erienne’s. Seeing the smirk on the groom’s face, Jake knew his own expression must have been a dead giveaway.

Kylie Stuart had him totally under her spell.

Whitney ended the song with her declaration to always love whoever it was she was singing to, and the DJ chose to up the tempo with “Born This Way.” Jake reluctantly loosened his hold on Kylie, and she leaned back in his arms to look up at him, her eyes at half-mast.

“Can I buy you a drink?” she whispered.

He nodded with a smile, seeing as how they were at a wedding with an open bar. She took his hand again and led him back to the whiskey bar. “What were you drinking?” she asked as the bartender waited for their order.

“Scotch. The Balvenie.”

“Give us a bottle, please,” Kylie told the bartender as she pulled out two one-hundred-dollar bills from her purse and stuffed them in the tip jar. “And send a bottle of chilled Dom Perignon to my suite.”

“Of course, Miss Stuart,” the bartender replied, handing an unopened bottle of the scotch to Jake.

“Your suite?” Jake said, accepting the bottle automatically while she pulled out her phone and snapped a quick picture of Fitz and Erienne as they drifted toward the champagne bar. “I think we can find a seat here to have a drink.”

“You’re right, we could,” she responded as she returned her phone to her purse, and then looked him in the eye. “But we won’t find a bed.”


“Hmmm, isn’t that interesting? I wonder where they’re going?” Tobie remarked.

“What?” Maddie asked, following her boss’s gaze across the room. Jake and Kylie were leaving the ballroom, a bottle of something tucked under Jake’s arm and his hand on the small of Kylie’s back.

“I guess Erienne’s not the only Stuart to take a walk on the wild side,” Maddie quipped, and immediately felt a pang of guilt. Kylie and Erienne had been nothing but nice to her. In fact, Erienne had been visiting Fitz at the OASIS office last week and overheard Maddie muttering something about never knowing what to wear to events like this. Erienne immediately invited Maddie to join her and Kylie to go dress shopping.

Maddie would never admit that she’d enjoyed the shopping expedition. She wasn’t quite sure why Erienne seemed to like her, considering how much Maddie had enjoyed teasing her and Fitz about their feelings before they wised up and realized how much they loved each other and were willing to declare that to the world. “I’m not sure why, either,” Erienne had said when Maddie finally braved up enough to ask her when they’d stopped for lunch. “Fitz trusts you with his life, so that’s good enough for me. It’s not just that, though. You’re a tough nut to crack, but for some reason, I’m positive you could be an easy person to like if you would just let people in.”

Kylie hadn’t said too much, but she’d nodded her agreement to Erienne’s statement, and in the end had been the one to find the perfect shoes to match the sparkly gold cocktail dress the three of them had chosen. It was simple and elegant, yet had a touch of pizzazz. Maddie knew she never would have been able to find such a perfect dress on her own. For the first time since her childhood, Maddie felt like she had girlfriends, and she was totally surprised at how much she liked the idea. So she really shouldn’t snark about them anymore.

But old habits were hard to break.

She’d try, though. Besides, Jake could hardly be considered wild anyway. He was the quietest of the OASIS team, and while no one could ever call him a sissy or a nerd — not with that body and his Navy SEAL background — he was far more likely to be found with his nose in a book than any of the other guys. He was conscientious and thoughtful, so Kylie could certainly do worse than Jake for a one-nighter.

“Who cares about them?” Anita Ward chimed in, drawing Maddie out of her musings. “I want to know who that handsome hunk of man is over there.” She nodded toward a tall, muscular man standing near the bar, arms folded. His gaze went around the room but stopped on Anita ever so briefly before going around the room again.

“That’s one of Tanner’s guys,” Ian said. “Looks former military to me.”

“He is,” Tobie said. “A SEAL. I tried to recruit him for OASIS, but he wound up working for Tanner. His name is Liam.”

“Liam. Got it. Thanks.” Anita touched up her lipstick and then pushed back her chair. “If you’ll excuse me, now that Dave’s in prison and I’m out of witness protection, I’ve got years of wasted time to make up for.”

She walked across the room, placed a hand on Liam’s arm, and gestured toward the dance floor. He shook his head, but Anita just shrugged, took his hand, and led him toward the bar area. Liam followed with an amused look on his face and pulled out a stool for her when they reached the bar.

“Well, l guess she’s got the touch,” Tobie remarked.

“Good for her,” Ian said. “Why shouldn’t she go after what she wants? Lord knows I should.”

Maddie grew warm as Ian focused his slate-blue eyes on her. She tore her gaze from his and looked around the ballroom until she spied Maisy Ward seated in an alcove as a magician held the little girl and several other pint-sized guests enthralled while their parents were dancing. An unfamiliar longing grew within her, making her uncomfortable. She pushed back from the table. “I need some air.”

She hurried toward the French doors leading to the large patio. Torches glowed at intervals along the stone wall where guests could take in a magnificent view of the Hudson Valley. She took a few deep breaths before sensing she wasn’t alone. Looking around, she spotted a man at the far end of the patio smoking a cigarette. His face was hidden in shadow, but his build looked very familiar. He took another inhalation, and the glow of the cigarette didn’t reveal much, but she could have sworn the shape of his nose was familiar as well.

A tingle ran up her spine, and she knew before he spoke who had stepped up behind her. 

“What is it?” Ian asked. “Are you all right?”

His voice was like home, and for a brief second she wanted to lean back against him. Wanted to act like they had when they were kids and he would wrap his strong arms around her and they would just enjoy the moment, enjoy each other, and she would daydream about their future. Think about the time when they might have their own little girl who, in her current mind’s eye, looked a lot like Maisy. She pushed the thought aside. Those days were long over.

“I’m fine,” she said.

He snorted softly. “Remember who you’re talking to, Prickly Pear. I know something’s bothering you. Can I help?”

She shook her head. “Don’t call me that,” she said absently, her attention drawn back to Cigarette Man. He took a few steps toward the stone wall, and a burst of adrenaline shot through her as the realization hit.

Anthony Pugliesi.

The scumbag dealer who’d gotten Tabitha Spencer killed. “Ian! It’s him.”

“What? Who?”

The guy stepped from the shadows and strode toward the ballroom, and though there was a resemblance, he was clearly not Pugliesi. Maddie let out the breath she’d been holding. “Nothing,” she said, tearing her gaze away from the man, but not before Ian saw who she’d been looking at, and she knew he would make the connection.

He did. “Prickly Pear, you’ve got to let that go. It wasn’t your fault.”

A lump the size of Gibraltar lodged in her throat. “I can’t,” she croaked out, “a girl is dead.”

“But not because of you. Not because of anything you did.”

“That’s easy for you to say. You weren’t the one who let him get away.” As long as she lived, Maddie didn’t think she’d ever forgive herself.

“Stop it. You didn’t let him get away. He escaped. None of us knew how afraid of the Iceman he was. That fear made him desperate and far more dangerous than any of us realized.”

“No, you stop it. I know what you all think. That if it had been one of you watching Pugliesi, Tabitha would still be alive.”

“Nobody thinks that. Hell, if anything, we blame ourselves for not seeing how desperate his fear of the Iceman made him. We should have helped you. None of us should have been alone with him.”

Logically, she knew Ian was right, but that didn’t help her sleep at night. And she had a feeling that as long as Pugliesi remained at large, sleeping easy was going to remain beyond her grasp. Ian pulled her close, and Maddie took comfort from his warmth and almost let the tears come.

His hands rubbed up and down her back, and she relaxed against him. They stood like that for a few moments before Ian whispered so softly she almost didn’t hear it, “Go after what you want.”

He took a deep breath, and panic rushed through her as she sensed what he was about to say. “Maddie, I still lo—”

“I’m going to find him,” she said quickly as she pulled herself from his embrace and took a step back. “Pugliesi. He has to pay.”

Ian’s shoulders drooped. “We’re all searching for him,” he said, folding his arms across his chest. “No way is he going to get away with what he’s done.”

“No. I mean me. I am going to take him down. Alone.”

Ian sighed and shook his head. “Maddie, we’re a team. All of us. You don’t have to do it alone. You don’t have to do anything alone. We are all here for you. I’m here for you.”

Anger flared up. “You don’t get it, do you? You never get it. I can take care of myself. I don’t need you to do it for me. I don’t need you to do anything.”

“Prickly Pear—”

“Dammit, I said don’t call me that!” A flicker of pain and anger flashed in his eyes, but he hid it quickly. She hated hurting him, but it couldn’t be helped. They weren’t a couple anymore, and he needed to move on. With nothing more to say, she hurried back to the reception.


Ian took a couple of deep breaths, pulling his temper under control. No one could make him as angry as Maddie could.

And there was no one he loved more.

But he couldn’t have her. She’d fallen out of love with him. He was the one who kept clinging to the idea they had a future. Much as just the thought of it made his stomach feel as if he’d been dining on shards of glass, maybe it was time to let that go.

Letting it go, however, didn’t mean he wouldn’t watch her back. First thing in the morning, he would to talk to Tobie about stepping up their efforts to find Pugliesi. Because Ian had no doubt that if Maddie found him on her own, she’d go after him alone. She could take care of herself, no one knew that better than Ian. But she was not invincible, so Ian would make damn sure the OASIS team would be there to back her up.

For tonight, however, he was going to be happy for Fitz and Erienne. He headed back inside, and Maddie was there at the edge of the dance floor. Her back was to him, and he took advantage of the rare opportunity to really look at her without her giving him the stink eye or the sharp side of her tongue. Except when assignments required it, she never dressed up, and even then it was mostly classy black pantsuits that allowed her to blend into the background.

But not this dress. The stretchy gold material shimmered and sparkled and hugged her fantastic curves in a way that had his mouth going dry. Her shoulders were tense, though, and he felt guilty he’d pissed her off. He hadn’t meant to, but the result was the same, and she was no longer enjoying the party.

He stepped beside her. “I’m sorry, Maddie. I didn’t mean to upset you. Truce?”

She scowled a moment before letting out a small sigh. “Truce.”

Tension he hadn’t realized was there eased from his shoulders. He hated being at odds with her. But she’d accepted a truce for now. It wasn’t much, but it would have to do.

They stood next to each other silently as the lights dimmed slightly and the DJ played another love ballad. Ian knew better than to ask her to dance, and for about the thousandth time he wished they could find their way back to what they’d had years ago. Watching Fitz and Reeve slow dance with their beautiful brides was a little tough to take when the woman Ian adored had put up an emotional brick wall with neon NO TRESPASSING signs between them. Hell, even Tobie and Tanner were dancing, although there was at least two inches of space between them and they were looking everywhere but at each other.

Time to get drunk, Ian decided. He turned to ask Maddie if she wanted something from the bar. The wistful look on her face as she watched the dancers surprised him. “Hey. You okay?”

She shook her head slightly before taking a deep breath and squaring off her shoulders. “Fuck it,” she said, grabbing Ian’s hand and leading him out of the ballroom toward the elevators.

“Where are we going?”

Maddie jabbed at the call button before facing him. “Where do you think? Do you want to talk about it or do you want to shut up and go with the flow?”

Ian shut up.


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Don’t miss a moment of the OASIS excitement. Click below now to get Maddie and Ian’s story: Needing The Bodyguard, Book 3 of the OASIS series. Available on all storefronts.