No one believed Hook's resident bad boy was good enough for River. Not even Vaughn himself. But he'll fight like hell to win back the woman he never stopped loving, to keep the daughter he never expected, and convince himself he's worth their love in the process―even if he has to rely on their fierce and undeniable sexual chemistry.
But even as River's body arches under his hungered touch, the demons of the past lurk in the shadows. Waiting for Vaughn to repeat his mistakes one last time...
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A Made in Jersey Novel
By Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Tessa Bailey
All rights reserved.
Vaughn De Matteo rested his forehead on the steering wheel of his truck and counted to ten. And then he did it again. The process hadn't been necessary since his early twenties — before the army had wrung the hair-trigger temper out of him — but he slipped back into the calming countdown without missing a beat, attempting to ease the anger jabbing into his gut like splinters.
Not anger at the girl — now a woman — he'd left behind in Hook, New Jersey. Jesus, anger and River Purcell didn't even belong in the same vicinity. No, this rage was directed at something bigger than the both of them.
Fate? Nah. Such a lofty title gave the cosmic fuckery too much credit. Karma, maybe. Although, if finding out the woman he'd left behind — for her own damn good — had borne his child, reared his three-year-old child alone ... if this was his comeuppance for touching River in the first place, he deserved it.
"Go ahead, karma," Vaughn muttered. "Do your worst."
His laugh was humorless. As if the situation could get any worse. It had taken him twenty-four hours to absorb the shock wrought by the letter sent by River's brother, Sarge. Twenty-four hours he couldn't really afford, considering the damn piece of correspondence had been sitting in his PO box for months, collecting dust. Although, what was one more day compared to four years, right?
Still numb head to toe, he'd managed to phone his employer for whom he worked as private, armed security detail, relinquishing the steady job he'd fought to procure. The job that allowed him to maintain his empty, colorless lifestyle in Baltimore, nursing whiskey and haunted by memories in a functional one-bedroom apartment overlooking a rail yard. The kind of place he belonged.
After quitting, he'd been on the road within the hour, driving back to Hook, crossing the town limit he'd never thought to darken with his shadow again. Now he sat in the parking lot outside the Kicked Bucket, mere moments from laying eyes on River again, and ... fuck. Fuck. After not allowing himself to feel anything for so long, after self-medicating with liquor every time the pain got too intense, there was no easing into the idea of being close to her again. Just knowing the filthy stucco structure in his rearview mirror had the nerve to contain River, he could feel the dangerous heating of his blood.
She shouldn't be in there. She shouldn't be in this shitty goddamn town at all. Unknowingly, he'd left her without a choice, though, and now nothing would stand in the way of him repairing the damage, starting with entering the lounge and calmly asking River to speak with him in private. He could handle that, couldn't he? Could manage the task of entering the premises and conducting a reasonable conversation, even though a primal roar had been building in his throat since he'd opened the letter from Sarge.
His River. A mother ... an abandoned single mother.
And therein lay the reason Vaughn couldn't make himself leave the truck. Because she had to hate him. Hell, she had every right. But living with the memory of her crying on their motel bed — the same bed where he'd taken her virginity — had been painful enough to live with. Adding hatred to heartbreak might just kill him.
No choice, De Matteo. Move.
If Vaughn's reluctance to respond even to his own command wasn't a testament to his passionate dislike for authority, he didn't know what was — one of the main reasons he hadn't been a good fit for the army, no matter how often his superiors had attempted to tell him differently.
"Enough stalling," Vaughn said to his own reflection in the driver's side window, before pushing open the door and exiting. His boots weighed seven tons apiece as he traversed the trash-strewn parking lot, gazing out at the surrounding high-rise apartment buildings. The Kicked Bucket was in a shitty part of town, the nearby residences lacking care. But hey, at least those people could afford a place to raise a family, right? At least they were trying. More than he could have done for River, that was for damn sure.
A few yards from the entrance, he was brought up short when one of the vehicles caught his eye. River's red Pontiac. She still had it? Why did that make him feel as though his intestines were being sucked out through a straw?
Probably because he'd made love to River so many times in the backseat, her tight body riding him, those bee-stung lips wide open as she moaned, they'd happily lost count. Ungrateful for the punishment of his memory, Vaughn slapped the lounge door open with more force than intended. He gave a humorless laugh when none of the regulars so much as flinched. Even though he'd walked in out of the dark, Vaughn's eyes had to make a different kind of adjustment. Smoking might have been outlawed in New Jersey, but the owner had apparently thrown out his ability to give a fuck along with the state regulated No Smoking signs.
Vaughn peered through the white haze to the stage beyond, where a man performed with an exhausted voice, singing about small town love affairs and tragedy. Tables were scattered in no apparent pattern throughout the joint, filled by amorous couples, or by groups of men, most of them ignoring the musical act in favor of playing cards. Or just plain getting drunk, if the number of empty shot glasses rolling around were any indication.
Shot glasses slowly being collected ... by River.
Forty-nine months and three days.
That was how long it had been since he'd seen her.
Vaughn swayed to the right, his shoulder slamming up against the wall. Then he kind of just hung there, counting forward and backward from one to ten. Not helping. Not helping. His stomach pitched at the sight of River walking through the drunks, like a nurse walking among the wounded on a battlefield. She could still knock his lights out on sight. Not that he'd doubted it for a second. But God, if it were possible, she'd grown even more beautiful over the last forty-nine months. Her blonde hair was tied up in a ponytail, a pencil stuck through the base, in a way he remembered well enough to make his throat go raw. In a short black skirt and fitted white T-shirt, River tried to look the part of indifferent barmaid, but didn't pull it off. Not by a stretch.
Eyes Vaughn knew were just a shade darker than cornflower blue flitted to each table, and her fingers tugged on the skirt's hem self-consciously every time she approached a new one. When she fumbled with the notepad, recovering with a nervous laugh, a choked sound left Vaughn. "Riv," he whispered.
She looked up so fast, he might as well have shouted. The sudden impact of having River's focus on him after such an extended period of time without it released a rushing sound between his ears, blocking out the sad lounge act ... and apparently someone asking if he needed a table. Because when Vaughn snapped back to reality, a man he towered over by at least a foot was in his face. Snapping his fingers.
"I wouldn't ..." Vaughn shook his head to clear it, experiencing a resurgence of anger, this time for having his attention diverted from where he needed it to be. On River. "I wouldn't advise snapping your fingers in my face again."
"Why's that, huh?"
A toss of blonde hair snagged Vaughn's gaze as his angelic ex-girlfriend zigzagged through the crowd, drawing more than just his notice. Ah no, quite the opposite. She was putting on an unwitting show for every man in the room, attracting lecherous looks by virtue of being her beautiful self, light in a dark tunnel, same way she'd always been.
Fingers snapped in front of his face. Again. "This is my place and I asked you a question."
"This is your place?" Vaughn asked. God, one hour back in Jersey and already his accent had thickened from water to oil. "You hired River Purcell?"
Vaughn plowed a fist into the underside of the man's jaw, watching him fall backward onto the sticky concrete floor with detachment that slowly morphed into satisfaction. So much for calm, he thought, shaking out his right hand. Within his chest, he could feel the familiar dark satisfaction that came from fighting. He'd always had it inside him, never gone a day without it. That born and bred edge — passed on by generations of De Matteo men — that should have repelled a young River back in high school.
But no. No, she'd been drawn, instead. As she was now, swerving around tables, coming closer to where he stood, still just inside the entrance. She wasn't the only one, either. Men were standing up, cracking their knuckles in the New Jersey state signal for shit-is-about-to-go-down. In the corner of his eye Vaughn saw the owner rousing on the floor, noticed him gesturing to the apparently lazy security staff, who also headed in Vaughn's direction. So he did what every levelheaded man would do in a situation where he was outnumbered about two hundred to one.
He lifted his fists, pounding one of them against his chest. "Come on, then," he called out. "Don't be shy as well as stupid."
River's voice was breathless as she reached his side, making everything inside him expand like an inflating raft. His fists shook in the air, so he tightened them. Don't look at her yet, just get her out. "You got a purse you need to grab or somethin'?"
An expulsion of air came from her lips. "You can't just —"
She broke off when he sent her a look. The look. It said, come on, you remember how I roll. Can't isn't part of my vocabulary. Placing his attention on River was a mistake, however, because now it couldn't be dragged away by a dozen ox. Oh Lord. Those big, sweetheart eyes were tired. Of course, they were. If everything in the letter from Sarge was accurate, she'd been working day shifts at the local factory, in addition to slinging drinks at night.
Yeah, his actions were going to cost her this job. Maybe he'd walked into the joint fully aware of that fact. But regret refused to appear. If fifty years had passed since they'd shared oxygen, he would have done the same thing. River belonged in the Kicked Bucket like a virgin belonged in a brothel. As in, she didn't. And he was a presumptuous fucker for assuming the responsibility of that decision, but he'd never claimed to be otherwise. "Hiya, doll."
This was where she coldcocked him. Screamed at him, scratched his eyes out, and told him she hated his guts. I'm not ready, I'm not ready.
Turns out he really wasn't ready for what happened next.
River's lips lifted in the bright, class president smile he remembered like the back of his hand. So angelic, the other angels in heaven had probably banded together to kick her out. Right onto his unworthy lap. "Hey there, Vaughn." She reached out and patted his shoulder. "Guess you haven't changed much, huh?"CHAPTER 2
River had never considered a career in acting, but realized now she might have been shortsighted. Even after months of preparation for Vaughn's return — yes, she'd gone back to blonde and refused to apologize — she hadn't really expected to pull off a warm greeting. After all, this was the man who'd left her broken, bleeding, and sobbing on her knees while he sped off into the night. A woman could take a lifetime to recover from something like that, but in River's case, she thought it might take three. Because while she stood there, smiling up at the son of a bitch, a metal crowbar was doing its damnedest to pry her ribs apart.
Why did he have to be so ruggedly gorgeous? His dark blond hair was finger combed, longer than the last time she'd seen it, when he'd rocked an army crew cut. Scruff darkened his cheeks, only adding gravity to his soulful, deep brown eyes. Vaughn had always been in good shape. She remembered watching him do pull-ups on the doorframe of her bedroom, pushups on the floor beside the bed, on nights when he snuck in through the window, or afternoons her parents weren't home. Burning energy, he'd called it. Later, she would realize he was working through a reservoir of sexual frustration, but he'd never once pressured her, never made her feel guilty for his painful condition.
River shook the bittersweet memory loose. Yes, Vaughn's arms had always been carved in marble, but they'd expanded beneath the woven together tattoos, barely fitting into the sleeves of his gray T-shirt. His body had settled into manhood with a vengeance, maturing in ways that were not convenient when River needed to remain focused on the plan.
Right, the plan. Get Vaughn to turn around and leave Hook, secure in the knowledge that his presence wasn't needed. Free to go about his business, whatever it was.
He'd fallen off the face of the Earth forty-nine months and three days prior. Unreachable. A lot like he'd been, even when standing right in front of her, all those years ago.
When they'd met in high school, Vaughn's closed off nature had been mysterious. Then she'd graduated Hook High and spent two years taking night classes at the local community college while Vaughn fixed cars to make money — before he'd surprised her by enlisting in the army, staying away for two more years, before returning to Hook and leaving her for good, on the very night of his homecoming. That air of mystery had grown stale by then, but she'd been too stubborn to quit attempting to reach him. To beat those walls down with love.
Vaughn rolled his neck, a lot like a boxer entering the ring. If River didn't move soon, one of two things would happen. The crowbar would finish the job it was doing on her ribs, and she'd collapse like a corpse on the floor. Or Vaughn would take on the entire lounge in the most unbalanced fight of the century.
"I know it goes against the De Matteo code," River started, "but I'd appreciate you living to fight another day."
He rolled his big shoulders, appearing to evaluate the approaching men in order to decide on his first victim. "Why is that?"
"I'm the one who cleans up the blood here." She swallowed hard, feeling her mask slip a little. "And I need this job, Vaughn."
"You clean up ..." He trailed off, taking a long, shuddering breath. "Riv, I can't let you stay here. You know that, right? You know two decades from now, I still won't be over seeing you in this disgusting place."
His gaze was half apologetic, half uncompromising. "Either you quit or I take on all comers. Either way, the mother of my kid isn't working in this place."
Thank God her boss chose that moment to interrupt, because River could hardly breathe under the first acknowledgment of them having a child together. Two invisible pillows pressed against her ears, muffling the bar sounds. Vaughn must have experienced the same shift of gravity, because the intensity radiating from him was palpable.
But it had nothing on the low, brutal hum of guilt that had existed in River's breast since the night Vaughn left.
Focus. She could make up for her impulsiveness if she just stuck to the course of action she'd laid out.
"I thought you didn't have a boyfriend, River," her boss said, in an unfortunate choice of words. At least the man staved off the encroaching wave of customers by holding up a staying hand.
"River having a boyfriend is none of your concern, now is it?" Vaughn massaged one his wrists, the tension packed around him like an aura, growing stronger by the millisecond. "Not that I wouldn't mind hearing an answer myself."
"Don't hold your breath," she sputtered.
Her boss huffed, pacing back and forth behind River. "It is my concern when that boyfriend comes in and assaults me."
"Whatever we are, it's past the boyfriend-girlfriend stage." Vaughn ran a tongue along his bottom lip. "What's it going to be, Riv? We getting out of here?"
What choice did she have? Standing back and allowing innocent — okay, that was pushing it — customers take a beating when she could prevent it would be petulant. With smoke about to whoosh from her ears, River skirted around her boss to retrieve her purse from behind the bar, leaving her apron beneath the register for the morning waitress. Walking back toward Vaughn, she felt time slowing, and molasses churned in her belly. Don't you dare look at me like that, she longed to scream in reproof. His dark eyes took in every detail of her appearance in one swoop, that gaze heating considerably the closer she came, as if they were going outside to get sweaty in the Pontiac's backseat, just for old time's sake.
Excerpted from Thrown Down by Tessa Bailey, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2016 Tessa Bailey. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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