Exclusive Excerpt: Jen McLaughlin’s Dare To Run

What’s better than an exclusive excerpt? A super-advanced excerpt from an in-demand author, of course! We are super excited to share a piece from Jen McLaughlin’s upcoming romantic suspense Dare To Run, available in February 2016.

Gang member Lucas is out of prison and decides it’s time to go straight. No more crime, even if it means he must fight for permission to give up his position as one of the boss’s top men. Falling in love isn’t in his plans either. That is, of course, before he rescues bar owner Heidi from a violent attack just outside of her bar …

 “F***.” He lowered the gun and stuck it back into the holster before dragging his hand through his hair. If I wasn’t mistaken, it trembled ever so slightly. “Don’t ever, ever, walk in front of me again when I have my gun out. Ever.”

I nodded quickly, my hands still held out to my sides. That’s something I already knew, obviously. You never messed with a guy when he was intent on murdering someone, especially when that guy was as dangerous as Lucas freaking Donahue. But when he acted all protective and reluctantly heroic, it was hard to remember who he was. And what he did. Stupid, stupid, girl.

He cursed under his breath again and reached out for me. Before I could flinch or react in any way, he pulled me into his arms and hugged me, cradling the back of my head tenderly. His hold, while possessive, was somehow comforting, too. “I’m sorry. After last night…the last thing you need is another asshole getting in your face.”

I closed my eyes, letting myself enjoy the comfort for a second, but then I pushed at his chest and pulled away. He let me. “I’m fine. It’s fine. I’m stronger than you think.”

“I never doubted that,” he said, his tone even. “But still, I’m sorry. I’d never intentionally hurt you. Not like that.”

I nodded once, swallowing hard. Not like that. What, exactly, was that supposed  to mean? I wanted to ask but didn’t. “I know.”

“Okay. Good.” He glanced around at the empty tables and rubbed his jaw, which was definitely harder than usual. “I’ll help you lock up, and then we’ll go back to my place.”

Shaking my head, I crossed the room and grabbed the full beers the gang members had abandoned. “I can do it on my own. You don’t have to help.”

“Yeah.” After straightening a chair, he headed across the room, chugged the last of his whiskey, and let out a long breath. “I do.”

When he turned back to me again, that smooth, easy grin of his was back in place once more. I had a feeling he used it as a mask, when he didn’t want his feelings to be known. So I was sure he always wore it, because he was a guy, and when did they ever show their true feelings? I nodded once. “Okay. Thanks.”

He shrugged, as if he didn’t give a damn whether I thanked him or not. I had a feeling it wasn’t an act at all. He really didn’t give a damn. “Do you need to mop?”

I nodded again. “Yeah.”

“I’ll do it.” He grabbed the beers out of my hands and headed for the bar. “Where do you keep it?”

“Kitchen, in the left corner.” I set a chair—the same one he’d straightened—on top of the table before grabbing a second one. “You can set your glass in the sink in the back. I’ll have the dishwasher wash it tomorrow. The beers can go in there, too.”

He went into the kitchen without speaking, and we finished closing up in companionable silence. Having an extra pair of hands was a pretty big help, so it took me less than half the time it usually did to get the bar shut down and ready for opening. It was Sunday night, so it was the beginning of my “weekend.” The bar would reopen on Wednesday.

After I did one more walk-through, making sure I hadn’t missed anything, I shut the lights off. Lucas held the door open for me. I walked past him, shoving my hands in my pockets and shivering even before I was outside. It was bitterly cold, and these shorts did absolutely nothing for my legs. Lucas had gone back to my place with me earlier today, so I had clothes at his place. Where I was currently living.

Which brought to mind…

“How long are we supposed to be, you know, together?” I asked, hunching into myself to ward off the chill.

He shut the door, checked the lock, and turned to me. “Are we already at that point in our fake relationship that we need to talk about our fake future?”

“It’s not all that fake when it involves me living in your apartment and us making out in public to prove a point to a bunch of assholes I couldn’t care less about.” I shivered again, and my teeth chattered. “So, yeah, we’re at that point.”

“You’ll live with me until a sufficient amount of time has passed where we can safely break up, or until I eliminate the threat.” He shrugged his brown leather jacket off and draped it over my shoulders, tugging it closed while he looked down at me. “Might be days, might be weeks. No way of knowing.”

Eliminate the threat? Aka…kill them all. “But—”

“Easy, now. You might hurt my feelings.” He gripped the jacket tighter, but his crooked smile contradicted his body language. “Is it so hard to live with me, darlin’?”

He looked so devilishly charming, standing in the moonlight, putting his jacket on me like a gentleman, and looking at me as if I mattered to him. We both knew I didn’t. He’d felt sorry for me, he’d saved me, and now he was stuck with me.

I bet he was thrilled about that.

“No. Of course not. Your bed is very comfortable.” I licked my lips. Images of us together, naked, in that bed hit me hard. “You helped me, and it was nice of you. I appreciate it, but—”

He frowned at me, the heat of his body keeping me warm as the chilly winter wind made itself known. Winter refused to loosen its firm control of the climate, and I was starting to think it never would.  “I told you, I’m not fucking ‘nice.’ Don’t call me that. I’m the villain in a fairytale, not the hero.”

The urge to roll my eyes at his self-deprecation was strong, but I managed to contain myself. Barely. “Oh, believe me, I know that. I also know that you helped me, and I don’t want to keep taking your bed and complicating your life. Maybe I could still sleep at my place and we could be together, but not together. You know?”

He threw his arm over my shoulders, and steered me toward his shop. Days-old snow and ice that refused to go away crunched beneath my feet, but I wasn’t worried about falling. “No way. First of all, I can’t guarantee your safety if you’re not with me. Second, it’s far too late for that. They’ve seen you go home with me once, and they would suspect something if it’s not a regular thing. My boss was understanding of my little adventure last night, to a point, but he made it very clear that he doesn’t want a war. If we give the Bitter Hill guys an opening, and they take it, I can’t retaliate. I can’t risk pissing Tate, or them, off any more than I already have. If I do, I can kiss my life goodbye—and I don’t even wanna think about what they’ll do to you.”

“But—”

No.”

I would have been tempted to break free of his hold if it wasn’t so damn cold out here. Thank God he lived across the street. I’d let him continue being my personal heating pad, but I’d make my feelings clear. “I’m not yours to boss around, Lucky. I’ve told you, I don’t blindly take orders from anyone, not even you.”

Something crashed in the alley behind us as he opened the door and pushed me inside gently. “Yeah, you do. In my world, when your man gives you orders, you damn well listen.” He raised a hand when I opened my mouth. “And, yes, I know I’m not really your man. And yes, I know it’s old-fashioned and fucked-up. But it is what it is, and it’s the life I lead, for better or for worse. If you’re going to be my woman, real or fake, it’s how it’s gotta be. End of story.”

“The hell it does. I—”

“Enough.” He slammed the door shut behind us and boxed me against the wall, leaning down so his face was level with mine. “When we’re within these walls, you wanna bitch me out, hit me, whatever, about the rules for out there? Fine. Go for it. But when we’re outside of this apartment, and your safety and our lives are at stake? You will listen to every damn word I say. There are no other options.”

I refused to lower my head or back down. What he said made sense, but that didn’t mean I had to like it. “You’re an asshole. We’re in private, so I can say it.”

“Yeah, you can.” His lips twitched ever so slightly. “And I agree. I am an asshole.”

“And an idiot.”

The twitch stopped. “That I don’t agree with, except for in one aspect, but you’re entitled to your opinion.”

“What’s that one aspect?”

“Not telling.” He pressed his body—oh my God, that body—against mine, grinning down at me. “It’s not smart to announce your weaknesses to just anyone.”

“I’m not just anyone,” I said breathlessly. I could feel things, pressed up against my things, and it made my stomach clench tight. “I’m your fake girlfriend.”

“Exactly my point.”

Grinning, he pushed off the wall and walked up the stairs. I followed him because, hey, the view was nice. Lucas Donahue had a hell of an ass. Also, I had nowhere else to go. Lucas swooping in like a modern-day Galahad—and, yes, I know, he was a very bad man, grrr, argh—it changed everything. Thanks to Bitter Hill’s guys, I was no longer safe out there on my own. So I needed to stay until I was.

And then he’d walk away, and I’d probably never see him again.

Something told me once Lucas Donahue finished with you, he didn’t come back to check in and see how you were doing afterward. Once you were done…

You were done forever.

He opened his apartment door, motioning me inside. I walked past him, keeping my eyes straight ahead, and flipped the switch on. It looked much the same as it had when we’d left this afternoon, but he’d folded the blanket he’d used last night on top of the couch, and cleaned up the mess I’d made patching him up. My bags still sat by the bedroom door, untouched, next to a black duffel bag of his that had been there last night, too. I stared at them, my heart ridiculously picking up speed when I thought about the next few days I’d be spending here. All day. Alone with him. Turning to face him, I held his jacket closed. It was cozy up here, but I wasn’t ready to take it off yet.

It was warm and soft and it smelled like him. Oh God…

I was so screwed. This wasn’t supposed to be happening. I wasn’t supposed to want to smell him, for God’s sake. Yeah, he was hot. Yeah, he’d kissed me a few times. But neither of those kisses had been real. He showed about as much interest in seeing me naked as he’d show a turnip. Maybe less.

Shrugging his jacket off, I held it out to him. “Here. Thanks.”

“Sure thing.” He took it from me and flung it over the chair carelessly. His gaze never left my face. “You know, here in Boston, we have this thing called winter. During the winter and most of the spring, it’s cold as fuck outside. And it snows. So, generally, in the spring and winter, people wear these things called pants. They’re like what you’re wearing now, only they go all the way down your legs—like mine do. And while your shorts make you look hot, pants will actually keep you warm.”

I placed my hands on my hips and cocked my head, holding back the smile that wanted to escape at his sarcasm. I’d always loved a sharp wit on a man, and, damn, he had one. It wasn’t fair. “Ooooh. Is that what those are for?”

“Indeed,” he said dryly. “I suggest you try them.”

“I did. The tips were half what I get when I’m wearing shorts.” Sitting down on the couch, I crossed my legs and tipped my head back so I could look at him. His gaze was on my legs for a split second before it snapped back to mine. “Men are pigs. They pay more when they can see my legs.”

He rounded the couch. “And if they paid more because they saw your ass, would you come to work naked?”

“No. That’s a whole different establishment.”

Sitting beside me, he trailed his finger up my bare thigh, smiling when goose bumps followed his touch. “Yeah, it is.”

“One you’ve probably frequented.”

He shrugged. “For work, sure. But I generally don’t spend my free time there. I’d rather get a lap dance for free. And when it’s over, I can finish the job right here, on my couch. Or against the wall.”

My pulse quickened. If that had been an invitation, my instinctual reply would’ve been a hell yes. A really loud hell yes. “Is that a request?”

“Like I told that asshole in the bar, if you have to ask…” His green eyes sparkled, and he took his hand off my leg. I missed it instantly. “Want a drink?”

“God yes.” I stood up. “I mean…I’ll get it myself, if you tell me where it is.”

“Nah, I’ll get it for you for once.” He stood, too, and trailed the back of his knuckles over my cheek. I bit down on my tongue. “Wine or whiskey?”

“Wine.”

     He ran his finger over my lower lip gently. “How’s the mouth feeling?”

“It’s fine. Barely hurts.” My throat felt swollen and aching. It wasn’t the only part of me that was aching, thank you very much. I tried to ignore that, though, considering what I was about to say. “Look, if I’m staying here for a while…you can’t sleep on the couch every night. You should sleep in your bed.”

He gave me his back and pulled down a wineglass and a tumbler. “I might not be a white hat, but I refuse to let you sleep on the couch while I take the bed. My ma might have loved me, but she’d rise from her grave to kill me if I did that. No lie.”

“You don’t have to sleep on the couch.” I tucked my hair behind my ear. “It’s a king-size bed, and we’re both adults. We could sleep in it together.”

He froze, his hand tight on his glass, and backed up a step. Actually backed away from me as if I’d threatened to kill him or something. “You want to sleep in my bed with me?”

The way he said it, half shock, half terror, struck me as odd. “Not like that. I already told you that you weren’t my type.” I dropped my hand to the counter and tapped my fingers. “But it makes sense, really, for both of us to use it, if we’re stuck with each other for a while.”

He pulled the whiskey down, poured himself a healthy dose, and finished it all with one swallow. Then he poured himself some more and picked up the wine. He narrowed his eyes and frowned, and I couldn’t help but feel as if he was watching me as if I’d suggested he should kick himself in the nuts, rather than suggest a logical solution to our current sleeping arrangements. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Why not? Do you snore?”

He poured the wine, his face dead serious for once. His skin took on a little bit of a green hue, as if his mere thoughts literally sickened him. “No fucking clue.”

“Then why—?” I cocked my head to get a better look at his eyes. “Wait. Have you never slept with anyone before?”

He didn’t look at me, and, judging from his silence, he didn’t intend to answer. Instead, he handed my glass over and picked up his own drink. Then he stared me down. He did that a lot. Spinning the amber liquid in his tumbled into a little whirlpool, he leaned back. “Doesn’t a cellmate count?”

I choked on my wine. Once I could breathe again, I gasped in air. “Y-You were in jail?”

“Why are you surprised?” he asked dryly, stopping the whirlpool. “Look at my lifestyle. Of course I was in jail. Just got out, actually. Still want me in your bed?”

For once in my life, I was speechless.

I mean, I knew what he did for a living, and I knew he didn’t live on the right side of the law. But still…jail? I tried to picture him in one of those prison jumpsuits instead of jeans and a blue shirt, and failed. “Like I said, it’s just a platonic sharing of the same bed. I promise not to kick you in the middle of the night. Or slit your throat.”

His grip tightened ever so slightly on the glass, and he shook his head once. “It’s not smart to be around people when you’re at your weakest. I don’t open myself up to that shit. That’s a death wish in my world, sweetheart.”

“Yeah, well, not in mine.” I rested a hand on his hard biceps. “It’ll be fine. I’ll keep to my side of the bed, and you can keep to yours. We can even put pillows between us, if you want.”

“I don’t want anything between us,” he said, a hint of a smirk coming into play. “But you’re not ready for that yet.”

Oh, I would beg to differ. My body was perfectly ready for that. I just wasn’t going to give it what it wanted. It would be too risky. Crazy. Insane.

And oh so stupid.

“I’m not interested in that at all, and time won’t change my mind.” I leaned close and trailed my fingers over his jawline, much like he had done to my cheek earlier. His eyes narrowed, and I had the distinct impression that he was like a tiger, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation on my part. “Like I said a million times: Not. My. Type.”

He caught my wrist, his grip firm but gentle. “Give me one minute of your time, and I can show you just how not your type I am, sweetheart.”

When he said that with his Boston accent, the round sound catching on that ar syllable, it made my heart skip a beat or three. I tossed back the rest of my wine before I smiled up at him, batting my lashes. “Oh, honey, you’d need to do a lot more than that to impress a girl like me.”

“Oh, honey, I highly doubt that. Ask me to do it. Ask me to touch you.” He stepped closer, setting down his glass and taking mine out of my hand, too. “You won’t regret it.”

“Nope.” I shivered and pressed my legs together to try to assuage the ache between them. It didn’t help. “Not happening.”

“Squeezing those hot little thighs together won’t help you, sweetheart. Only I can make you feel better. Only I can take that ache away…and all you have to do is ask.” With his voice lowered, he dropped his head down so his mouth was pressed to my ear. “Ask me, darlin’. I dare you.”

Dare To Run will be available in print and digitally on February 2, 2016. You can preorder a copy here: Amazon | BN | Kobo | iBooks | IndieBound. And then while you wait, you can satisfy your needs with more steamy reads on our Everything Romance page.

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