Stronger Than You Know | Lori Foster

Stronger Than You Know

Book 2 in the McKenzies of Ridge Trail Series

Kennedy Brooks has spent years learning how to protect herself, and empowering other women to do the same. Still, there are some hazards that can’t be predicted. That includes Reyes McKenzie, who owns her local gym. Strong, capable, and watchful, he seems like the one man who might understand her past. For once, Kennedy is tempted to let her guard down—something she’s vowed never to do.

The moment petite, fiercely determined Kennedy walked into his gym, Reyes knew that she carried secrets. What he didn’t expect was that she could tell the same about him. When trouble tracks her down, she turns to Reyes, unleashing a maelstrom of protective instinct and mutual desire. But will her need for him end when the danger does, or will they take the ultimate risk—on each other?

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Stronger Than You Know

is Book 2 in the McKenzies of Ridge Trail Series

The full series reading order is as follows:

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Stronger Than You Know

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Even before Kennedy Brooks’s Uber driver turned the corner to where she lived, her skin prickled with alarm. It was well past midnight, a fact that couldn’t be helped.

She should have been home at dinnertime.

One delay after another had obliterated her schedule to the point she had to rebook her flight. After hours spent sitting in the airport, exhaustion pulled at her. She wanted nothing more than to collapse in her bed, with her own sturdy locks in place.

When the scent of smoke infiltrated the closed windows of the car, her heart beat harder. She had a terrible feeling that there’d be no rest for her tonight. Maybe not even in the foreseeable future.

“What do you suppose happened?” her driver asked, pointing to the strobe of red lights that pierced the dark night.

“Fire,” she breathed. And not just any fire, but in the apartment building where she lived.

Firetrucks, police and EMTs were everywhere. Neighbors she recognized clung together, many wrapped in blankets to ward off the cool Colorado evening air. Crowds of curious onlookers also lined the street, having left their own buildings to gawk.

Lifting a shaking hand to cover her mouth, Kennedy took in the enormous blaze that engulfed the entire building—including the floor where she would have been sleeping.

The driver couldn’t get close, and she didn’t want him to. “Stop here.”

He glanced at her in the rearview mirror. “Hey, you okay? Is that your building?”

“Yes.” She swallowed heavily. What to do, what to do?

Because she’d learned caution the hard way, Kennedy pulled additional money from her wallet. “Wait here, please.”

The young man eyed the cash, glanced back at the fire and finally took the bills. “For how long?”

“I just need to make a call.” She hesitated again. “I’m going to stand directly in front of your car, in the beam of the headlights.” She needed privacy for the call, but she didn’t want to be alone in the dark. “Leave them on, okay?”

“Sure.”

Knowing she couldn’t delay any longer, Kennedy hooked her purse strap over her shoulder and neck to keep it secure, dug out her phone and stepped from the car. It was an uncommonly cool September night, yet she felt flushed with heat, as if she could feel those flames touching her skin.

There was only one person she knew who might be able to deal with the present situation.

It was fortunate she had his number programmed into her phone, because her trembling hands refused to cooperate.

As the phone rang, she kept constant vigilance on her surroundings. She could almost swear someone watched her, yet when she glanced back at the driver, she couldn’t see him for the glare of the lights in her eyes.

“Hello?”

Reyes McKenzie’s sleep-deep voice caused her to jump, and not for the first time. He was six feet four inches of hewn strength, thick bones and confident attitude. A man with a big, sculpted body, thanks to the gym he owned—and his voice reflected that, bringing an instant visual to mind.

Pretty sure he had other interests, as well, which would explain the edge of danger that always emanated from him.

Just what she needed right now.

Clutching the phone, hoping he’d be receptive, she whispered, “Hey. It’s Kennedy.”

Sharpened awareness obliterated his groggy tone. “What’s wrong?”

Yes, Reyes was definitely the right person for her to call. Never mind that he had a wealth of secrets—for some inexplicable reason she trusted him. Mostly, anyway.

Tonight she had little choice in the matter. “Reyes, I need you.”

She could hear him moving as he said, “I can be out the door in two minutes. Fill me in.”

God bless the man, he didn’t hesitate to come to her rescue. Before anything more happened, Kennedy gave him her address—something she hadn’t wanted to share before now. Life had a way of upending plans, and hers had just been sucked into a treacherous whirlwind. “I’m not actually in the apartment building, though. I’m at the corner, behind a line of emergency vehicles, with an Uber driver. I don’t know how long he’ll let me hang out though.”

“Are you hurt?”

That no-nonsense question held a note of urgency.

“No.” Not yet. “Could I explain everything once you’re here? I’m afraid it’s not safe.” She felt horribly exposed.

“Forget the Uber driver, okay?” The sound of a door closing, then jogging steps, came through the line. “Get close to a firefighter. Or an EMT. Stay there. It’ll only take me fifteen minutes if I really push it.”

Nodding, Kennedy looked up the street. The officials all seemed so far away, and there was a lot of dark space between here and there. “I… I don’t think I can.”

“Shit.” A truck door slammed. “I’m on my way, babe, okay? Get back in the car with the Uber guy and drive around in congested areas. Don’t go anyplace deserted, and don’t sit in one spot. Tell me you understand, Kennedy.”

“I understand.”

“Circle back in fifteen. I’ll be waiting.”

Yes, that sounded like a more viable plan. “Thank you, Reyes.”

“Keep your eyes open.” He disconnected, likely to concentrate on driving, and suddenly she felt very alone again. Reaching into her purse, Kennedy found the stun gun and palmed it. She’d practiced with the damn thing but had never actually used it on anyone.

She didn’t want to use it tonight, either, but she felt better for having it.

All around her, smoke thickened the air and tension seemed to escalate. She opened the back door and slid into the car, saying to the driver. “Could you drive, please?”

Exasperated, he twisted back to see her. “Listen, I have to pick up another guy from the airport. I can’t just—”

“I’ll make it worth your while, I promise.”

He eyed her anew, his gaze dipping over her body. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Oh, for the love of… Kennedy knew she was a mess. She’d pulled her hair into a haphazard ponytail, her makeup was smudged, and her clothes were sloppy-comfortable, suitable for a long flight. There was absolutely nothing appealing about her at the moment. “It’s not an invitation, so forget that. Just lock the doors and drive for fifteen minutes. Stay in busy areas—no dark, empty streets—and then you can bring me back here. I’ll give you another forty bucks.”

Considering it, he continued to study her.

A movement beyond him drew her startled attention. There, from the long shadows, two men crept toward them. “Lock the doors and freaking drive!” she screamed.

Disconcerted, he, too, looked around, and the second he noticed the men, they broke into a jog.

Coming straight for them.

“Jesus!” Jerking the car into reverse, he backed away with haste, almost hitting a telephone pole. Spinning around, he punched the gas and the small economy car lurched forward down the empty street. Again his gaze went to the rearview mirror. “Who the fuck was that?”

Looking over her shoulder, seeing the men fade away, Kennedy sucked in a much-needed breath. “I don’t know,” she whispered. But I know they haven’t given up.

* * *

Reyes drove like a lunatic. His Harley would have been quicker, but he couldn’t quite picture Kennedy strapped around him with the wind in her hair. Plus, he had no way of knowing if she’d be dressed for the cool night. Grim, he pulled up to the cross street in front of her apartment building. The road was closed off to through traffic, and the firefighters were still hard at work. Crowds had been pushed far back, held at bay by police officers.

Glancing around, he didn’t see Kennedy.

But he did spot two shifty-looking dicks keeping watch on everything. Dressed all in black, with black knit hats pulled low, they watched the streets instead of the fire.

Narrowing his eyes, Reyes did a quick survey of the area and didn’t see anyone else. The majority of people appeared to be enrapt with the fire—unlike these two.

Getting out his phone, he pulled up his recent call list and touched Kennedy’s name. She answered before the first ring had finished.

“Reyes?” she asked with shaky urgency.

“Where are you, hon?”

“I couldn’t come back. Two men are watching for me.”

“Yeah, I see them. Did they bother you?”

“They charged after the Uber car, but my driver got us away. I… I don’t know what they want.”

“I’ll find out. Give me two minutes, then circle by. I should be ready by then.” Belatedly he thought to add, “I’m in my truck.” Because Kennedy came to the gym he owned, and because they’d partnered in the rescue of a big alley cat, she was familiar with his ride.

“What?” With breathless panic, she screeched, “What do you mean you’ll find out? You can’t possibly—”

“Sure I can.” For a while now, he and Kennedy had been dancing around the fact that they both had secrets. When faced with danger, she’d called him, so obviously she understood the extent of his ability.

Tonight seemed like a good night for her to learn a little more about him. “Did you hear me, Kennedy? What did I say?”

“Two minutes,” she repeated blankly. “Reyes, don’t you dare—”

Seeing that the guys had noticed him, Reyes smiled and disconnected. Leaving the truck, he started toward them, his attitude amicable. “What happened, do you know?”

The men looked at each other. The taller of the two said, “Looks like an apartment fire.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” He was only ten feet away now. “Who started it?”

They shared another glance, and Stretch spoke again. “Who says anyone did? Might’ve been faulty wiring.”

“Nah.” He continued to close the distance, his stride long and cocky—with good reason. “Pretty sure you yahoos had something to do with it.” He grinned.

Stretch reached inside his jacket, and Reyes kicked out, sending him sprawling backward. He landed hard, the wind knocked out of him.

His shorter friend took an aggressive stance.

Bad move. With a short, swift kick of his booted foot, Reyes took out the guy’s braced knee. He screamed in pain as his leg buckled the wrong way.

Quickly Reyes patted him down, removing both a knife and Glock. Still squatting, he shifted his attention to Stretch just as the guy got back to his feet.

Maybe hoping to mimic Reyes’s moves, Stretch tried to plant his foot in his face.

Reyes ducked to the side, grabbed his ankle and yanked him off balance again.

Down he went for the second time. Unfortunately, he cracked his head and, without so much as a moan, passed out.

“Well, hell.” Turning back to the shorter dude, Reyes prodded him. “Who are you and what did you want with the girl?”

Dazed with pain, his face contorted, the guy gasped, “What girl?”

“Dude, you are seriously whack. Want me to bust the other knee? I can, you know.” Using the muzzle of the Glock, Reyes tapped his crotch. “Or maybe you want me to smash these instead?”

Rolling to his side, he cried, “No.”

Heaving a sigh, Reyes stood. “What a wuss. C’mon, man. Give me something. It’s not like I really want to hurt you, you know.” Not much, anyway. But when he thought of these two planning to harm Kennedy…yeah. Red-hot rage. “I’ll give you to the count of three. One. Two.”

“All right! We were hired to grab her. That’s all I know.”

“Bullshit. There’s always more. Like where were you going to take her? Who wants her? And why?”

“I don’t know, man! We were paid half, and once we had time to grab her, someone would call with an address. After we dropped her off, we’d get the other half.”

“Yeah? Planned to do this whole thing blind, huh?” Reyes heard Stretch groan and knew he was coming around. Probably a good thing.

“I mean… trust only goes so far.”

What a joke. Who the hell was dumb enough to trust these two? “Maybe your buddy has more info on him. If I find out you’re lying, you won’t like what I do.”

“Bolen would’a found out the same as me, when we got the call.”

Sounded legit, but Reyes wasn’t taking any chances. Going over to Bolen, he quickly searched him, removing another gun and also taking his wallet. Inside he found a stack of hundreds, but nothing useful. When Bolen tried to sit up, Reyes pistol-whipped him. He collapsed again.

Glancing back at the other guy, who made a failed attempt to get up, he asked, “What’s your name?”

“Herman.”

“Ah, dude, you said that so fast I’m not sure I believe you.” When Reyes reached for him, the guy flinched away. “Man, you are seriously not cut out for this line of work.” He shoved him to his side and pulled his wallet from his back pocket. It, too, was padded with bills. “You guys got a nice paycheck for kidnapping, didn’t you?”

“I need an ambulance.”

“Yeah, probably. Pretty sure I fucked up your kneecap. You might never walk the same.” He searched through the wallet, curling his lip at a condom, a few interesting business cards for local joints, a coupon and a receipt. “Tell you what. Once I’m gone, you can try to crawl down there by the fire you set. EMTs are still caring for the people you hurt. Course that might raise questions you don’t want to answer, right? One thing could lead to another, then you and your busted leg might end up rotting in prison.” Reyes pulled out his driver’s license. “Huh. Herman Coop. Well, Herman, now I know how to find you. And trust me, if you ever bother the girl again, I will. You won’t like the outcome of that.”

“God,” Herman groaned, sweat soaking his face from pain.

“When good old Bolen comes around, you tell him I’m watching him, too, yeah?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

Headlights bounced around nearby, and he sensed it was Kennedy returning. With an edge of menace, he intoned, “Your worst nightmare.” Seeing Herman’s face, Reyes barely bit back his laugh.

He did enjoy spooking the knuckleheads.

Coming to his feet, he considered alerting the nearby cops, but he didn’t know how that might implicate Kennedy. Hell, he didn’t know her secrets or how serious they might be.

Should have listened to his family and researched her. In fact, he’d be willing to bet his computer-tech sister hadn’t listened when he’d told her to step down.

Research was what she did, after all.

Then he and his brother followed up in whatever way was necessary.

For now, though, all he knew for sure was that there was more to Kennedy Brooks than she let on.

He nudged the thug with the edge of his boot. “On your stomach, lace your fingers behind your head, and don’t move or I’ll send your balls into your throat.”

It took a lot of effort for Herman to painfully maneuver around, but the balls threat often worked wonders. Choking on his every agonized breath, Herman got into position.

“Stay like that,” Reyes warned again as he began moving away, one of the guns held at the ready in his right hand, the remaining weapon and wallets balanced in his left. He glanced behind him and saw Kennedy stepping out of the car, her eyes huge in the shadows. The driver lurched to the trunk, practically tossed out a rolling suitcase and allowed her to snatch a laptop case out of his hands. While she tried to get her luggage upright, the driver sped away.

Leaving her standing there alone.

Giving up on the goons, Reyes jogged to her. “Come on.”

Staring at the load he carried, she whispered, “What did you do?”

“Gathered intel, that’s all. Move it.” He got her to his truck, dumped the confiscated items onto the floor and practically tossed her inside. “Buckle up, babe.” He took her laptop case from her and shoved it to the floor as well.

After putting her enormous suitcase into the back of his truck, he gave one last look at the fallen men and a quick glance at the still-raging fire. The night had turned into a clusterfuck of the first order. But, hey, Kennedy had called him, not anyone else.

Overall, he’d claim it as a win.

End of Excerpt

Stronger Than You Know

is available in the following editions: