Book 5 in the Ultimate Series
Book 5 in the Ultimate Series
She’s turned him down every time.
But this fighter is determined to win her over.
Bray Barlow is a simple guy. A light heavyweight MMA fighter, he trains, keeps his weight for fights and is known to blow off steam with willing women—especially when he’s frustrated. He’s frustrated a lot lately because deep down, he knows Karen is the one for him. But every time he asks out the mysterious dark-haired woman with the bluest eyes, she politely declines. Every. Single. Time.
For Karen Hall, Bray is extra. The brown-eyed and very ripped MMA fighter is extra hot, extra nice, extra tempting—and totally off-limits. Karen moved here and changed her name to disappear. She’s worked hard keep her distance from people, especially from Bray. When a car runs her off the road, she knows it’s no accident and that her past has finally found her. The instinct is to run, but her heart is telling her to take a chance and turn to the one person who can help her. Bray.
A note from Lori: Bray was a secondary character in Fighting Dirty, book 4 the Ultimate series, and also appears in a group of friends in Marcus, a benefit book in the Love Undercover series.
Bray is one of Lori’s benefit books—all advance & royalties (and any direct-from-Lori sales) go to the local, no-kill animal shelter, the Animal Adoption Foundation.
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is Book 5 in the Ultimate Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 0.5: Hard Knocks
- Book 1: No Limits
- Book 2: Holding Strong
- Book 3: Tough Love
- Book 4: Fighting Dirty
- Book 5: Bray
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She could hear herself breathing, quickened breaths fueled by fear, adrenaline, and determination. Things had happened faster than she’d expected, and she wasn’t yet fully prepared. Added to that, occasional booms of thunder accompanied the light rain, meaning it would soon be storming. What to do?
When the headlights appeared on the long stretch of dark road, her heart lodged somewhere near her windpipe and she had to fight the urge to run. To where? That was the problem. At this point, she didn’t have anywhere to go.
Besides, running hadn’t helped her. Now she needed to stay and fight.
Karen Hall looked all around her, but on this annoying stretch of road—a road she shouldn’t have been on—there’d been very little traffic, and even fewer houses.
To bolster her flagging courage, she reached into her purse and closed her hand around the heavy-duty stun gun flashlight. As the only weapon she had, it would have to do.
The vehicle slowed, her heart raced against her ribs…and then she recognized it. A red Chevy Silverado. Exhaling, her knees going weak, Karen lifted a hand, and thank God, the truck stopped.
Already climbing out on the driver’s side, Knox Nial gaped at her. “Karen? Jesus, are you all right?”
An odd trembling set in. “Yes.”
Ford Caruso left the passenger side of the truck and approached her with a cautious sort of calm. “Hon, what happened?”
These two men…it was almost funny how they looked at her.
“Wreck,” she managed to say, aware of rain trickling down her back and off the tip of her nose.
“You’re hurt.” Not so cautious, Knox reached her in two long strides, his brawny arm going around her.
The support was most welcome as her legs turned rubbery. So much for my courage.
Ford said, “We saw your car off the road. You wrecked?”
Someone else had wrecked her—but she wouldn’t go into that right now, and they absolutely could not stand here, easy targets. Leaning into Knox, she shared the barest part of her plan. “Could you take me to Bray?”
The two men shared a look.
Softly, Ford suggested, “How about the hospital first?”
Shaking her head, she reached out and clutched at his shirt. It was now or never. “Only Bray.”
“Okay, okay.” Taking charge, Knox said to Ford, “Call him.” Then in the next instant, he scooped her up into his arms.
Oh. Huh. She hadn’t expected that, but Knox didn’t seem strained under her weight. “We have to go now,” she urged. With them here, she didn’t think more would happen, but she wouldn’t chance it. “Do you think you could hurry?”
That got the men moving and seconds later she found herself deposited onto Ford’s lap while he thumbed in a number on his phone. Knox got behind the wheel, closed his door, fastened his seat belt, and immediately drove forward.
By the second, Karen felt less vulnerable, yet not entirely safe. Held secure against Ford, some of the chill left her.
Knox kept one hand on her shoulder as if to reassure her.
These men weren’t really her friends. They were friendly by association since she worked for Lucy, and Lucy had married Marcus. The four guys—Bray, Marcus, Ford, and Knox—were often together, and whenever possible, Lucy was included.
They’d tried to include her, too. Numerous times. Unfortunately, close associations were a problem for her. People got curious, sometimes asking questions she couldn’t answer. And always, she’d known the risk would eventually catch up to her again.
She’d figured it was better to be the only one in danger.
Well, that ship had sailed, obviously. Nothing in her plan had including involving them, but knowing how close they were with Bray, she should have known they’d get drawn in. Maybe if she’d had more time to sort it out…
“He’s not answering,” Ford said with regret.
Grim, Knox replied, “Keeping trying.”
Karen could imagine why Bray would ignore a call. “He’s probably with a date.”
“Usually is,” Ford said, then flinched when Knox shoved him, which also jostled Karen.
Ford shot back, “Did you forget I’m holding a battered woman?”
“I’m not battered,” Karen protested. Likely bruised, definitely shook up, and pretty darned lost, but battered?
Knox blew out a breath, peeked at her, and then gently touched one finger to her forehead. “A little battered.”
Lifting a shaky hand, Karen felt a tender swollen spot on the side of her forehead. Ouch. Well now that she knew about it, it hurt. “I think my head hit the steering wheel.”
“Airbags didn’t deploy?” Ford asked.
“No, thank goodness. It…” It what? “Wasn’t that bad.” Only bad enough to jolt her, to force her off the wet road so that her driver’s door smashed against the winding road sign.
The truly horrifying part though was seeing the other car idling nearby, not driving off, not offering help.
Admittedly, her imagination had been in hyperdrive since the awful phone call, but she’d felt the driver watching her. Waiting for her reaction?
Swirling panic simmered in her stomach, but she refused to be sick.
Covering her mouth, she struggled for a breath, another and another, to tamp down the acid burning her throat.
No more. Never again.
“Hey.” Ford’s long arms drew her closer, and oddly enough, he rocked her a bit. “You’re okay now.”
“Yes, I am.” If she said it enough, she’d start to believe it. “Thank you.” Angling her face toward his chest so he couldn’t see her helped her to prioritize. “Bray?”
Attempting to soothe her, Ford said, “I’ll try him again.”
Knox gave her shoulder another squeeze.
Despite how she’d never reciprocated their attempts at friendship, they were such wonderful guys. Would Bray understand? Would he be willing to help?
If he didn’t, she’d have to figure out a way to leave tonight. At least long enough to recoup. To make a better plan.
It felt so insurmountable because she had no idea where to go. She’d started over before, and she could do it again. Only this time, she really didn’t want to.
This time, she wanted…Bray.
* * *
When his phone rang the first time, Bray ignored it. Sprawled on his back, a very sexy woman dozing beside him, he contemplated life. Two days ago, he’d again asked Karen out on a date. As always, she’d rejected him.
Hell, he’d lost count of the number of times she’d turned him down.
She was never mean about it, and in fact, he could have sworn regret reflected in her pretty blue eyes. It burned his ass that, for whatever reason, she didn’t want his attention—but then, she didn’t want anyone’s attention.
He was still surprised that she’d attended Lucy’s wedding a few months ago. It seemed to be the sum total of her socializing effort. Other than that, he saw her only at the custom print shop where she worked with Lucy—and where he showed up far too often. From what he could tell, Karen was never late, was cordial to customers, then she went home. Always alone.
So it wasn’t just him she rejected. Pretty much everyone got the same from her.
Not that he’d snooped into her life or anything. It wasn’t even necessary. He was close to Lucy, and she’d let it drop more than a few times that she worried about Karen because the woman was so quietly guarded, especially against forming closer friendships.
Maybe that was why Bray couldn’t get her out of his head. Even when he was with other women, as he was tonight. Stupid, and a waste of time. Sure, sex took the edge off, but it wasn’t what he really wanted.
Sex was fine, but damn it, he wanted sex with Karen. Actually, he just plain wanted her, period. For sex, yes. Sign him up. But everything else, too. Conversation and companionship, movies and dinners, to hold while he slept… Damn, he sounded like a sap.
When the woman beside him stirred, he turned toward her and whispered, “Time to go, sweetheart.”
With a small groan, she opened one eye and stared at him. “Are you sure you have to be up early tomorrow?”
“Judy,” he chastised. “We discussed this, right?” He’d made it clear from the get-go that he had only a few hours, and there’d be no overnighting, not with his schedule. Okay, sure, he’d fudged a little on the schedule. He didn’t have to be at the rec center at the butt crack of dawn, but he preferred it, just as he preferred to avoid disruptions to his routine.
“Right,” she said, while stretching luxuriously, putting a very sweet body on display.
He enjoyed the show, but not enough to change his mind.
“Do I at least warrant a repeat?” she asked.
“Anything is possible.” At the risk of encouraging her, he pressed a soft kiss to her mouth. “I swear, honey, you were just what the doctor ordered.”
“I made you feel better?”
“I wasn’t feeling bad.” Just annoyed. Distracted. Disappointed.
At loose ends.
“So many bruises, though.” Featherlight, she touched one on his cheekbone.
“I won the fight, so I don’t mind a few bruises.” They came with the territory. Everyone in MMA got banged up a little, sometimes more so in practice than in an actual competition.
“I know, Bray. I was there, probably shouting the loudest for you.”
Right, that’s where he’d met her, at the after-party. That was two days ago, and she’d made her interest clear.
Karen, on the other hand, had made her disinterest equally clear.
Unfortunately, none of that seemed to matter. He gave her a light swat on her tush, and said, “Let’s go.”
Her smile showed forgiveness even though he was running her off, and within a few minutes, Bray had her at the door. “Want me to walk you out? I can hold your umbrella when you get in the car.”
“Such a gentleman,” she teased. “I’m fine, though. I won’t melt.”
Suited him. “Then I’ll watch from my balcony until you drive away. Get home safe.”
“Call me again,” she insisted. “I’ll make it worth your while.”
Giving no promises, Bray watched as she went down the single flight of stairs, opened her umbrella at the door, and darted out into the night. He stepped back inside and locked his door, then went to the balcony where he could just see her hustling through the parking lot to her car. Her headlights came on, and seconds later she drove away.
With that settled, he grabbed a quick shower and, wearing only boxers, was heading to the kitchen when he got sidetracked by another call. Detouring to the bedroom where he’d left his cell phone, he saw it was the second call from Ford. He answered with, “Hey. What’s up?”
“′Bout damn time.”
Oddly enough, Ford sounded frazzled. “What?” Scowling now, Bray sat on the side of the rumpled bed. “What’s wrong?”
“So…you’re home, right?”
“Um… I don’t suppose you’re alone?”
Bray locked his jaw. “As of a few seconds ago. Why?”
Apparently, that was the answer Ford wanted, because he launched into speech. “We’ll be there in another five minutes. She’s okay, but Karen was in a wreck?”
Everything in Bray, his heart, his brain, his muscles, cramped as he shot to his feet. “You asking me or telling me?”
“It’s a little confusing, except that she wants you.”
The words took him back a step, and sent a rush of alarm stabbing into him. “Is she hurt?” Taking long strides, Bray stalked to his dresser, jerked open a drawer and found a T-shirt. “Should she be at the hospital?”
“I suggested it, but she only wants you.”
Ford had suggested it… “How bad is she hurt?”
“Dude, I told you she’s okay. A knock to the head, a little shook up, that’s all.”
Pausing at that info, Bray’s thoughts scrambled. “Tell me what happened, all of it, fast.”
Words rushing together, Ford explained how he and Knox had just wrapped up bowling and were heading home, but on a more isolated stretch of road they saw what looked like Karen’s car, and then they found Karen. Walking alone in the rain. A bump on her head, shaking all over. “We’re in Knox’s truck, so she’s on my lap, with him driving. Wait in your apartment and we’ll come directly to you.”
Damn. None of that sounded good. “I’ll watch for you, then meet you in the parking lot.” If she needed medical help, he’d insist that she let him take her.
“That’s not what she wants.”
No, supposedly she wanted him. Since when? Running a hand over his face, Bray tried to sort it out, but nothing made sense. “You’re sure she’s not badly hurt?”
“Hang on.” Bray heard him ask her, heard her soft but insistent reply, then Ford was back. “She said she’ll explain everything once she’s with you, but she did request that you keep an eye out for us and that you…be careful.”
Shit. Given his background, as well as the work he’d done with underprivileged, sometimes neglected and abused kids, Bray’s instincts picked up on things others might miss. Puzzle pieces started to fit together. Things he’d wondered about started to make sense.
He had a feeling Karen Hall was looking for a safe haven.
Pretty sure she had good instincts too, because she’d chosen him.
She might not consider him dating material, but at least she recognized that he could protect her.
Now he just had to figure out the threat.
“All right. Tell her not to worry, that I’m here.” Eyes narrowed, protectiveness primed, Bray gave a single nod. “I’ll be waiting.”