Defending Harlow

New York Times Bestselling Author

Danger rises and love is threatened in New York Times bestselling author Susan Stoker’s fourth book of the Mountain Mercenaries series.

Lowell “Black” Lockard, former Navy SEAL, has watched his fellow Mountain Mercenaries settle down with the women of their dreams, but he’s convinced he doesn’t need love. Then he gets a call from Harlow Reese—a chef at a local women’s shelter—and begins to reconsider his decision.

After being continually harassed by a local band of punks, Harlow asks Lowell to give the women of the shelter lessons in self-defense. She doesn’t expect him to take such a special interest in her safety, but he insists on escorting her to and from work, never taking no for an answer. Not that Harlow minds the personal touch…especially when it’s coming from her former teenage crush.

Despite her long history of bad dating luck, seeing Black again makes Harlow rethink her self-imposed celibacy. Easy on the eyes and hard to forget, the man has morphed into an alpha stud. And Harlow may be exactly the type of woman Black is looking for. Making her feel safe isn’t only a duty; it’s a pleasure. But the threats are escalating. The motives are a mystery. And as the danger burns almost as hot as their passion, there’s much more at risk than their hearts.

Chapter One

Lowell “Black” Lockard was bored.

He leaned back in his office chair, linked his hands behind his head, and stared unseeingly out of his window.

The occasional pop-pop-pop from a weapon penetrated through the insulation in his office. It was a comforting sound, one that Black had gotten used to over the years. Owning a shooting range wasn’t exactly what he’d seen himself doing after getting out of the Navy, but here he was.

He enjoyed the work. Enjoyed getting to know the men and women who came to practice their shooting skills. He took pride in the gun and personal-safety classes he taught. But the fact of the matter was that, lately, his life seemed to be missing something.

It wasn’t just that the Mountain Mercenaries hadn’t been called to go on a mission in a month. It was more. Seeing his friends and teammates falling in love brought attention to the saddest fact of his life—it was routine. Normally he liked that, but with all the stories from his friends about how their women kept them on their toes . . . he couldn’t help but wish he had something similar to fill his time.

Black figured a good, hard mission would break him of his ennui. And he knew that made him an asshole. It wasn’t that he wanted a woman or child to be kidnapped or abused, but anytime someone in need reached out to Rex, their handler, for assistance, Black had a clear purpose. He felt most useful and fulfilled when he was helping others. He’d spent his entire life rushing in when others needed aid—and sitting around an office definitely didn’t make him feel needed.

His cell phone rang, tearing Black out of his musings, and he sat forward to look at the screen.

Unknown.

He almost didn’t answer it. The last thing he wanted to do was talk to a telemarketer or scammer, but since he was bored, he figured he may as well pick up.

“Hello?”

“Is this Lowell Lockard?”

Black didn’t recognize the voice. “Speaking.”

“Hi, Lowell. This is Harlow Reese. We spoke a few weeks ago?”

At the sound of her name, Black sat up straight in his chair. Anticipation churned in his gut. Harlow was exactly what he needed . . . in an entirely different way. “Yeah. I expected you to call sooner,” he playfully chided.

The woman on the other end of the phone chuckled, and Black smiled at the sound. He liked her voice. It was low and husky. Even her laugh was attractive.

He shook his head at his insane musings. He wasn’t looking for what Gray, Ro, and Arrow had. He was perfectly happy simply dating, though he hadn’t done even that lately.

He couldn’t imagine settling down with one woman for the rest of his life. He wasn’t a manwhore, but he enjoyed the dating game. Getting to know someone. Flirting. The anticipation that led up to taking her to bed for the first time.

He tried to concentrate on what Harlow was saying.

“—didn’t call. I figured I was overreacting. But . . . the situation has changed, and I was wondering if you might be willing to come back and teach more personal-safety classes for all the women here at the shelter.”

The seriousness of Harlow’s voice and the implication of her words hit Black hard and fast.

He’d last been to the First Hope Women’s Shelter about a month ago on the Mountain Mercenaries’ usual rotation. Around once a month, one of them would go to the shelter to interact with the women and children who resided there and make sure all was well. The men also did odd jobs and taught the women personal safety. First Hope was a transition shelter, where women could live until they found affordable housing, got a job, and basically got their feet under them again after whatever life situation had landed them there in the first place. Loretta Royster, the building owner and shelter director, did what she could to keep everyone safe.

Black knew Harlow from high school. It was crazy that they’d both ended up in Colorado Springs after growing up in Kansas. She was a year younger than him, but they’d been in the yearbook club together his senior year. Seeing her at the shelter was a surprise; she’d just been hired on as the chef.

She’d told him a month ago that she was being harassed, and she had inquired about a gun-safety class for herself. Black had mentally vowed to call her if she didn’t get in touch with him, but he hadn’t.

He regretted that now.

In his defense, he sort of figured that her not calling meant the harassment had stopped. That wasn’t a good excuse, however. He should’ve followed up, and not just because he’d been intrigued by seeing a woman he knew from his past.

“The situation has changed?” he asked. “In what way?”

“Well, when I saw you last, I was the only one the men were harassing. But it’s now come to my attention that it’s everyone.”

“What do the cops say? You have been to the cops, right?”

“Of course,” Harlow said with a huff. “I’m not an idiot. Loretta has talked to them several times, but since the guys haven’t actually done anything to us, there’s not much they can do.”

Black was confused. “Then what are they doing?”

“Stupid stuff. Catcalling when any of the women come and go from the building. They sometimes follow us to the parking lot when we leave. They haven’t put their hands on us or come very close, but they’re there, watching, mocking us. Things like that. It’s freaking out the women and kids, and I hate to see everyone so upset.”

“Of course I’ll help,” Black reassured her. “Do you know the men who’re bothering you?”

“No. They’re young. Like late teens or early twenties. They hang around the neighborhood. I don’t think they care that we see them because technically they’re not doing anything illegal. But they hang out in that new park down the street from the building or outside the tattoo shop across the street. The residents don’t want to go outside by themselves, and they won’t let their kids go play at the park either.”

“You working at the shelter this afternoon?”

“Today?” Harlow asked in surprise.

“Yeah, Harl. Today.”

“Well, yeah. At least until around four. Zoe comes in then.”

“Zoe?”

“The other cook. Loretta hired her about a week after me. When I’m not here, she is, and vice versa. That way all the meals for the residents are covered,” Harlow explained.

“She being harassed too?” Black asked.

“Yeah. Everyone is. And it’s weird, because Zoe is sixty. She doesn’t look it, not with her pink hair and all, but I don’t understand why those punks are picking on all of us. Loretta thinks it could be one of the residents’ exes who maybe hired them, but since they aren’t hurting us or destroying property, the cops won’t look into it, and so we have no way of finding out.”

Black’s heart rate increased. The more she told him about the situation, the more concerned he got.

“Anyway,” Harlow went on, “I think maybe meeting with you again and being able to ask more questions and having you show everyone some basic things they can do to protect themselves will give them more confidence.”

Black looked at his watch and said, “I’ll be there in an hour.”

There was silence on the phone for a moment before Harlow asked, “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“I didn’t mean—You don’t have to come today. I just . . . you said to call if I felt uneasy.”

“Right. And you called me because you aren’t comfortable with the situation, and I can do something about it.”

Black would do something about it, all right. He would’ve told Harlow he’d be there in thirty minutes, except he needed to call Rex and inform him of what was going on. He also needed to call Meat, their resident computer expert. Meat could start looking into the ex-husbands and boyfriends of the shelter’s residents.

Black knew he was possibly going overboard, that maybe the punks had no connection to anyone and were just getting their kicks scaring the residents at the shelter, but he didn’t think so. The building wasn’t in the best part of the city, but it wasn’t the worst either. Colorado Springs was putting some money into the area, including tax breaks for businesses who opened up there and incentives to developers to try to revitalize the area.

Harlow had been harassed for at least a month now. He doubted the men bothering her would still be doing so just for shits and giggles. Once again, he was pissed at himself for not calling to check on her.

The back of his neck was tingling, a sure sign that more was up with the situation.

Black was happy to have something to do to keep himself busy and satisfy his need to be useful—but more than that, he was looking forward to seeing Harlow. She’d been on his mind over the last month, and he was grateful for any excuse to see her again.

“Go tell Loretta I’ll be there in a while. I’ll talk to her about what’s been going on and what measures are in place to protect the residents. You’ll be safe in the meantime?”

He heard the amusement in her voice when she said, “I’m thirty-four years old and have essentially been on my own for sixteen of those years. I think I can manage to survive for the sixty or so minutes it’ll take you to get here.”

Black smiled. He liked her sass. “Right. Then I’ll see you soon.”

“Lowell?”

The smile on his face grew at hearing Harlow use his given name again. It had been a long time since anyone had used it, other than his family. Hearing it in Harlow’s low, husky voice made his belly churn with anticipation. “Yeah, Harl?”

“Thanks. I know it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other, or even thought about each other. I just . . . everyone is nervous, and when the cops couldn’t do anything, we were kinda at a loss as to what to do. I appreciate you offering to give the classes. I can pay for them. I mean, I was the one who called you.”

“We’ll talk about it when I get there,” Black told her.

There was no way anyone would be paying him for anything. The women’s shelter was important to Rex and the rest of the Mountain Mercenaries. Loretta had helped them out time and time again when they’d needed her assistance with a woman or child they’d rescued. Rex would be upset that Loretta herself hadn’t called, but Black and the rest of his team would offer whatever help the shelter needed, gratis.

“Okay. Drive safe,” Harlow said. “Bye.”

She hung up before Black could say a word. He clicked off his phone and stared into space for a long moment. It had been ages since anyone had told him to drive safe, at least someone who wasn’t related to him. His parents were great, but they lived on the other side of the country in Orlando. He spoke to them frequently, and while they always told him they loved him, they didn’t worry about him, per se.

His brother was a photographer who traveled around the world taking pictures for magazines and organizations. He was five years younger than Black, and always seemed to be getting into questionable situations. Of course, Black was too, but his parents didn’t know about that. So Lance was the Lockard their parents worried about.

Harlow probably didn’t mean anything by her words. She probably told everyone to be careful. But still, hearing them made something inside Black sit up and take notice.

Deciding right then and there that he was going to ask Harlow Reese out, Black smiled. It had been a long time since he’d really pursued a specific woman, and he was looking forward to getting back in the game.

Still smiling, Black picked up his phone and dialed Rex’s number. He needed to tell his handler what was going on. At the moment, he had no information, but Rex didn’t like surprises. It was better to talk to him up front and bring him details later than to blindside him with a situation after the fact.