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Exclusive Excerpt: Chapter One. Would you rather was Renner Bastion’s least favorite game. Scratch that. All games were his least favorite. He couldn’t help playing one, however, as he stared down at his factory floor. Security guard Milo Bautista flirted with one of the older female assembly line workers, twirling her by the hand as if they were on a cruise ship dancing to bongo music. Renner stood in an air-conditioned office, surrounded by silence. So. Would he rather be upstairs in his impeccably clean suit, or downstairs, covered by factory grease that seemed to ooze from every corner of his New Jersey manufacturing plant? Considering that Milo and the woman looked joyful while Renner was in a shitty mood, he didn’t have an answer. How you like them apples? Jesus. Thanks to Milo, he was even starting to think in a Boston accent. The man who’d ordained himself Renner’s personal one-man security detail without permission was more Boston than Mark Wahlberg at a fucking Red Sox game. Wearing Paul Revere’s hat. And yet here Renner was, kind of wishing the jerk would come upstairs where he belonged, instead of making the female population of Hook swoon. “There’s a good sign it’s time to go home,” Renner muttered, his breath creating condensation on the glass. He’d been saying the same thing for weeks now. It’s time to go home. Not to his two-bedroom in Hook, though. His apartment in Manhattan. Or his flat in China. Or any one of the homes he’d rented to keep an eye on his other ventures. The damage sustained by the factory explosion in Hook had been repaired weeks ago, the construction no longer requiring his daily supervision. God knew his employees were sick to death of his presence, turning their backs whenever he passed through their midst. Yet here he remained, in this town full of nosy people constantly wanting to grill meat and drink beer from cans, watching everyone else live from the other side of the glass. “What a cliché you’ve become.” Renner reached to his left, pouring whiskey from a glass decanter into a tumbler and lifting it to his lips for a long sip. “Resented boss. Spoiler of fun.” The liquor lit a path of fire on its way down. “The one who gets shit done and signs everyone’s paychecks. Don’t forget that part.” As if Renner had spoken into the intercom instead of to himself, Milo’s smooth movements snagged while dipping the enamored worker. His dark-haired head came up, his gaze finding Renner upstairs, that eyebrow tilting as if to say, want to take a picture, boss man? That was their relationship, if you could refer to it as such. Renner gave Milo orders, as he did to all of his employees, and Milo told him to shove it, going about following instructions in his own way. His signature loose-limbed, ready to rumble, swaggering way. Sometimes he even winked at Renner while following through, which in itself should have been grounds for firing. Even if winking didn’t break any codes of conduct per se, it certainly violated Renner’s own unwritten rule book. As did Milo’s walking into his office without knocking and throwing sarcasm Renner’s way at every available opportunity. Apparently Milo fell into some kind of gray area that allowed him to disrespect Renner’s authority and retain his job. The rugged Bostonian may have been hired several months ago by Vaughn, the head of factory security and an old army buddy of Milo’s, but Renner had the ultimate power to hire and fire. Putting up with the subtle jabs and sarcasm had nothing to do with Renner’s reluctant fascination with the security guard. Or the way a flame lit under his blood every time the man was close by. Nothing whatsoever. He had a strict set of rules when it came to other men, and Milo violated them all by being his employee. Not to mention being too young…and too straight. Like, chest bumps and beer koozies straight. In other words, Renner was doing his best to ignore how Milo’s security shirt had come unbuttoned halfway to his belt and sweat was beginning to catch the bright factory lights— “Right.” Renner swallowed the remaining inch of whiskey and turned away from the window. He needed to get some sleep. He’d been working on a new contract pitch for three days, and his common sense was beginning to blur. The account he was trying to land didn’t want to use their facilities, anyway. Despite Bastion Enterprises’ pristine track record, the rejections continued. Why was he trying so hard? Because that’s what Renner did. He worked until he collapsed. Late hours, red-eye flights, exhaustion, coffee, whiskey. Repeat. After being doubted by countless associates on his rise to the top, a fire burned in his gut, daring him to prove himself. It never, ever went away. Yes, work was his cruelest vice, and it kept him moving. Never settling. He certainly didn’t make habits of outstaying his welcome in one town. A place where he didn’t warrant so much as a wave when walking down the street. It was absurd that Milo, an employee who had about as much respect for Renner as a delinquent child for a school principal, should make him feel…welcome. For the love of God, he’d greeted Renner with a middle finger this morning and yet somehow, Renner had been looking forward to it. At least it was an acknowledgment. Time to go home. Seriously. Back to the city. Back to sanity. Back to dating men who were available to him. Why was there so little appeal to the latter? With an irritated curse, Renner went to his desk and began shoving files into his leather briefcase. If he went out the back door, he wouldn’t have to ruin everyone’s fun downstairs. His Mercedes was parked a few blocks over, despite Milo’s insistence that he “pahk in the freakin’ laht,” so he would avoid that argument as well. That was not a disappointed tug in his stomach; he’d just skipped dinner.
…Milo watched the light go out in Renner’s office and knew the stubborn prick was going to try to sneak out without him. The guy really thought he was untouchable, didn’t he? But in a town full of people who disliked him—especially after firing their beloved mechanic, Duke, and the explosion that followed—Renner didn’t get to waltz around in the dark in his five-thousand-dollar suit. Maybe Hook was slightly safer than Milo’s old Boston neighborhood, but at age twenty-six, caution still ran in his blood. He’d been hired to keep the factory safe, and that duty extended to Renner, the factory’s owner, whether the dude liked it or not. The army had taught Milo to take his responsibilities seriously, and after a disorganized, all-around backward youth, he’d learned there was satisfaction in being thorough. To be proud of a job. Responsibility. Yeah. That was so why he was so protective over Renner. Milo snorted to himself and gave a sweeping bow to the woman in front of him. She was sweet, this lady. Kind of reminded him of the librarian who’d kept a forty-ounce in her desk back in middle school. Quick with a joke and loved anyone who noticed she still had a little fire in her. “All right, pretty lady. I have to take off.” Milo took her hand, giving her one final spin. “You go easy on the boys at the Third Shift tonight. Just remember who got you warmed up.” She doubled over and laughed along with her friends, who’d stayed behind to watch. “Why don’t you come out and give me a spin yourself?” “Ah, you know how it is.” He winked at them as he re-buttoned his shirt. “Hot date.” Milo left them laughing on the factory floor as he jogged toward the back exit. Wondering how far Renner had gotten without him, his smile dimmed. Bet he hadn’t even parked that Mercedes in the gated lot, like he was supposed to. Maybe the guy liked being reminded. Good. That’s exactly what was going to happen. Crisp, fall coolness slithered inside Milo’s shirt when he slammed out of the factory, the metal door booming shut behind him. He took a right and hit the sidewalk, knowing Renner liked to park near the coffee shop so he could feed his caffeine addiction immediately after stepping out of his shiny black ride in the mornings. Yeah, he’d been observing his boss somewhat…closely. But not only for the reason Renner assumed. Also known as the same justification Milo gave himself—that he wanted to excel at his job. It was more than that, though. Maybe his careful following of Renner’s movements had begun as a way to keep the factory owner safe, but it had developed into something else entirely. Curiosity. Even…awe on occasion. What would it be like to be so comfortable, so sure of himself, the way Renner was? Being that the guy was private as hell, Milo had a feeling his boss wouldn’t like it one bit if he knew Milo was following him…hoping to learn. The possibility of Renner’s being pissed wasn’t stopping Milo from going after him, though. Honestly, he wasn’t sure if there was anything that could. Which was pretty fucking confusing. Considering Milo was carrying a torch for someone else. That troubling thought was still weighing Milo down when he turned the corner and finally heard footsteps. Heavy, purposeful ones that belonged to Renner. Up ahead, the lights of his boss’s Mercedes flashed, signaling that he’d unlocked the car with the key chain remote. Any second, he would be safe inside the vehicle and Milo could go back to his apartment. For now, he would just hang back in the shadows and watch— Three men converged on Renner from all sides. Milo was already running, cursing under his breath about stubborn city people and gated parking lots. He was still a full block behind Renner, so he was forced to watch some punches being exchanged…and not surprisingly, some of them were being thrown by Renner. Built like a hockey goaltender, the man was intimidating. He just was. That was half the problem with him walking the dark streets of Hook. There were a lot of good people in this town, but there were also men who wanted very badly to put rich, arrogant Renner in his place, and maybe get a packed wallet in the process. Yeah, Renner was holding his own, but the odds were against him. He delivered a right cross to one of the hooded attackers’ faces, but two of the men grabbed him from behind, allowing the punch recipient to get his revenge. Renner’s head snapped back, and that’s when Milo reached the group, drawing his Colt in one smooth motion. “Told you to park in the lot, boss man.” “Now really isn’t the time, Bautista.” Milo’s smile was tight as he leveled the gun beyond Renner’s shoulder. “You’re going to want to step away from him. I’ve got aim for days.” “Aw, look at that,” said the man who wasn’t holding back Renner. “His boyfriend came to rescue him.” “Oh, come on,” Renner said, looking almost relaxed. “He’s really not my type.” Milo ignored the weird discomfort in his chest. “Yeah. I won’t lose any sleep over that black eye he’s going to have, but I would over losing my job.” He strode forward and grabbed a hold of Renner’s thick biceps, pulling him out of the men’s hold. Backing both of them up so he could have a clear angle on all three perpetrators, Milo jerked his head in the direction of the nearby alleyway. “Are you sticking around so I can call the cops, or what? Get the hell out of here.” Milo and Renner were silent as the men took off into the darkness, kicking trash can lids as they went. Only then did Milo let out the breath he’d been holding, his arms lowering in degrees. If even two of the attackers had been carrying weapons, things could have turned out way worse. Thank God they appeared to be nothing more than some misguided kids. In a close-knit place like Hook, sometimes judgment calls had to made about what represented actual danger and what actions could go a long way toward keeping the respect and admiration of people in town. Still, looking the other way bothered Milo. Especially when someone could have been hurt. Renner, specifically. “Next time you might not be so lucky, you know,” Milo said, turning toward Renner. His usual lecture was poised right on the tip of his tongue, but he couldn’t bring himself to utter a single word of it when faced with the swelling of Renner’s right eye. “Shit.” A lump grew in his throat. “Sorry I didn’t come sooner.” Renner scoffed and ducked past a cringing Milo. Why had he apologized like that? The guy was open to sympathy like the military was open to accepting poodles as recruits. As in, not open to it. That wasn’t how he and Renner worked. Milo had learned to navigate his boss by giving as good as he got. Letting on that he secretly respected and admired the man was out of the question. Milo swallowed and tried again, catching Renner just before he could climb into the Mercedes. “You going to say thank you or anything, you ungrateful dick?” Renner had already opened the driver’s side door, but he slammed it closed now, striding back toward Milo with a curious look on his face. “Actually, I have a question.” He seesawed his hand between their chests. “What are you doing? Why do you insist on following me? I’m a grown man, Milo. I have the right to get mugged in peace.” “Wow. You just said that out loud.” The back of Milo’s neck pulled taut at the line of questioning, but he forced a belligerent expression. “I’ve told you before, this is my job—” “No.” Renner shook his head. “No. You’re not assigned to me. I didn’t ask you to be my watchdog. This is all of your own free will.” Damn. Milo hadn’t expected this. At least, he hadn’t expected Renner to get in his face like this. So…close. Like the way he got close with other men? What did he think about Milo’s face from such a scant distance? “I…uh.” Milo stepped back, replacing the gun in its holster on his belt. “Like I said, you’re welcome. I’ll see you tomorrow.” “I’m going back to the city in the morning.” That statement hung in the air between them like low fog. Or was Milo only imagining it? Just like he was imagining the hard drumming inside his rib cage? “Before I go, Bautista, I want you to tell me what all this is about. We don’t even like each other, right? And yet here you are. You’re constantly around, worrying about my safety. I…” He loosened his tie with rash movements. “Perhaps the differences in my…biology make me seem different from someone like you, but I’m the furthest thing from weak—” “That’s what it is,” Milo blurted, shocking himself. What was the point in keeping the truth to himself anymore, though, if Renner was leaving in the morning? “Not the part about you being weak. I don’t think that. The opposite, actually. You’ve got a pretty nice right hook there, boss man.” Renner raised an eyebrow. “Okay.” Christ. His blood was flowing in seventeen directions, his tongue weighing as much as a horse in his mouth. This was real. This was happening. “Okay, I’ve been watching you. All right?” A heavy beat passed. “Why?” See, that’s where things got murky. It had started as a way to study Renner’s confidence, hoping to build his own. Along the way, though, Milo had gotten…off track. By more than a few degrees. Instead of learning how to be comfortable in his own skin by following the lead of a man who epitomized confidence, Milo had developed something of a crush. Who wouldn’t? Renner was concise, demanding and intelligent, and he didn’t give a fuck who disapproved of him. A badass who could raise an eyebrow and have employees running for cover. Not to worry, though. Milo had righted the wayward course. He was charted in the right direction once again. In no world did Milo and Renner make sense. Nor did his boss ever look at him with anything other than vexation. It was a dumb infatuation on Milo’s end and nothing would ever come out of it. He actually had a chance with someone else. Someone he genuinely liked. The man who’d stirred his first attraction to the same sex. Maybe his ill-advised interest in Renner had been taking a front seat lately, but that was a proximity issue. Things would change. A lot of things. Starting now. “I just…I have a thing for someone. And I don’t know how to approach him about it.” The drumming in his ears beat louder. “You’re the only guy I know who—” “I’m sorry.” Renner held up a finger. “Did you just say you have a thing for a him?”
Tessa Bailey Bio: Author Bio: Tessa Bailey is originally from Carlsbad, California. The day after high school graduation, she packed her yearbook, ripped jeans and laptop, driving cross-country to New York City in under four days. Her most valuable life experiences were learned thereafter while waitressing at K-Dees, a Manhattan pub owned by her uncle. Inside those four walls, she met her husband, best friend and discovered the magic of classic rock, managing to put herself through Kingsborough Community College and the English program at Pace University at the same time. Several stunted attempts to enter the work force as a journalist followed, but romance writing continued to demand her attention. She now lives in Long Island, New York with her husband of nine years and four-year-old daughter. Although she is severely sleep-deprived, she is incredibly happy to be living her dream of writing about people falling in love.
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