When a rough-edged bad boy takes on a straight-laced college professor, can they both win the fight of their life?
Reed Johnson grew up on the streets Rough and Ready with his fists to survive. These days, all his fighting now is done in the ring. With The Outlaw as his coach, he's way more than a cowboy. That was enough for him, until he meets his new neighbor.
Harper Lane's running from a dangerous past, but no matter how hard she tries, it follows. This time, she's not alone. She runs right into the arms of Reed. She's his now. His to protect. His to save. To do so, he'll have to return to the life he's left behind. But the brainy PhD is worth the fight and with her, he'll be ready for anything. Even something he never thought he deserved. Love.
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Rough and Ready by Vanessa Vale
Copyright © 2021 by Bridger Media
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the products of the author's imagination and used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from both authors, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover design: Bridger Media
Cover graphic: Wander Aguiar Photography
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“You owe me,” Cam snapped.
Hearing my brother’s voice made me shudder. Bile rose in my throat. He'd started calling me two weeks ago, prompting me to his release date. I hadn't needed any reminder. The date was etched in my brain, and every time I looked at the calendar, I saw it creep closer.
Owe him? Owe him money for what he did? My hand shook as I held my cell to my ear. It didn't surprise me that he'd found me. Again. Even after a new cell number. I was stupid to think that would have worked to keep him away.
“For what?” I asked, my voice shrill. I tried to sound calm because he thrived on making me upset. He'd use it, prey on it, just like he was preying on me, even from behind bars.
“All that money you have is because of me.”
I paced to the windows that overlooked the busy street. I’d just moved into the apartment, so there were only basic white blinds for privacy, but I kept them up to let in the weak December sunshine. With darkness falling fast and knowing Cam was out there, even in jail, I tugged at the cord, pulled one down. Then the next and next down the length of the wall until I couldn’t see out, until I was in my little cocoon where nothing could get me. Yeah, right. I wrapped my arm about my waist, suddenly cold. Alone.
“You gave me to two thugs in trade for erasing your gambling debts,” I countered, running a hand over my face, through my hair. I’d pulled it back this morning into a reasonably artful twist for work, but with one swipe of my palm, I’d messed it all up.
I didn't want to rehash what he'd done because he was well aware of it, but he didn't think it mattered. Antsy, I spun on my heel and went to an open moving box sitting on my desk. A plant was stacked haphazardly on top of a bunch of office supplies, and I set it down with a hard thunk on the bare surface. It needed water after sitting neglected for over a week.
“Yeah, and nothing happened to you except getting a fuck-ton of Mommy and Daddy's cash.”
Nothing happened? I pulled the phone away from my ear and stared at it. My palms were sweating, and a dull ache took up residence at the back of my head.
“They attacked me in an elevator.”
“They didn't rape you or anything.”
Rape was his baseline for whether something happened, and that made me sick. Everything about Cameron made me sick. As my older brother, he was supposed to be my protector, watching out for things like handsy boyfriends. He’d been a little shit since maybe the terrible twos and never grew out of it. We’d never once played together as kids, hadn’t even gone to the same prep school. We’d never bonded over video games or hours of sitting in the back seat on a road trip.
Instead, he considered me as more of a thing. A thing he'd given to two men. I'd escaped them physically unharmed, but they'd never been caught. The case was still open, and they were still out there. My brother wouldn't reveal their names, knowing he'd be dead if he snitched. I should've had Cam arrested, too, for his involvement, but no.
My parents had only thought of Cam and their reputation—which only enabled his drug-fueled habits. They'd forced me to keep quiet about his whole “sisterly sell-off,” and I had a huge stash of hush money in the bank as extra incentive to prove it.
I'd been too traumatized at the time to fight them. I would have given Cam up to the police once I stopped having constant nightmares and wasn’t too afraid to go outside, but he'd been dumb enough to be caught a few weeks later as a first time drug offender and went to jail anyway. All on his own. Nothing dear old Mom and Dad could do about that one.
“Leave me alone,” I said, my voice flat.
His upcoming release was the reason I'd moved. Again. He'd known where I’d lived, and with him getting out, I hadn't felt safe. Soon enough, he’d be able to show up with anyone. Anytime.
No, this place was safer than my old house closer to campus. I looked around. A modern, high-end building. Three floors, only three apartments with tight security. Not only did my landlord, Grayson Green—one of the most famous and successful MMA fighters—live on the top floor, but another guy who he trained had the unit across from mine on the second. On the ground floor, a whole gym full of guys who wouldn't hesitate to even the score for me. At least that was what my friend, Emory, had told me. I'd lived on the same block as her before she moved in with Gray, her fiancé.
“Leave you alone? Wire me the money, and I will,” Cam snapped. “And Harper—”
“Fuck you.” I ended the call, tossed my phone on the couch, not wanting to hear anything else from him. He'd spent almost two years preparing to destroy me again. Now that his release day was close, I knew the phone calls were just the start. Even after switching numbers, he still found me.
I paced the room, back and forth, weaving around boxes and randomly placed furniture where the movers had set it down. The apartment had an open floor plan, one big room except for the powder room, bedroom and master bath. The ceilings were high, the windows big and wall-to-wall. It was modern with lots of stainless-steel appliances in the kitchen, but it was warm. Safe.
I'd moved in a week ago and hadn't settled. I'd only put my bed together, tossed my clothes into the bedroom and found the coffeemaker. Hell, based on the damn call, I had to wonder how long I could remain. I'd easily avoided my parents since the incident, but we didn't run in the same social scene. I didn't spend time in the country club circle. I was too academic, too pedantic in my field of study for them. Instead of being a lawyer, I’d balked at the whole Lane family tradition and became a professor. To them, even with my PhD, it was a very small step up from working retail.
When Cam got out, would he be banging on my door harassing me? Or worse, on the street? On the quad at school? Could I stay in Brant Valley? Instead of settling into this great apartment, I wondered how long I'd be able to live in town. Hell, the state.
The call was all part of Cam’s plan to fuck with me. A warm up. I knew it, but I couldn't help but freak out.
The plant was in my hand and beneath the sink faucet before I realized what I was doing. I didn't even remember grabbing it or walking into the kitchen. I closed my eyes, breathed.
I didn't want Mommy and Daddy's cash. I didn't want my parents in my life any more than my brother, so I’d shoved the money in the bank where no one could touch it. My parents couldn’t get it back, and Cam couldn’t reach it.
They'd picked their son, with his cruel and dangerous acts, over their own daughter. And their money? I'd give it all away just to get Cam out of my life permanently, but I wouldn't give in. I wouldn't give him the hush money. And it was hush money.
No one could know that Cameron Lane the Third had an addiction problem who’d traded his own sister to drug dealers in exchange for wiping his debt clean. That kind of thing didn’t happen at the country club, and it certainly didn’t happen to my parents.
But it had happened to me.
Realizing I was drowning the plant, I turned off the water and pushed back from the sink. Closed my eyes and groaned aloud. My frustration was coming off me in waves. I was beyond climbing in bed and throwing the covers over my head. Beyond tears. There just weren't any more left. I’d stopped crying two years ago.
Going into the bedroom, I kicked off my heels, stripped off my skirt and blouse and dug out my gym clothes from the pile in the corner. I usually waited until later in the evening to work out, coming home from work and eating first, but I had restless energy to burn. I needed to run this angst off. I'd taken up running after the incident, my therapist said exercise was like a release valve on a pressure cooker.
I hadn't liked being compared to a kitchen appliance, but I related. I had been ready to blow, and running had helped. I hadn't made it far at first, walking more than anything else, but now, now I could run for hours, especially when I was upset. After slipping a hair tie around my wrist, I found my running shoes by the door, sat down on the wood floor, tugged one on, worked the laces with extra vigor.
I was safe. I knew it. Cameron was still in jail. The men who'd attacked me would have come after me again way before now if they'd still wanted me. The way I figured it, and the police assumed as well, was that they wanted Cam. If that were true, they could have him. I could only imagine how much he'd liked to be assaulted by them.
My apartment was safe. Gray had reassured me personally. Key cards were required for the elevator and emergency stairs, and only the four residents had them. Gray liked things secure. While he knew how to fight, and fight well, he only liked using his fists in the ring. Those were his words when he'd handed me my key card, which had been reassuring. Besides, he wouldn't have risked Emory's safety for anything. I’d lived down the street from her, where we’d been neighbors for the three years while I was teaching classes and finishing my dissertation for my PhD. After the incident, I hadn’t ever really felt safe. Emory had thought of me for the vacant unit, and she’d assured me it was secure.
I was safe.
That didn't mean I wasn't riled, wouldn't have nightmares about what happened on the elevator. Again. Cameron's few calls always brought them back. The anxiety always returned. Like now, when I wanted to run until my legs gave out, until, hopefully, I was too exhausted to even dream.
Finished with my shoes, I stood, grabbed my car keys, the building key pass and went to one of the piles of boxes. A few had to go to my office for my next semester Medieval Art class, so I'd use my angst to lug them to my car for tomorrow. I stacked three identical ones, heavy with books, on the moving dolly. Pulling the cart behind me, I went out into the hall, locked my apartment. Looked longingly at the stairwell door. I hated elevators. After what happened, it had taken six months just to ride in one again. Now, I'd take them, but only with others, those I trusted. Or in safe places. Like one I shared with only three other people.
There was no way I'd get down the stairs with the boxes, and I wasn't making three trips. Pulling the dolly in behind me, I took a deep breath, pressed the button for the ground floor.
Still, I dreaded stepping inside when the door slid open. I thought of the two men who’d been on either side of me, one turning to press me into the wall, his hands groping. The other had watched, laughed.
I pushed the memories away, stepped inside, pushed the button for the ground floor. Willed the sick feeling down. I needed to chill. To unwind. To forget about Cam. What he’d done. What he wanted now. I'd burn off my anger on the treadmill in Gray’s gym since it got dark so early. I wasn't running by myself outside at night. Not this time of year.
Exercise always worked. I could do this, I could get over Cam's call, the greasy thoughts of those men, how one had held me as the other ripped my shirt. How I'd kicked and fought, broke a nose. The blood. The panic. The debilitating need to have the doors open to escape. The stumble onto the marble floor in front of the bank of elevators. The cry for security.
I remembered the feel of their rough hands. Heard their voices telling me what they were going to do to me. Smelled their cloying cologne, the cheap cigarettes.
The elevator doors slid open. I took one step, and my breath caught in my lungs when I saw him.
Big. Broad. Tattooed. Thickly muscled. Chiseled jaw. Angry eyes. A palpable energy radiated from him. He looked mean. Bad. Ruthless. His hands were clenched in fists, and he stepped toward me, then froze when he saw me. His look changed then, the fury slipping away.
Still, he scared the shit out of me. For a split second, I thought he was going to hurt me.
No. This guy wasn't planning on dragging me to a hotel room and raping me. He was… trying to go upstairs. I knew this. My brain processed that he lived in the building or at least had a key card to call the elevator. But no. That didn't matter. Run! Run! were my only thoughts.
No. I couldn't look like a complete lunatic, couldn't let my fear rule me. I let out a deep breath and murmured, “Excuse me.”
He stepped back, hands raised in front of his chest, and I pulled the dolly with the boxes into the lobby area.
I heard the elevator close, felt the keen sense of panic start to wane. I stopped just inside the exterior doors, stared outside through the glass. At nothing. Breathed. Tried to calm my racing heart. Cam had done this to me. Made me a quivering mess, scared of everything. Even my neighbor.
Of course, the intense man was my neighbor. I'd met Gray and Emory. They told me Gray's fighter, Reed, lived in the other apartment on my floor, but I hadn't met him yet. I'd been in the gym twice so far—Gray offered membership with the rent—and seen a number of fighters working out in the ring as I ran on the treadmill but didn't know which one was him. The number of fit guys, punching, kicking and rolling around on the ground trying to choke each other was enough to make any woman's ovaries perk up and take notice. I had no idea sweaty men could be so arousing.
But none of them had anything on Reed. Even through my panic, I was attracted. Perhaps that was why I was so panicked. In that split second, I shouldn’t have desired the man who could do me harm. If I took away the layers of panic, I’d remember his height, at least a half a foot taller than me. Jet black hair had been cut super short, as if he used clippers himself instead of going to a barber. His skin was olive toned, and the start of a beard made his square jaw rugged.
Then there were the tattoos. Swirls of color and shapes crept up his arms, and I had no doubt more were hidden beneath his shirt. The overall effect screamed bad boy.
His dark eyes had widened in surprise at the sight of me, then a touch more after that, probably because I'd stared at him in horror. With his nose that had a crook in it and the splotchy red marks on his left cheekbone, he looked like he'd been in old fights and new ones. A snug white t-shirt had been plastered to his skin with sweat, the collar slightly stretched as if yanked a few times, and a pair of black workout shorts rode low on his hips. He was a fighter not a rapist.
I pushed open the outer door with more aggression than needed and tugged on the dolly, wheeling it to the back of my car. No doubt Reed thought I was insane. At the least, deathly afraid of him. My heart still hammered. My throat burned with the need to cry, but there were no tears. Cam had done this to me. Even after two years, even from a jail cell, he held so much power over me. He was still fucking with me. My work, my life, my relationships. When he got out…
As I stuffed the boxes in the trunk of my car, I had to wonder if I'd ever be free. And a guy like Reed? I wasn’t a damsel in distress worth saving.
I had no idea what the fuck happened with my new neighbor. I had women stop in their tracks and stare at me with a quick eagerness that said they’d get on their knees for me in the nearest bathroom. I’d never had a woman look at me with such horror. Yeah, I was dangerous, but not to women. Not to her.
I'd just finished up a few rounds with a kid who wanted to be an MMA fighter, so I was a little sweaty, a little pissed. He’d sworn he was the next big thing and wanted Gray, also known as The Outlaw—who was the best trainer around, perhaps one of the best fighters even after his retirement—to check him out. Gray had put him through his paces in the ring with me. He hadn’t done it for the punk. Gray had known he wouldn’t cut it because of his piss-poor attitude alone. He’d done it for Emory, his fiancée, who worked with the kid’s dad at the hospital.
Gray wouldn't do shit like that for anyone else. Hell, he'd handed her his balls the day they met last summer, but he seemed just fine with it. Emory was killer, and I didn't say that about too many women, especially the groupies who only wanted to be taken for a ride on an MMA fighter’s dick. They were good for a quick release, but that was it.
The kid was all attitude, no footwork, and I knew Gray wanted me to take him down a notch or two. I'd put him on the ground several times, which only pissed him off. He hadn't even landed a punch, not until after the bell, and he came after me. I was used to guys' egos, but this little fuck? Yeah, Gray wasn't going to work with him, and he'd have to deal with any fallout for Emory with the doctor. I didn't think there would be much because not many people crossed The Outlaw. And if I stood beside him? Yeah, the doc would piss himself.
I was angry about the sucker punch, so instead of hitting him right back—which was what I would have done a few years ago as a punk on the streets—I let Gray deal with him. I walked off, heading to my apartment to shower, to chill with a protein drink and some crappy TV. Not used to anyone being in the elevator—it had only been Gray and Emory who also lived above the gym until last week—I almost bumped into her. Her.
The look on her face stopped me cold better than a fist to the face from any fighter.
She hadn’t been just startled or surprised. No, she’d been fucking petrified. I swore I saw all color drain from her face when she got a glimpse of me. Her eyes had widened, then darted past my shoulder at her only means of escape. A shiver had gone through her as if she’d been exorcised of a ghost. Then, all of a sudden, she pulled herself together and moved past me, fast, lugging a moving dolly loaded with boxes. I'd held my hands up and took a step back, letting her know without words I meant her no harm. It didn't matter. The damage had somehow been done.
I knew I was pretty scary looking. Being six-three, I loomed over people. I had shoulders like a linebacker and tattoos covered my arms. My nose was crooked, and my jaw was a little sore from where the kid sucker punched me.
I’d been told I looked fucking mean. A lot of the time, I felt mean. I was dark on the inside. Angry, dangerous. I wasn’t the asshole I used to be. I wasn’t the fucked-up kid. The army and training with Gray had set me straight. Still, grown men gave me plenty of room on the sidewalk. But this? With Harper—Emory had told me her name—this was different. I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t want someone like her to fear me.
I didn't get on the elevator. I couldn't just ignore the fact that I'd frightened her. I stood there, watched as she walked quickly toward the outside doors. Stopped. She didn't know I was watching her, perhaps thought I'd gone upstairs. She looked down at the ground, her body shaking. Shit. I’d done that to her. I wanted to go to her, grab her in my arms and let her know she was safer with me than anywhere else, but that wasn’t going to work. Not now.
After a few seconds, she lifted her chin, rolled her shoulders back. I could see she was taking deep breaths, and her fingers relaxed around the handle of the dolly.
She was tall and dressed in a t-shirt and running shorts. I couldn't miss her slim shape. Her legs were long, well-muscled. Between the shapely calves and the running shoes, I guessed her workout choice. Was she going for a run now, once she ditched those boxes? While it wasn't even six, it was dark out. Cold, too. While this wasn't a dangerous part of town, it wasn't safe for her to run alone at night, anywhere. So I’d stick around and make sure she didn't do something stupid.
Yeah, that was the reason why I leaned against the wall, took stock of my new neighbor.
Her dark hair was sleek and stick straight, grazing her shoulders. It had to be silky soft to touch. When she'd freaked, I hadn't missed her dark eyes, the high cheekbones, full lips. As she stood there and pulled herself together, I took the time to notice her perfect ass and toned thighs.
I was a red-blooded male, and she was hot. I couldn't help but notice, couldn’t help I had to adjust my dick in my workout shorts. While I liked a woman all feminine in dresses and heels, I also liked one who wasn’t high maintenance. Who took care of herself. Saw fitness as healthy.
Pushing the outer door open, she went out into the parking lot. It was well lit—Gray was more of a freak about safety than anyone I knew—and using a key fob, she popped the trunk on a dark colored sedan. If she hadn't been afraid of me, I'd have gone out and helped because I didn’t let a woman lug a bunch of boxes around, but if she lost it at the sight of me at the elevator, I didn't know what she'd do if I joined her in a parking lot at night. Did she have mace on that keychain?
I watched her put the three boxes away, close the trunk. She went into the gym through its main entrance, not through the side door off of the lobby. I went there and peeked in, watched as she set the dolly in the corner by the gym’s coat rack, gave a shaky wave to Jack at the front desk, then made her way to the row of treadmills that looked out onto the street. Good girl.
My neighbor was skittish as fuck yet smart. She wasn’t running outside.
After stepping on and pushing a few buttons, she started walking, tugging an elastic band from her wrist and pulling her hair back into a sloppy tail. Yeah, she wasn’t high maintenance or trying to catch the eyes of the guys. While those shorts showed off a mile of leg, she was dressed fairly modestly. No tight yoga pants or snug top.
After pressing a few more buttons on the treadmill, her pace quickened. By the time I pushed through the door and leaned against the front desk, she was running at a serious pace. No warm up.
Gray's gym had free weights and exercise machines, treadmills and ellipticals, but he specialized in MMA fighting. This meant a large amount of real estate devoted to all aspects of mixed martial arts; an open mat, separate training rooms, and an octagon with a fence around it, just like the ones on TV. His members were those like Harper who needed a place to get a workout in who had no interest in fighting. Yoga and spin classes were on the schedule for them. Then there were the serious competitors like me. MMA, Muay Thai, BJJ and other fighting classes were filled with those who wanted to compete or at least defend themselves. Gray intentionally kept it from being a total meat market and a straight competition gym. The balance worked, and it was considered one of the best gyms in town.
“I thought you went to shower,” Jack said, frowning at me. He was in college, working the desk in exchange for free membership. While he didn't have aspirations of being the next big fighter, he took all the classes Gray offered. His focus was BJJ, and he'd just gotten his blue belt. He had the physique for the sport, and the time on the mat with more experienced people kept his ego in check.
Manning the desk, he couldn't have missed what happened earlier in the ring with the doc's kid. Gray was in his glass enclosed office talking to the dickhead, who was wiping his sweaty head with one of the gym's white towels. While Gray was chill as he leaned back in his desk chair, the other guy was pissed and waving his arms. Probably spouting some shit about being a great fighter. Whatever.
I glanced back at my new neighbor. Her ponytail swung side to side as she ran. The treadmills faced the front windows. During the day, the street was visible and watching traffic helped pass the monotony of running nowhere. I hated running inside, but bad weather this time of year forced me on them sometimes as part of my workout. No way would I risk injury because of ice.
“Your new neighbor, right?” Jack asked. “She's pretty serious.”
“Serious? You mean personality?” I asked. I picked up a pen, fiddled with it, tried not to show the depth of my interest in her. The last thing I needed was for Jack to think I was a seventh-grade girl interested in gossip.
“Nah, she's cool. Introduced herself the other day. She runs.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” I countered, watching her smooth pace, the way the muscles in her legs moved with each step.
“No, I mean she runs.”
I turned to look at him. “What the fuck does that mean?”
He rolled his eyes. “It means she came in yesterday before the BJJ class. We talked about stupid shit for a few minutes before she went to the treadmills. Asked me about the classes I was taking. Did you know she's a professor at the university? Teaches some obscure art topic.” He thought for a second. “I don't remember which.” He leaned in. “I have to admit, she's really pretty, and I wasn't listening all that closely.”
I grinned when I saw a flush climb up his cheeks. Yeah, she was pretty. And then some. What guy could process words when a girl like her offered a soft smile? I'd gotten horror, and I was still intrigued.
“So, running?” I asked, getting him back on track. I didn't think it was a safe topic for him to talk about how hot one of the gym's members was, especially since he was on the clock. It was fine for me to think it, but I wasn't going to tell him that.
“She was running like she is now when Paul took over the desk, so I could go into class.”
That meant fast. She wasn't jogging, not like Jimmy, one of the gym regulars, two treadmills over. He kept turning his head to watch her, even pushed some buttons on his machine to pick up his pace, clearly not interested in being outdone.
I knew he did three miles as part of his workout routine, and she made him look like he was hobbling along with a walker. With the faster speed, he was failing quickly, and I had to shake my head.
“She was still running at the same pace when I came out.”
Whoa. I gave him a look, knowing Jack liked to stretch the truth. “Class was an hour.”
Jack grabbed a membership card from a guy who came in, scanned it. Tossed him a towel.
“Longer,” he continued, “because I rolled with Tom for about ten minutes after.”
BJJ was all about defending yourself and submitting your opponent on the mats. It wasn't karate. There were no kicks, only standing up long enough to take someone to the ground. So when two people practiced their ground fighting, they called it rolling.
I glanced back at Harper, impressed. Intrigued. Something.
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