Defending Everly

Dec 3, 2019

The stakes are personal, hot, and dangerous in New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker’s riveting Mountain Mercenaries novel.

As tough as Everly Adams may be, the Colorado Springs SWAT officer is near a breaking point. Her fifteen-year-old half sister, Elise, has disappeared from Los Angeles without a trace, and the window to find her is closing fast. Committed to the search is Mountain Mercenary Kannon “Ball” Black. He and Everly already have a history—of rubbing each other the wrong way.

Still, Everly has to admit the man is heart-stopping. His brash alpha swagger takes her breath away. And most importantly, as a former Coast Guard first responder, Ball has what it takes to bring Elise home.

Nobody’s buying the LAPD’s “runaway” theory. And the fear that Elise is the victim of a human trafficking ring is a gut-punch that Everly and Ball can’t ignore. If only the trail were that clear cut. Because the one they’re following is more insidious and intimately dark than they could have imagined.

Now as the bond between Everly and Ball grows stronger, so does the heat. And as the stakes rise, so does the danger.

New York Times Bestselling Author

Chapter One


Kannon “Ball” Black knocked on the door of the apartment in front of him and waited impatiently for it to open.

He wasn’t happy.

The only thing mollifying him at the moment was knowing the woman on the other side of the door wasn’t happy either.

He’d been an ass when they’d first met, and Everly Adams had every right to be pissed at him. In his defense, while the night in question had been a great one for his friends, he’d been struggling, seeing everyone paired up with amazingly awesome women when he didn’t have one of his own. And the way he was going, he probably wouldn’t ever have one. It wasn’t that he didn’t like women; he did. He loved his buddies’ women and would do anything for them.

But he’d been burned, badly. First by his ex-partner. Then after, during one of the worst times in his life, when his girlfriend should’ve been there for him, Holly had screwed him over instead—big-time. It was a blow he wasn’t sure he’d ever recover from.

So the night his friends had celebrated Gray’s[Office1]  and Arrow’s engagements, he’d been out of sorts. It was just bad luck that they’d learned about their new mission that same night, and the fact that a civilian would be highly involved.

And that the civilian was a woman.

He’d run off at the mouth about how he was sure she would mess everything up and they’d have to babysit her. Turned out she’d been standing behind him the entire time and heard everything he’d said. Classic.

The couple of days since had been tough, as she’d spent quite a bit of time with the Mountain Mercenaries, going over the information they had—which wasn’t much—trying to find out where Everly’s missing sister had gone.

Last night, they’d determined that someone was going to have to travel to Los Angeles to get more information. Everly was going for sure. As a Colorado Springs police and SWAT officer, she actually had a few loose connections with officers in the LAPD. Since this was a fact-finding mission, the entire team wasn’t needed, and somehow Ball found himself being volunteered to travel to LA with Everly.

He didn’t want to go.

But it wasn’t fair to separate Gray, Ro, Arrow, and Black from their women just because Ball had his doubts about working so closely with Everly. Meat could’ve gone, but he was helping Rex, their handler, with another case.

So that left him.

Ball had little doubt Everly was a good cop. But his ex-partner Riley’d had the potential to be a good Coastie, and look what had happened with her . . .

The door in front of Ball opened, but all he saw was Everly’s backside as she immediately turned and walked away from him without any kind of greeting.

More bemused than annoyed, Ball pushed the door open and stepped inside her apartment. The complex itself was nice. The cars outside were all in the mid- to upper-price range, and the lights were all in working order in the parking lot and inside the complex itself. The hallways smelled of eucalyptus, and there were fresh flowers in the lobby area. He wasn’t surprised that a cop lived in a safe and clean apartment complex—but her apartment did surprise him.

Ball knew he’d judged Everly harshly from the first moment he’d heard of her existence, but seeing her apartment made him reassess even the little he thought he knew. He wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting when it came to her living space, but it wasn’t the unfussy, comfortable home she’d made for herself.

He’d lived in enough apartments to know how hard it was to make them feel like your own. The walls were always white, and there always seemed to be a sterile feel to them. But not Everly’s apartment. She’d managed to make her space feel inviting and lived in without being stuffed to the gills with extra crap.

The door opened into a large living space. She had a tan suede couch with pillows strewn haphazardly on it and a gray, fuzzy blanket shoved into one corner. Instead of a coffee table, she had a large, square ottoman with some remotes and a few other odds and ends on top. A bookshelf sat in the corner, overflowing with books. Her TV was huge and took up most of one wall. There were also pictures on the walls of Everly and a young girl, who he knew was her missing sister.

Her kitchen was small but functional. She had a coffee maker on one mostly uncluttered counter, and he could see a bowl and spoon in the sink from her breakfast. A small table with enough room for two sat between the kitchen and living areas. And for some reason, that table made Ball sad. He imagined Everly sitting there by herself, eating meals. Even though he lived alone, he still had a table that could seat at least six people. He’d sat there many a night with his friends, laughing and talking.

Overall, her space was tidy, but not obsessively neat. Exactly like his own.

“Are you gonna stand there all day judging me for how I live, or are we going to get moving?” Everly asked with a hand on her hip.

Ball didn’t feel guilty for checking out her place. The more time he spent with her, the more curious he became. Not in an I-want-to-know-how-she-lives-because-I-want-to-date-her kind of way, though. No, Everly Adams was the last person he would go out with. She wasn’t his type at all. He definitely didn’t want to date a woman employed in a field similar to his.

He didn’t even want to work with a woman. And if he ever got married or into a serious relationship, it would be with someone he liked and respected—but who he wasn’t madly in love with. His heart would be safer that way.

Though, looking at Everly as she impatiently stared at him, he couldn’t deny she was beautiful. Her red hair fell past her shoulders in disarray, which made him want to smooth it down. Her green eyes were currently shooting sparks at him in irritation. She was tall—he estimated about five-ten—but was still half a foot shorter than he was. Everly was also muscular but managed to rock her curves. He had a feeling in her CSPD uniform, she’d make quite a stunning figure.

“Ball?” she asked. “Are you listening to me?”

That got him moving. His former partner in the Coast Guard, Riley Foster, used to ask him that same thing all the time. He’d found it amusing before the accident. Now, it annoyed him.

“Do I have a choice?” he asked a bit harsher than he’d intended.

He pretended he didn’t see her scowl before she turned away. He wasn’t here to make friends. He had to work with Everly on this case, but once they’d found her sister, he hoped their paths wouldn’t cross again.

“Right,” Everly said as she picked up a duffel bag sitting on the floor of the kitchen. Without another word, she headed for the front door, not looking back to see if Ball was following.

Knowing he was fucking things up with her already, Ball sighed. It wasn’t that he didn’t respect her for being a cop and for wanting to find her sister. He just wished he wasn’t the one who had to go to Los Angeles to help her.

She waited until he’d exited her apartment, then locked the door behind him. They walked without a word toward his black Ford Mustang. Ball loved his car. It drove like a dream, and it looked cool as hell to boot. Everly didn’t seem fazed or overly impressed. Ball pushed the button on his key fob to open the trunk and debated reaching for her bag, but decided she probably wouldn’t appreciate him trying to help.

She slammed the trunk after putting her bag inside and headed for the passenger side. Both seated, Ball pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the small Colorado Springs airport. They were flying from there to Denver, and then on to Los Angeles.

“Have you heard from your grandparents today?” he asked once they were on their way.

“Yeah, but they still haven’t heard from Elise.”

Elise was Everly’s missing fifteen-year-old half sister. The whole reason they were in his car heading to the airport. “Do your contacts at LAPD have any new information?”

Everly sighed and rubbed her forehead. “No. They’re doing their best, but I think some suspect she’s merely another runaway and will show up at some point. They’re overworked, of course, and while they’re doing their best to help, nothing is really happening. We’re all stressed, but Me-Maw and Pop are taking this especially hard, since Elise was living with them.”

Ball thought it was cute that she called her grandparents by the silly names, but he’d never tell her that. “Have they taken her computer in for analysis yet?”

“Not that I know of. The detective who was assigned the case has ordered her phone records, but they’re taking a while to come back from the phone company. Me-Maw said the detective came out to their house yesterday, but all he did was look around a bit. He’d tried to trace her phone already, but didn’t have any luck, probably because if it’s off, it won’t be pinging on the towers.”

“What do you think happened?” Ball asked. They’d been over and over the facts of the case in their meetings with the other Mountain Mercenaries, but there wasn’t any one scenario that had stuck out as being what likely had happened to the teenager.

She’d left for school as normal, but never returned home. After asking her friends and talking to her teachers, they found out that she’d been at school and everything seemed okay with her that day. But once she’d left the building to walk home, like she did every day, no one saw her again.

“I think she met up with the wrong person and was snatched. Elise isn’t like me,” Everly said. “Because she’s deaf, she’s always taken everything much more to heart than I ever did. She’s sensitive, and it’s hard for her to make friends, which is one of the reasons she’s still living in LA. I didn’t want to take her away from the few she has, and frankly, Elise didn’t want to leave either. The littlest things stress her out, and she can be in a funk for weeks as a result.”

“And you’re not like that?” Ball asked.

“Not really. I’ve seen too much at work to get stressed out about little things, and I definitely don’t get in bad moods that can last weeks. Part of that is because of her age. She’s a teenager, I get it. But sometimes it drives me crazy. I also can’t stand drama, and if someone can’t take me as I am—super blunt and to the point—then I’m done with them.”

Ball sensed there was a story there, but didn’t press. “So did something happen recently that would stress out Elise?”

“I’m honestly just not sure. Elise used to tell me everything, but in the last year or so, she hasn’t kept in touch as much, and when she does, she just claims everything’s fine.”

“What about your mom?”

“What about my mom?” Everly asked.

“Could she be a part of this?”

“I don’t think so. My mom’s a bitch, and after I moved in with Me-Maw and Pop, I didn’t have a lot to do with her. I don’t think Elise has either. But her scenario is different. She’s always taken everything Mom does personally.”

“She does?”

“Yeah. She blames herself for Mom’s relationship with her dad breaking up . . . which is bullshit. Maybe if Mom got off the drugs, she’d be able to have a normal relationship for once in her life. With her daughters, her parents . . . someone.”

“And that’s why Elise went to live with her grandparents, right?”

“Right. My mom disappeared for a week, and eventually Elise took the bus to Me-Maw’s. Pop was pissed, and immediately drove over to his daughter’s house to bitch her out, but since she wasn’t there, he had to settle for grabbing all of Elise’s stuff and moving her into their place.”

“When was that?”

“About four years ago.”

“And she hasn’t seen your mom since?” Ball asked. It was hard for him to fathom simply leaving a kid alone in a house for days like Ella Adams had done.

“Not that I know of, but I’m not there. Knowing my mom, she’s probably been texting or emailing Elise. Giving her a guilt trip or something.”

“Maybe Elise went to move back in with your mom,” Ball suggested.

Everly shook her head, but she looked worried. “No.”

“You don’t know that for sure.”

Everly shifted in her seat so she was facing Ball. “Ella Adams doesn’t care about anyone but herself. Elise knows that. We’ve had long conversations about it. She knows she’s better off at Me-Maw and Pop’s place.”

“But it’s possible,” Ball pushed, frustrated that Everly wasn’t even considering the possibility.

She huffed. “Fine. You’re right. It was a possibility.”

“Was?” Ball asked with an eyebrow raised.

“Yes, was. I talked to Detective Ramirez about it. He went and talked to Mom. Found her in a pay-by-the-hour shitty motel room with some guy. He questioned her, and he said she seemed very surprised to hear that Elise was missing. Even squeezed out some tears or something. She was high, and as I said earlier, she really only gives a rat’s ass about herself. He said he’d keep an eye on her to see if she led him back to an apartment or something where Elise could be hanging out, but after a day and a half of surveillance, she hadn’t left the motel where he’d originally found her. I know you think I’m white trash and a gutter rat, Ball, but just because my mom’s a drug addict doesn’t mean she passed her stupid gene to me and my sister.”

“I don’t think you’re white trash,” Ball said, genuinely shocked that she’d think so.

Everly sighed heavily and refused to look him in the eye.

“I don’t,” Ball insisted. “I know we didn’t exactly start out on the right foot . . .”

She snorted.

“. . . but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect what you do.”

Everly eyed him. “But you don’t want to work with me.”

Ball shrugged. “It’s not personal. I don’t like working with women.”

“Why?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

She let out a harsh chuckle. “I think it does, since we’re going to be working closely together for the next week or so.”

“So if Elise didn’t go back to live with your mom, would she want to stay with anyone else?” Ball asked.

For a second, he didn’t think she was going to let go of her question about why he didn’t like to work with women, but eventually she sighed.

“I don’t know. I wanted Elise to come stay with me, but the school she’s at right now is awesome, and all her friends are there. So I send money every month to help my grandparents, and Elise knows when she graduates from high school that she’s more than welcome to come out here to Colorado Springs to live with me.”

“Do you have any objections to Meat remotely logging on to her computer when we get to Los Angeles?” Ball asked. They’d already discussed it, but he wanted to be sure.

“None.”

Ball nodded. He tried to think about what else they should discuss, but nothing came to mind.

He’d never been this . . . weird . . . with a woman before. He knew it was because he couldn’t figure out exactly how he felt about Everly. He admired her for excelling in a job that was typically male dominated, even as he resented having to work so closely with her. He felt sorry for her because her sister was missing and she was so worried . . . but he also had a feeling that maybe the LA cops were right, and the girl was just sowing some wild oats.

His feelings about both his ex-partner and his ex-girlfriend had been brought to the forefront thanks to this case, and he’d been dealing with those for the last few days, even while trying half-heartedly to make up for the shit he’d said about Everly when he’d first learned she’d be tagging along on the mission.

Luckily, they arrived at the airport quickly, so he didn’t have to attempt any small talk. They parked and headed for the ticket counter. Within an hour, they were seated on the plane and taking off for Denver. Of course Rex had put them in adjoining seats on the plane. Ball would’ve preferred to have a break from her, but instead they were sharing an armrest.

Wanting to ease the awkward silence between them as they taxied to the runway, Ball looked over at Everly in the window seat. Her eyes were closed, and her head was resting against the seat back. Her hands were clutched together in her lap, and it was more than obvious she wasn’t a good flier.

She also wore a ring on her right pointer finger that he hadn’t noticed before. It was a thin, gold band that could’ve possibly passed for a wedding ring if it had been on her other hand.

Thoughts of her jewelry were quickly replaced yet again by memories of his ex.

Holly hadn’t been a good flier either. She hated the feel of the plane lifting off and always thought they were going to crash. They hadn’t flown together very often, but Ball would always put his arm around her shoulders, telling her to hang on to him, that he’d keep her safe.

Forcing away thoughts of his ex, Ball looked out the opposite window across the aisle so he didn’t have to see Everly struggling with her fears. His fingers twitched with the urge to cover her hands with his own, to reassure her. It was a stupid notion. Being in each other’s company was just as distasteful to her as it was to him.

Thankfully, takeoff was smooth, and soon they were at cruising level and headed for Denver. Everly pulled out a set of earbuds, plugged them into her phone, put them in her ears, then turned slightly to face the window, effectively blocking him out.

Ball sighed. It was going to be a long trip.