Chapter One


Pipe stared straight ahead as he stood in a line with a dozen other men, listening as the MC worked the audience into a frenzy when he introduced the next guy to be auctioned off.

He wondered for the hundredth time how the bloody hell he’d let himself be talked into this. Being in the spotlight was literally his nightmare come true. Pipe had spent so much of his life living in the shadows that it made his blood crawl to be onstage in front of so many people.

But his friends Brick, Tonka, and Spike had women and families to care for now. And out of the remaining owners of The Refuge, Pipe had literally pulled the short straw…so here he was.

Soon, the announcer would be introducing him. Would be taking bids from people in the audience willing to pay to have dinner with him. It was ridiculous.

“It’s for a good cause,” he reminded himself under his breath.

And that was the only reason he was in Washington, DC. To raise money for veterans.

He watched as the guy before him preened and strutted about the stage, playing to the audience, who loved every second of his posing, his muscle flexing. Pipe had the fleeting notion that maybe the man thought he was in a strip club or something, before the MC excitedly announced that the bidding was over.

The woman who won him let out a small scream and turned to her friends, who hugged her as they all jumped up and down in their excitement. Pipe refrained from rolling his eyes…barely. The woman had won a dinner date, not a boyfriend or a husband or whatever it was she thought she was bidding for.

He was cynical, for sure. All the more reason that it should’ve been Owl up here, not him.

Well…no. Not Owl. His friend and co-owner of The Refuge was too introverted. Still wary around most people after being held captive when his chopper had been shot down years before.

All of the men Pipe worked with were damaged in their own ways. It was one of the reasons he was here right now, in fact. He wanted to raise money for other veterans like him and his friends, who’d given their all for their countries and found themselves mentally broken in return. It wasn’t that he didn’t think the powers that be in the US—or in his case, in Britain—weren’t thankful for the service of their military members. For the most part. But it was a herculean task to run a country, take care of those currently serving, and keep up with the hundreds of thousands of men and women who’d gone back to civilian life.

Which was where events like this charity auction came in. They were raising money to assist veterans attempting to reacclimate after their service. Pipe and his friends had each other, and The Refuge, but many people didn’t have any support at all.

Ultimately, that was why Pipe was there. Feeling uncomfortable and out of place, and definitely not thrilled about parading himself in front of a roomful of overdressed men and women who judged him based on superficial parameters. He knew what they saw. A man with hair that was too long, a beard that was too bushy, tattoos on his hands and fingers that many people assumed meant he’d been in prison. It was stereotyping at its worst, and he’d experienced it too many times to count.

Yes, he was wearing a tuxedo, but it was obvious to everyone that he didn’t belong here. Not even close. These people wouldn’t give him the time of day if they saw him on the street or in a grocery store. In fact, they’d probably cross the road or leave the aisle to avoid being anywhere near him. It was definitely ironic.

But he said he’d do this—would represent The Refuge, hopefully bringing more attention to their business out in New Mexico—and he didn’t go back on his word.

All too soon, the man in front of him was sauntering off the stage to meet the woman who’d paid a ton of money for his time. And now it was Pipe’s turn.

Since it was way too late to get out of this farce, he stepped forward into the circle taped onto the floor of the stage, where they’d all been instructed to stand when it was their turn. Unlike the man before him, Pipe didn’t smile and preen as he was introduced. He stared into the audience, sweat beading at his temples as he imagined someone in the audience, an enemy he couldn’t see because of the bright lights in his face, pointing a rifle at his forehead.

“Next up is Bryson ‘Pipe’ Clark. He’s forty-two, and one of seven owners of the world-renowned The Refuge resort in New Mexico. I know you’ve all heard of the amazing facility that caters to those who suffer from PTSD. He and his fellow co-owners have been huge supporters of our military men and women. Mr. Clark was a member of the infamous Special Air Service in the United Kingdom, and he’s offering to escort whoever’s lucky enough to win the bid to The Inn at Little Washington. As I’m sure you all know, The Inn is the first and only restaurant in our area to have three Michelin stars, and an additional green star. The food is unparalleled and the atmosphere cozy and intimate, with space for only twelve guests at a time. Now, who wants to start the bidding?”

For a moment, the room was silent, and Pipe had the hope that maybe, just maybe, no one would bid on him at all and he could get out of this ridiculous situation unscathed. Unlike many in his situation, that would be the ideal. He wouldn’t feel humiliated or rejected if he got no bids…he’d be relieved.

But then a woman in the front row called out, “One thousand dollars.”

The bid wasn’t exactly impressive, considering the six men before him had gone for anywhere from two to seven thousand, but the chance of him leaving without having to take a stranger to dinner died along with her bid.

Trying to squint through the bright light shining in his eyes, Pipe couldn’t see the woman all that well…until she stepped closer to the stage. She wasn’t very tall, from what he could tell, and had long brown hair. She wore a simple dress that came to mid-thigh, and unlike the other women packed into the room, she wasn’t expertly coiffed or wearing a ton of flashy jewelry. She was just another woman in a little black dress. If not for the bid, he’d have thought she was trying not to stand out. He probably would’ve looked right past her if she hadn’t spoken up.

“A good start for this brave Brit. Who’s up for two thousand?” the announcer cajoled.

There were a couple other bids, but the first woman kept upping her offer by a hundred dollars every time anyone outbid her.

The more Pipe watched the woman in the black dress, the more intrigued he became. He wasn’t sure what it was about her that piqued his interest—maybe her understated appearance in a roomful of glitz; or her quiet, determined bids—but suddenly he was rooting for her. Wanted her to actually win so he could get to know one of the few women in the room who looked…normal.

And that kind of reaction wasn’t normal for him. He’d mostly given up on the opposite sex. Of having what a few of his friends had recently found. But he couldn’t deny that the woman in the black dress held his interest…and something deep inside him, something he’d long thought dead, sat up and took notice.

Pipe would’ve missed what happened next if he wasn’t staring at the woman in the black dress so intently. Another woman—a tall, gorgeous redhead, wearing four-inch heels and a forest-green dress molded to every inch of her curvy body—stepped up next to the brunette and jostled her so hard, she almost fell over.

“Ten thousand,” the redhead called out, sounding bored.

The announcer got very excited, since that was the highest bid of the night. Pipe kept his eye on the brunette and saw devastation flash across her face before she bit her lip and dropped her gaze. Her shoulders slumped just slightly…indicating that the bid was too high for her to top.

The redhead smirked at her, not even looking at the stage.

Pipe frowned in confusion. Why had she bid on him if she didn’t seem the least bit interested in what she was spending a hell of a lot of money on? He watched as the redhead leaned down and said something to the other woman, who frowned and abruptly turned, pushing her way through the crowd and walking away from the stage.

Then and only then did the redhead look up with a very satisfied grin on her face.

Disgust swam through Pipe’s veins. It seemed obvious she’d only bid on him so the other woman wouldn’t win. That meant the two women probably knew each other, had some sort of bad history.

He realized he was way too interested in the dynamic between the women than he should be. But he couldn’t help remembering the hopeful look in Brunette’s eyes when she’d briefly held the winning bid…and the devastation when she realized the amount had gone over her price range.

“Looks like the winner is Ms. Eleanor Vanlandingham. Congratulations! Have a wonderful time at dinner!”

The MC gestured for Pipe to walk off the stage to the left. He did so, but couldn’t get the woman in the black dress out of his mind, the way she didn’t fit in at this event. How he knew that, Pipe wasn’t sure. Mostly, he was judging her exterior—exactly what people did to him. But still, he was rarely wrong in his assessments of others. It was an important skill to have as a special forces soldier, and he’d always been the one his team relied on when they needed to determine if they could trust an informant or not.

He didn’t think he was wrong in his assessment of that woman either—yet, she had thousands of dollars to blow at an auction.

The fact that she was such a dichotomy intrigued Pipe. That she stood out to him, for the very reasons she didn’t stand out to others. And that spark of…something…flared again. It was a foreign feeling, but he wasn’t willing to ignore it.

He needed to know more about the woman in the black dress. She may not have won the date, but Pipe was going to track her down the second he got off this stage…and try to figure out why he was so drawn to her.

New York Times Bestselling Author

Deserving Cora

She needs to win him at the bachelor auction to save her friend...but didn't plan on falling in love.

Cora Rooney desperately needs to win the representative from The Refuge at the veterans’ charity auction…it’s literally a matter of life or death. Of course, as is so often the case for the ex-orphan, nothing goes according to plan, and Cora loses her bid. Yet, she still finds herself in a diner with Bryson Clark, telling him about her best friend, who she suspects has been kidnapped and held against her will. After exhausting all other options, Cora’s convinced Pipe and his former military friends are her last chance to rescue Lara.

Bryson “Pipe” Clark had no desire to participate in a bachelor auction. Hell, most women run in the other direction when they see him coming. Why in the world would anyone spend good money for a night in his company? Still, he lets himself be talked into supporting a good cause, and as it turns out, the auction is the start of a mystery he’s now determined to unravel. Mostly because of the woman he’s strangely attracted to from her very first bid.

Finding Lara Osler is the easy part. Determining if she fled DC with her boyfriend of her own free will—and breaking her out of his estate if she didn’t—isn’t quite so cut and dried. Along the way, Pipe finds there’s much more to Cora than meets the eye…kind of like him.

Falling in love wasn’t part of the plan, but Pipe’s not going to let anyone or anything get in his way of making Cora his own and rescuing her friend…not even a serial killer hiding in the wings, waiting to strike.