Chapter One


“What’d you find out?” Ronan Cross asked impatiently.

Ro and his friends were sitting in their usual spot in The Pit, the pool hall/bar they frequented. The six of them were all members of Mountain Mercenaries, a group of men who worked for their handler, a man named Rex. The cases they took on were all about saving women and children from the dregs of humanity who wanted to enslave and rape and murder them.

But at that moment, Ro only cared about one woman.

Chloe Harris.

She’d stumbled onto his property in Black Forest just north of Colorado Springs, wearing ill-fitting clothes, and the story she’d told him simply hadn’t added up. Ro still would’ve let it go . . . if not for the large black-and-blue mark on her lower back. Someone had hit her. Hard.

He couldn’t let that go. He’d spent the last few years doing whatever was necessary to get women out of danger; there was no way he’d let the only one who had intrigued him on a personal level in a very long time disappear from his life like a puff of smoke, especially if she was being abused.

He’d given her his card, knowing he most likely wouldn’t hear from her. He also knew, better than most, that battered women rarely reached out until they were at rock bottom, and sometimes not even then.

But he was afraid battered-woman syndrome wasn’t the reason she hadn’t contacted him. He had a feeling it was because she was being prevented from calling him.

How he knew that, Ro couldn’t say. But he did.

She said she lived with her brother, Leon Harris.

Him, he knew.

They all did. Anyone who was anyone in Colorado Springs knew Leon. Over the last few years, he’d gone out of his way to throw money at enough charitable organizations that the city leaders loved him. But Ro and the other Mountain Mercenaries knew he was a member of La Cosa Nostra. The Mafia.

He wasn’t the big man in charge—that was Joseph Carlino, who lived and worked up in Denver. But during the last decade, Carlino had branched out, inviting other influential families to join his network.

The only reason Leon Harris—or Carlino, for that matter—hadn’t been on their handler’s radar and taken down was because the group didn’t participate in crimes against women. There was no prostitution or human trafficking in their organization . . . as far as Rex knew.

In fact, Joseph Carlino and his main business partner, Peter Smaldone, were well known for loving their wives and children. Not only that, they went out of their way to ensure they were protected, with several bodyguards assigned to each.

Ro had talked to Rex about his suspicions regarding Leon and his sister. His handler had insisted there was no way Carlino would put up with abuse toward women in any way, shape, or form.

But Ro couldn’t put Chloe out of his mind. So he’d called in one of his friends. Specifically, Meat.

Hunter Snow, also known as Meat, was their resident computer expert. He could hack just about any database.

“So?” he asked, drumming his fingers on the tabletop in front of him as he waited for Meat to tell him what he’d found out about Leon.

Meat frowned. “I honestly didn’t think I’d find much of interest. The man’s no saint, that’s for sure. He’s got half of the mayor’s office on the hook for one thing or another, and half of the cops as well.”

“For what?” Gray asked.

“The usual. Seems the leaders of this city have a penchant for either visiting ladies of the evening up in Denver or for doing a variety of drugs.”

“I fucking hate politicians,” Arrow said under his breath.

“Seriously. I wish Lieutenant Joe Kenda hadn’t retired. He’d clean up the force without any issues,” Black threw in.

“The guy from that TV show? The one who says, ‘Well, my, my, my’ all the time?” Ball asked.

“That’s him. One of the best detectives the Colorado Springs Police Department ever had. Even though he was around in the eighties, when DNA evidence wasn’t as much of a thing as it is today, he still managed to close most of his cases,” Black explained.

Ro ignored his teammates. He didn’t give a shit where someone was sticking his dick or what he was shoving up his nose, and he really didn’t care about some fucking TV show. His concern was Chloe. “What else?” he asked Meat.

“How do you know there’s more?” he asked.

Ro didn’t respond verbally; he simply stared at Meat.

“Fine. There’s more,” his friend admitted. “Looks like two years ago, Leon Harris started up a new business. You know that strip club on the southeast side of town? That’s his.”

“BJ’s?”

Meat rolled his eyes. “Yeah. Apparently, whoever came up with the name thought they were clever. Anyway, it’s Harris’s property. A lot of the blackmail pictures seem to come from there. But the interesting thing is, I’m not certain if Carlino knows about the place. He’s made it clear on more than one occasion that the Cosa Nostra doesn’t dabble in low-class establishments like that. As Rex mentioned, they treasure their women, and likely wouldn’t consider disrespecting them by visiting or owning a strip joint.”

“So what’s the deal?” Ro asked.

Meat shrugged. “Carlino must’ve either given Harris permission to open the club or is maybe looking the other way for some reason. Or just isn’t monitoring Leon’s club as closely as he should be. I’m not sure. But from the outside, it definitely looks exactly like what it is—a strip club.”

“And from the inside?” Arrow asked, leaning forward on his elbows.

Ro looked around and saw that the rest of the team seemed to be just as interested in Meat’s answer.

“I don’t know yet. I’m still looking into it. But on the surface, the business is legit. Taxes are paid on time, paperwork was filed correctly with the city to open the joint, and full-time employees have health insurance. I did manage to dig deep enough to find that another building on the other side of town was recently purchased, and a license was approved for a second club.” He rolled his eyes. “With the proposed name of the Beaver Den.”

“What’s with your sudden interest in the Harris family?” Ball asked Ro. “Leon Harris has been on the scene for years, as has his little strip joint.”

Ro inhaled a breath and held it for a long moment before exhaling noisily. “About two weeks ago, a woman walked into my garage and asked to use the phone. She was wearing high heels that she couldn’t walk in very well and clothes that were way too tight. She was jumpy and nervous and was putting out vibes I didn’t like.”

“And?” Gray prompted. “What else?”

Ro wasn’t surprised that Gray seemed impatient. Ever since he’d hooked up with Allye, he preferred to spend less time hanging out, playing pool at The Pit, and more time at home with his girlfriend. Not that Ro could blame him.

“You know where I live, man. Black Forest isn’t exactly on the beaten path. There was absolutely no reason for her to be there, not on foot, dressed as she was. I would’ve let it go without much thought if it wasn’t for the huge bruise on her back. It was easy to spot under the see-through blouse she had on.”

Arrow whistled.

“She said her name was Chloe Harris, and that Leon was her brother. She lives with him. And when she was picked up by a chick who looked like she had a permanent stick up her arse, she got an arse chewing of massive proportions. The whole situation didn’t sit well with me then, and it doesn’t sit well with me now,” Ro said.

Meat was frowning. “I knew Leon had a sister, but I don’t remember much about her. I’m going to need to look into her. You should’ve told me about her in the first place,” he scolded Ro.

Ro shrugged, not in the least affected by his friend’s rebuke. “I wanted to know about her brother, if he was into shady shit. And now I know that he is.”

“Owning a strip club isn’t exactly shady,” Gray commented.

Ro looked at his friend. “Maybe not. But possibly doing it under the radar so Carlino doesn’t know about it certainly is. Not to mention the blackmail and other shit he’s doing. Look, Chloe seemed like a good girl. You know what I mean. She was nervous and scared.”

“But just because she had a bruise and lives with her brother doesn’t mean he’s the one abusing her. She could have a boyfriend who’s knocking her around,” Black pointed out rationally.

“It’s him. I bloody know it,” Ro said without a trace of doubt in his tone.

“Rex has said that La Cosa Nostra is off-limits,” Gray reminded him.

“Look, I’m not asking us to do an all-out assault on the strip club. I’m just checking things out.”

Gray didn’t look convinced.

“Seriously,” Ro said. “Meat is going to continue to look into the Harris family and see what he can find out.”

“And what are you going to do?” Ball asked.

Ro grinned for the first time. “Anyone up for a night out?”

“Let me guess. BJ’s?” Arrow asked.

“I haven’t been to a strip joint in ages,” Ro said. “Thought we could change things up a bit. The Pit gets old sometimes.”

The others rolled their eyes.

“If we do this, we’re just going for recon,” Black stated emphatically. “Before we do anything, we need to bring Rex up to speed and get his input. You know as well as I do that when we signed on with Mountain Mercenaries, we swore we’d never act on our own.”

Ro gave a curt nod. “You don’t need to remind me. I know what I promised, and I never go back on my word.”

“But?” Gray asked, obviously having heard more to Ro’s statement.

“We also promised to do whatever it took to make sure no woman is oppressed or held against her will. If we find that Harris is making women—or God forbid, girls—do more than simply take off their clothes, or if he’s forcing them to work, maybe by holding something over their heads, I’m going to do everything in my power to shut that shit down,” Ro said.

“Agreed.”

“Me too.”

“Right on.”

Ro was pleased when his friends concurred with him.

“I’m in,” Black said. “But I have one more question.”

“Shoot,” Ro said.

“Are you going to lose your shit if this Chloe woman is at BJ’s? And more importantly, if she’s there, but of her own volition?”

Ro clenched his teeth together so hard, his head hurt. “If she’s there, it’s not because she wants to be,” he said after a second.

“And if she is?” Black pushed.

“If she is, then fine. But if there are underage girls there, or women who aren’t there of their own free will, I’m going to try to get Rex in on this to take Harris down.”

“Even if it brings the Cosa Nostra down on Mountain Mercenaries?”

Ro leaned toward Black. “Yes.”

Black grinned. “Good. Just making sure.”

Ro relaxed a fraction but was a little annoyed with his friend. He hated when Black did that shit. He did it all the time, loved to play devil’s advocate. He knew Black was just as committed as they all were to taking down scumbags who treated women like shit.

But for some reason, the particular innocent woman who’d stood in his shop and bravely looked him in the eye and told him she was fine, when she obviously wasn’t, wouldn’t leave Ro’s mind. He’d stake his life and reputation on the fact that something more sinister was going on with her.

He’d had premonitions in the past—they’d saved his life more than once—but never had they involved a woman. That alone should’ve freaked him out, but it didn’t. Instead, the thought of Chloe Harris being in over her head made him more determined than ever to get to the bottom of whatever was going on.

If her brother was somehow blackmailing her or making her do something she didn’t want to do, Ro would make sure she got out from under his thumb. No matter what it took.



Defending Chloe

Love is the best defense in New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker’s explosive Mountain Mercenaries novel.

Gorgeous women don’t just stumble onto Ronan Cross’s remote property. But this one—vulnerable, victimized, and needing the kind of help only Ronan can offer—tells a story that makes his blood boil almost as hot as his need to protect her.

Since her father’s death, Chloe Harris has become a prisoner. Her own brother, a flesh peddler and low-level player in the Denver Mafia, is forcing her to sell her body for an endgame Chloe never saw coming: control over a vast fortune. Her only way out is to run—straight into the arms of the one hard-bodied man she can trust.

Defending Chloe could rain punishment down on the Mountain Mercenaries. Her brother has Mob connections and the local police in his pocket. But Ronan still has an edge—the unshakable loyalty of his deadly teammates. As well as an unquenchable thirst for retribution…and Chloe.

New York Times Bestselling Author