No Holding Back
Book 1 in the McKenzies of Ridge Trail Series
No Holding Back
Book 1 in the McKenzies of Ridge Trail Series
Not needing him won’t stop her from wanting him…
Trucker Sterling (Star) Parson is no stranger to the challenges a woman faces, both in her industry and in life. But she can take care of herself. She’s never needed—or wanted—a man around…until she meets Cade McKenzie. The take-charge bar owner sets off all kinds of alarm bells for Sterling, but he also sets her heart racing.
Cade’s lived in Ridge Trail long enough to know trouble when he sees it, and the moment Sterling—Star—walks into his bar, he knows trouble’s come to call. Secrets run deep in the small town and Cade can tell Star’s got as many as he does, leaving him itching to uncover every last one. But finding common ground will mean trusting one another, further feeding an intense attraction that’s growing impossible to resist.
Reviews of No Holding Back
Hang on for this completely unexpected hard-hitting ride!
— Fresh Fiction
A fast-paced romantic suspense… No Holding Back is the first book in a new series by Lori Foster and it blew my socks off!
A riveting suspense with detailed, ardent love scenes. A marvelous start for the trilogy, a pleasing and satisfying romantic suspense story.
No Holding Back
is Book 1 in the McKenzies of Ridge Trail Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Read An Excerpt
No Holding Back
Sterling jerked awake with a start, her heart racing and her throat aching with the need to scream.
She didn’t. She never did—no matter what. Silence kept her safer than a scream ever could.
In just seconds, she absorbed the low light of the bar, the ancient rock and roll playing on the jukebox, the clamor of a few dozen voices talking low to one another.
God. She swallowed heavily, looking around at the familiar sights. Her gaze landed on the bartender.
He watched her. Always.
Nothing got by that man.
He could pretend to be an average guy, he could wear the trappings of a simple bar owner, but she knew better. He hid something, maybe something as monumental as her own secrets, but she wouldn’t ask. The Tipsy Wolverine bar was her haven from the road. She could sleep in her truck, and sometimes did, but she didn’t truly rest.
Here, in the little Podunk bar in the small mountain town of Ridge Trail, Colorado, she knew no one would bother her.
Because of him.
Again her eyes sought him out. She guessed him at six feet five. Really big, but solid head to toes. Posture erect. Awareness keen. He wore his glossy dark hair neatly trimmed, precisely styled…but it was those piercing blue eyes that really caught and held her attention.
His gaze had veered away from her, but that didn’t make him unaware. Sterling pegged him as ex-military, or maybe something deadlier. He was too damn physically fit to be anyone ordinary.
Her nostrils flared a little as she looked him over. In the seedy area of town where locals slumped in their seats and laughed too loudly, he was always…mannered. Contained. Professional but not in the way of a suited businessman.
More like a guy who knew he could handle himself in any situation. A guy who easily kicked ass, took names and did so without a scratch. Those thick shoulders… Studying his body left a funny warmth in Sterling’s stomach, sending her interested gaze to his pronounced biceps, watching the fluid bunch and flex of them with the smallest movement. His pullover shirt fit his wide chest perfectly, showing sculpted pecs and, letting her attention drift downward, a flat, firm middle.
Lord, the man was put together fine. Add in a lean jaw, a strong but straight nose, and those cool blue eyes fringed by dark lashes, and she assumed he broke hearts on a daily basis.
Not her heart. She wasn’t susceptible to that kind of stuff. She could take in the exceptional view and stay detached. She could.
Only…this time she had to really concentrate to make it true.
His gaze locked to hers, catching her perusal, and his firm lips quirked in a small “you’re not immune” smile.
It made her mouth go dry.
He couldn’t know that, could he? Yet he looked as if he’d just read her every admiring thought.
Feeling oddly exposed, she held up her glass, realized it was still full and hastily mouthed, “Coffee?”
With a nod, he moved away to a service counter behind the bar. Less than half a minute later, he strode over in his casual yet confident way with a steaming cup.
He knew how she took it, with one sugar and a splash of creamer. He knew because he missed nothing. Ever.
Setting it before her, he asked, “Done with this?” indicating the shot she’d ordered—and hadn’t touched.
Usually, to justify her lengthy naps, she bought a couple of drinks. This time, exhausted to the bone, she hadn’t lasted long enough.
“Thanks.” Sterling sipped her coffee.
That he didn’t move away set her heart tripping. Defiant, she glanced up and caught a slight frown carved from what appeared to be concern. She was good at reading people—except for him. Most of the time she didn’t know what he was thinking, and she didn’t like that.
Suspicion prickled. “What?”
Heavy lashes lowering, he thought a moment before meeting her gaze again. “I’m worried that anything I say might put you off.”
Sterling stiffened with accusation. “What do you have to say?”
“Such a lethal tone,” he teased—as if they knew each other well. “You don’t have to order drinks just to be in here. You want a place to kick up your feet—”
Abruptly, she dropped her feet from the seat of the chair across from her. She unconsciously braced herself—to act, to react, to protect herself if necessary.
“Or to rest without being disturbed,” he continued, ignoring her tension. “You’re always welcome.” As if he knew her innate worry, as if he could see her automatic response to his nearness, he took a step back. “No questions asked, and no drink order necessary.”
Before she could come up with a reply, he walked away.
For twenty minutes, Sterling remained, but he didn’t look at her again.
Not until she walked out. He watched her then. Hell yeah, he did. She felt his gaze burning over her like a physical touch. Like interest. It left her with heightened awareness.
Damn, damn, damn.
* * *
Cade wanted to kick his own ass.
She’d been coming into the bar for months now. She hadn’t yet given her name, but he knew it all the same. He made a point of knowing everyone in the bar, whether they were important to his operation or not.
Sterling Parson. Star for short.
Privately, he called her Trouble.
At a few inches shy of six feet, her body toned, she walked with a self-possessed air that he recognized as more attitude than ability. She wore that swagger like a warning that all but shouted Back off.
Her long wavy brown hair was usually in a ponytail, occasionally in a braid and sometimes stuffed under a trucker’s cap.
Despite the loose shirts she wore with straight-legged jeans and mean lace-up black boots in an effort to disguise her body, she’d be hard to miss. For sure no one in his bar had missed her.
The woman was unique in so many ways. Bold but somehow vulnerable. Composed, yet temperate. Beautiful…but only to a discerning eye, because she did all she could to blend in.
The big rig she drove had SP Trucking emblazoned on the side, yet she was far from the usual trucker they got as customers.
The day she’d first walked in, heads had swiveled, eyes had widened and interest had perked—but after Cade swept his gaze around the room, everyone had gotten the message.
The lady was off-limits.
Cade hadn’t bothered to explain to anyone. He never did…except occasionally to family. Then only when pressed.
From the moment he’d first spotted Sterling, he’d sensed the emotional wounds she hid, knew she had secrets galore and understood she needed a place to rest.
She needed him.
Star didn’t know that yet, but no problem. In his bar, in this shit neighborhood, he’d look out for her anyway—same as he did for anyone in need.
Moving to the window, he watched her leave. Her long stride carried her across the well-lit gravel lot, not in haste but with an excess of energy. He couldn’t imagine her meandering. The woman knew one speed: full steam ahead.
After unlocking the door, she climbed into her rig with practiced ease. Head tipped back, she rested a moment before squaring her shoulders and firing the engine. She idled for a bit, maybe checking her gauges, then eased off the clutch and smoothly rolled out to the road. Cade watched until he couldn’t see her taillights anymore.
Where she’d go, he didn’t yet know—but he wanted to. He wanted to introduce himself, ask questions, maybe offer assistance.
Her preferences on that were obvious.
Except that tonight she’d watched him a little more.
Actually, she often noticed him, in a cautious, distrustful way. And she always came back.
Sometimes she’d sleep for an hour, sometimes longer. Tonight, she’d dozed for two hours before jerking awake in alarm.
A bad dream?
Or a bad memory?
If she kept to her usual pattern, she’d be back tomorrow night on her return trip. Maybe, just maybe, he’d find a chink in her armor. He glanced at the little table she always chose.
Tomorrow, he’d offer her something different.
After too much driving, sitting through endless traffic in Colorado’s summer heat and going without enough rest, Sterling returned to the bar. Aching from her eyebrows to her toes, it was a relief to pull in to the lot a littler earlier than usual.
She’d thought about finding another place to rest. Bars and truck stops riddled this side of the Rockies. Before discovering the Tipsy Wolverine, she’d often crashed in a different location each time, but here… For some reason she was mostly comfortable here. Mostly.
It was the bartender, she knew. He didn’t say much, didn’t thump his chest like an ape—because he didn’t have to. His commanding presence let everyone know that he was the one in charge.
She knew it. In that bar, no one could hurt her because he wouldn’t let them.
Sterling shook her head. It was a crazy conclusion, but she trusted her instincts. So far, they’d served her well.
Grabbing her discarded jacket, she climbed out of the truck. Higher in the mountains, the chill could seep into her bones, but here in the valley, it had to be in the mid-nineties. The temperature in Colorado was all about elevation. The higher you went, the colder it got. She’d learned that her button-up shirt would be fine in the valley, but if the road climbed—and it sometimes did—she needed warmer clothes. The air-conditioning in the bar often chilled her, too, especially when she napped.
Her long sloppy ponytail bounced and her heavy boots crunched on gravel when she strode across the lot. Some strange sensation sizzled inside her.
She refused to acknowledge it as anticipation.
The minute she walked through the door, she knew something was different. Two men, regulars that she recognized, sat at her customary table. That hadn’t happened since her third visit months ago. The table was usually saved for her. Without pausing, she continued into the dim room, giving a casual glance around.
No, it wasn’t extra crowded.
Yes, there were other tables available.
So why, then…
The bartender stepped in front of her, his nearly six and a half feet of muscle drawing her to a sudden stop. “Could I have a word?”
Almost plowing into him sent her heart shooting into her throat. She was tall enough that few men made her feel small, but this one towered over her.
Damn it, she hadn’t even noticed him approach before he was just…there, standing too close, crowding her with his size and strength. In a nanosecond, her body jolted into defense mode.
She hid her unease even as she considered her options of fight or flight.
And damn him, he knew it. She saw it in the way his gaze sharpened, how his mouth softened.
Screw that. Sterling took a step back, ready to retreat. Not like fighting was an actual option.
Raising his hands, his expression impassive, he said, “At the bar would be fine, if you have just a minute. I’m still on the clock.”
Her gaze skipped to her table, and seconds ago she’d anticipated resting her bones in that well-worn seat. Now some of her exhaustion had lifted.
“I can move them if you want me to,” he offered quietly. “After I’ve explained.”
She had no interest in conversing with him, being drawn to him in any way. Familiarity worried her, yet curiosity won out. To cover her caution, she offered a casual shrug and indicated he should lead the way.
No way did she want him at her back.
He gifted her with that brief smile again.
Such a nice mouth. Not that she cared. Nice or not, she refused involvement.
He turned and headed for the bar.
Drawing in a bracing breath, she followed. Nice back, too. And forearms. And his backside in those jeans…
Sterling frowned at herself and vowed none of it mattered.
No one else sat at the far end of the scarred, polished wood counter, and once she’d taken the last stool, he circled around.
“Coke is fine.”
“I can throw you together a sandwich if you want.”
In most cases, she refused food when offered to her, but here, from him, it seemed okay—especially with her stomach grumbling. “Sure, thanks.”
He went through a half door that led to the kitchen behind the bar and returned a minute later with a ham and cheese sandwich and chips. After setting the food before her, he filled a glass with ice and poured her a Coke.
Sterling realized he must have coordinated this little meet and greet, because one of his workers took over filling orders without being asked.
Obviously he was up to something—but what?
Watching her a little too closely, he leaned a hip against the bar. “You don’t miss much, do you?”
Her gaze shot to his. She had a mouthful and had to chew and swallow before she could answer. “Should I?”
“No, but few people are as aware as you are.” He opened his own cola, drinking straight from the bottle. “My name is Cade McKenzie, by the way.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“I know. But I thought if you knew more about me, you’d—”
“What?” Panic, maybe anger, sharpened her tone. “Loosen up? Like you more? Get friendly?”
“Stop distrusting me.”
Had her wariness been so noticeable? Apparently. “I’m eating your sandwich. What is that if not trust?”
Her reasoning made him grin, showing straight white teeth, and good God, when he did that, he was too damn gorgeous. The amusement softened his granite edge, made him feel approachable.
And damn it, it sparked something deep inside her.
She concentrated on her sandwich.
“My brother owns a gym in town,” he continued. “You’ve probably noticed him in here a few times.”
Of course she had. The family resemblance was unmistakable. “He’s younger, different-colored eyes.”
Nodding at this additional sign of her awareness, he explained, “Different mothers, but we were raised together. I have a sister, too. She’s the baby at twenty-six.”
“Does she look like you, as well?” She hadn’t seen any women at the bar that she’d have pegged as a relation.
“Similar features, only more feminine. Same-colored eyes as my brother, but her hair is lighter than ours.”
It struck Sterling that she was chatting. Casually, easily. When had she last done that? The shock of it put her on edge. “I didn’t ask for a family rundown.”
“I know. Other than your usual table and an occasional drink, all you ask for is to be left alone.”
“Yet here we are.” Not that she could entirely blame him for that. She’d chosen to accept the food, the conversation. Nothing would come of it, though. Not more familiarity. Not friendship.
Definitely nothing beyond that.
He leveled that electric-blue stare on her. “I wanted to show you that I have roots here, that I’m not a threat in any way.”
Refusing to lower her guard, she asked, “But why?” She didn’t trust goodwill. A motive generally followed close behind.
“Because you’re a good customer, a regular, and I get that you want your space—no problem with that—but I thought I could help.”
Slowly, she ate another bite of the sandwich while considering him. The urge to walk away was strong.
Oddly enough, an equally compelling urge had her asking, “Help how?” Then she thought to add, “With what?”
He propped his elbows on the bar, leaning toward her as he eased into his topic. “So your table… I can keep it open for you if that’s what you want. That isn’t a problem. But since you usually catch a nap, I wanted to offer my office.”
One of the chips caught in her throat, making her cough.
Thankfully, he didn’t reach around to pat her on the back. He seemed to know touching her would be a very bad move.
Instead, he nudged her glass toward her.
It took three gulps before she could catch her breath, then she gasped, “Your office?”
A big old no to that. Not in a million years.
“It locks from the inside, so you wouldn’t have to worry about customers stumbling in on you.”
Would she have to worry about him?
“I have a key,” he said, using his uncanny mind-reading superpower. “But you could hold on to it while you’re in there.”
The offer so surprised her that she couldn’t find the right words to refuse him. She settled on shaking her head. “No thanks.” She preferred to be out in the open. Not that the public option always equaled safety—she’d learned that the hard way. But at least this space was familiar to her. She’d memorized it in detail and knew the exits, the number of tables to the door, that the big front window was tempered glass and that Cade McKenzie kept a few weapons behind the bar—but generally wouldn’t need them to restore order if it came to that.
That line of thinking took her attention to his hands. Big hands. Hands that would feel like sledgehammers if he made a fist.
No, he didn’t need a weapon. He was a weapon.
Not deterred by her refusal, he continued explaining. “I only use the office before we open and after we close. Besides my desk and chair, there’s a love seat, a few throw pillows. A private landline.” His gaze searched hers. “You’d be more comfortable.”
Suddenly, it struck Sterling as funny. Here they were tiptoeing around the obvious: she knew he wasn’t just a bartender. And somehow he knew she wasn’t just a trucker.
Grinning, she sat back and studied him.
“That’s nice,” he said.
Taken off guard, she asked, “What?”
Stymied by that, it took her a second to regroup. “Look, I haven’t even given you my name.”
“But you know it anyway, don’t you?” She expected him to lie, and when he did, she’d have solid reason not to trust him. She’d pay for her food, walk out and drive away—never to return.
Doing his own thorough study, he let his gaze move over her face as if cataloging each feature…and liking what he saw. “I can’t go into details, or explain, but yes, I know your name.”
Her heart skipped a beat. He’d admitted it! What did that mean for their association? Part of her shivered with alarm, but another part, a part she’d like to deny, suffered the strangest sort of…relief.
If someone actually knew her, then she was no longer alone. She existed. She mattered.
Sterling shook her head. Maybe he wasn’t as good as she assumed.
Caught between conflicting emotions, she narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Let’s hear it.”
Straightening, Cade did a quick check to ensure no one listened to them, then casually dropped his research bombshell. “Sterling Parson, but you used to go by Star. You’re twenty-nine, got your commercial driver’s license when you were barely twenty-two, worked for Brown Transportation for a while, then bought your own rig when you were twenty-six.”
Her jaw literally dropped. Dear God, he knew so much. Too much. She’d been right to fear him—no, damn it. Not fear. Just good old caution, the same caution she used with everyone. The caution that kept her alive. He wasn’t different, wasn’t special, and she couldn’t—
“My sister,” he offered with grave seriousness, interrupting her private castigation. “She’s a research whiz, and I was curious.”
“About you,” he concurred.
No apology, but an explanation? “You had no right,” she whispered through stiff lips.
For a moment he looked away while using one long, blunt finger to trace a bead of condensation on his cola bottle. “You can call it second nature.” He rolled a thick shoulder. “Or instinct.” Tension ratcheted up when he looked into her eyes, making them both a little breathless. His voice sounded like a soft growl when he added, “I felt it was important to know.”
Dazed, confused and, damn him, disappointed, Sterling shook her head. “Now I have to find a new place to go.”
His focus never wavered from hers. “Whatever you’re up to, Star, you’ll be safer here. Give yourself a minute to think before you react, and you’ll admit it.”
“What?” she asked with a sneer. “You don’t know what I’m doing? You don’t know why? How…incomplete of you.”
“I tried not to overstep too much.”
That made her laugh, but not with any humor.
“You’re drawing attention when I assume you’d rather not. No,” he said when alarm stiffened her neck, “not from anyone dangerous. Actually, all the customers have been curious about you at one time or another. I don’t think any of us have ever heard you laugh.”
“You can’t know who’s dangerous and who isn’t.” More than most, she’d learned that it was sometimes impossible to tell.
Softly, he insisted, “Yes, I can. I know everyone who comes here. You can trust me on that.”
She snorted. She wouldn’t trust anyone ever again.
“Right now there are only locals, a few truckers and a few vacationers, but it’s still better not to be noticed, right? In case anyone comes around asking questions?”
Regret froze her to the spot, leaving her a little sick to her stomach, full of angst. And yearning.
God, she had so much yearning.
This bar had begun to feel like…home? How absurd. It wasn’t in any way special, and it wasn’t even in a good part of town. It was just a place where she could relax, and she hated to lose it.
The location was ideal for her, being only thirty minutes from I-25 with plenty of places to hide in between, and closer still to other venues known for seedier practices.
She didn’t want to give it up, but what choice did she have now?
Cade made a small sound of frustration, there and gone. “Your table is empty now,” he pointed out.
Yes, she was aware of that. Standing, she pulled out some cash to toss on the counter, but Cade stopped her with a shake of his head.
“This one was on the house. Go get some rest—and think about my offer.”
She really didn’t feel like leaving yet. Now that she’d eaten, lethargy gripped her. Finally she nodded. “All right, I’ll think about it.”
“Thanks, Star. I appreciate it.”
“As you pointed out, I used to go by that name. Now I’m more comfortable with Sterling.”
“I don’t think you’re ever really comfortable, so let’s not nitpick on the name yet.”
Teasing again? The man had a dimple. How unfair! He was always so attractive, but now with satisfaction in his gaze and his sexy mouth curved? Devastating.
She didn’t understand him. She didn’t understand herself with him, either. Rather than let him see her confusion, she headed to the table, ignoring the curious glances from the regulars who knew it was unusual for her to chat up anyone.
Despite her new caution, the feeling of security remained. Within minutes of sitting down, she dozed off.