Trust no one.
Those are the rules I’ve lived by ever since I left my past in the dust and never looked back.
And I stick to those 3 little rules because my life depends on it.
My son’s life depends on it.
But as soon as I met him… my rules went out the window.
Drop dead gorgeous (I’m talking model material here), charming AF and richer than pure sin.
In other words… totally out of my league.
What does a girl like me know about mansions, fancy parties and rubbing elbows with Denver’s elite?
NOTHING! Absolutely nothing. This just isn’t my world.
And how can I ever trust him after what I’ve been through?
But I feel myself falling hard and fast.
Losing my sanity a little more after each toe-curling night with him.
Love just isn’t in the cards for me though.
I don’t need the complication – I literally can’t take the chance.
If he finds out who I am… where I come from… the things I’ve done…
My past is catching up to me quickly… I can feel it.
Should I keep running, or trust that I might actually be safe here… with him?
BILLIONAIRE PROTECTOR IS BOOK 1 OF THE CAPTIVATING HARDICK BROTHERS SERIES.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Mystery and suspense were calling to me. I wanted to tell the story of a woman with a very troubled past, who stumbles upon not only the love of her life, but a fortune bigger than anything she ever dreamed of.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Billionaire Protector's heroine inspired the entire Hardick Brothers Series. Her past is captivating and was a story that I felt compelled to tell. Through her eyes, we meet the Hardick family, and instantly fall in love with the hot billionaire Hardick brothers.
“…motor runnin’… Head out on the highwaaay… Lookin’ for –”
My phone started ringing, but I ignored it. There was nothing in the world that could stop me from blasting this chorus. Maybe I wasn’t exactly born to be wild, but I belted it out my truck window anyway, flying down the rural Colorado highway – carefree and alive.
Life was good – life was amazing. I was one lucky son of a gun, and there wasn’t a lot more I could ask for than what had already been given to me. I still tried my hardest not to come off like the rich kid of a rich dude. My truck was starting to rust in places, I never went to town in anything other than the (probably dirt-stained) t-shirts and ripped jeans that populated my wardrobe, and I’d managed to make it a full year through college a few years back without anyone realizing I was one of “those Hardick’s”.
It had been nice just to be good ol’ Penn. Dorms, classes, the occasional beer bong or flippy cup challenge, and tons of friends who didn’t give a damn about what was in my bank account (because they hadn’t realized there was anything to give a damn about). I would have enjoyed it even more if I had known how limited that period of time in my life would be.
My sophomore year officially ended when Sarah, my sister-in-law, died. The tragedy was simple; the roads were snowy and ice covered – she'd crashed. Bing, bang, boom – that was the end of the story, and that was the end of Sarah’s life.
When I left campus to return home for her funeral, I hadn’t really known for certain that I wouldn’t be back, but I’d had a hunch. I often had hunches, and they were almost always right on point – even when I didn’t want them to be. I wouldn’t be going back to college, and I guess I had known that all along.
But when I’d witnessed the state of my family and our ranch upon my arrival, I’d known it in a much more concrete way. I was needed at home. I was only twenty at the time, but I’d made the decision to man up and stick around. College would always be there, but my family was in dire condition. I knew from previous experience that the people you loved would not always be there – tomorrow wasn’t even close to being guaranteed. My mother’s death six years earlier had opened my eyes to the validity of this fact, and my sister-in-law's death had highlighted its truth in blinding neon lights.
The ranch had been dark – the office closed. No guests, as far as I could tell, which was odd for November, we usually had skiers in droves by then. I had a very clear memory of driving through the twilight past the horse barn, and seeing an incredibly serious Payden (one of my older brothers who’d only been twenty-one at the time) standing alone in the snow-covered pasture, stroking the mane of his Andalusian, Gaston. He had only arrived home from his own college classes a few hours before, and had apparently gone straight to work. Once I’d driven all the way through the ranch and up the driveway to our house – if you could call it a house – I'd understood instantly why Payden was with the horses and not the family.
We all had our separate wings – my father, my three older brothers, and of course, myself. I knew our home was considered a mansion, if not a castle, but I never, ever referred to it as one. It was our house. Size and grandiosity notwithstanding, it was our place of comfort just like any other family home.
In spite of the spaciousness, Preston was waiting for me right at the front door, and he had been drunk off of his ass. Being the second oldest of the four Hardick brothers, Preston was also the wildest. He’d been just twenty-three then, freshly graduated with a Bachelor’s in business management. By day, Preston was the Hardick Ranch’s main representative. He held the meetings, he dealt with the investors, he made our investments – the financial aspects of the ranch were all in his young hands. And as the Acting CEO of Hardick Ranch, he had been doing an amazing job for such a young guy. But by night, Preston was uncontrollable. He did as he pleased, often disappointing my father (and never giving a damn that he had), and always making sure that the velocity of his playtime made up for all of the hours that required him to be a responsible, clear-thinking adult.
Everybody loved Preston – he just had that charming way about him – but sometimes I suspected that Preston wasn’t as happy with himself as he usually appeared to be. He’d been incredibly close to our mother, and he hadn’t seemed quite himself since her passing. I’d tried to broach the subject a few times, but Preston had shut me down with barely a word. He didn’t want to talk about Mom, not even to his closest brother. So, I had learned to just leave it alone, and let Preston be Preston.
“Buddy! My little buddy is home!” He had grabbed me and hugged me, reeking of beer and less than stable on his own two feet. “She’s dead, Penn. Dead. Gone. Pierce won’t come out of his quarters. Betsy is watching the kids. Hell, Dad won’t even come down and have a drink with me either. He’s up there brooding away in his study – probably writing another tragic love story. Ain’t it great when life gives you inspiration so goddamn often? It’s a gift!” Preston had waved his sloshing beer bottle high, as though he were toasting to the horrible events that plagued our family.
First, Mom. Then, Sarah.
“Let’s sit, Pres. You’re hammered,” I’d suggested, collapsing on a sofa in the giant foyer.
“You, little buddy, are absolutely correct. I am hammered, and I frankly don’t understand why everybody else isn’t. This sucks! It suuuucks!” Preston had lifted his arms, his voice echoing off the high ceiling. “Life just can’t stop fucking over the Hardick's!”
I’d pulled him down beside me, my eyes darting nervously in all directions. Those were the last sentiments that Pierce or his children needed to hear. Pierce had lost his wife, and his children had lost their mother. Avonlea was only two, and Braden wasn’t even one year old yet. It concerned me that Pierce had simply left them with our housekeeper and disappeared into his wing. That wasn’t like him – and it definitely wasn’t like Sarah.
I had wondered then how long it would take me to think of Sarah in the past tense, and then wondered if we really should be leaving Pierce all alone up in his tidy maze of rooms.
“Have you talked to Pierce? Is he okay?”
“His wife is fuckin’ dead, Penn. Safe to say he’s not okay,” Preston drunkenly condescended.
“You know what I mean. Is he okay alone? He’s not going to do anything stupid, right?” My eyes were on the giant staircase. I had been hit with a wave of emotion – realizing that we should have all been together in that moment. But Dad was writing, Pierce was hiding, Payden was working, and Preston was drunk. It was possible that Avonlea and Braden had been in the best hands possible at that moment. Betsy loved the entire family like her own, and she’d never had a drink in her life.
“I don’t know. Who can tell? He told me, and I quote, ‘Fucking go away, Preston. I’ll talk when I want to talk.’ Then he slammed a door in my face, and I figured he’d been just about as clear as a man can be. You can’t force anything on him right now, Penn. He’s gotta process.” Preston delivered all of this with a slurred tone of wisdom, even as he made himself another gin and tonic. “This is how I’m processing. Payden’s in the field or something. I don’t fucking know. I cancelled all of the reservations for the week.” He’d slumped down next to me on the sofa then.
“Who the hell is gonna run the office? Take care of the guests? That was Sarah. All Sarah. Fuck. We’re gonna have to hire another outsider.” Preston had scuffed at the marble floor with his shiny black shoe. He’d been dressed to the nines, even though the ranch was shut, and we were all clearly in a disarrayed state of mourning.
“It worked out okay with Betsy,” I’d offered.
“Betsy is like, 95 years old. She was here before you or me. She’s family.”
“Joe and Matt have been good.”
Preston had laid his head back, rolling his eyes dramatically. “There’s a huge difference between mucking out stalls and being the welcoming face of the ranch. We’ll need someone who’s good with people – not just the horses. They’re gonna have to be organized, and friendly, and like kids – even the bratty ones. Someone who cares if Cabin B needs two fresh towels at midnight. I sure as fuck don’t.”
I had missed Sarah terribly in that moment. When Pierce brought her into our lives there had been a definite shift in the Hardick household. Nothing had been quite the same since Mom died – everything was darker, quieter… We’d been existing; Sarah helped us live again. Avy and Braden had brightened our worlds even more with their entrances, and Hardick Ranch was a happy place once again – seemingly recovered as best as it could have been.
That happy recovery had ceased to exist in the same moment that Sarah did.
“Nobody can fill Sarah’s shoes,” I’d replied finally, still fixating on the stairs and considering approaching Pierce.
“Nope. Nobody,” Preston had agreed, downing the rest of his drink and fixating on nothing at all.
“Why does this keep happening?” I’d said it out loud, but wasn’t expecting an answer. Preston had given one anyway.
“What? Did you think Mom was the only one who was ever gonna die? World keeps spinnin’, buddy. That means death, death, and more death.” I knew he was trying to joke, but Preston’s face had gone completely blank as he said this. None of us were really over Mom’s death, and we probably wouldn’t ever be. Dad would have barked at Preston for making a comment like that, but I understood my brother’s humor. Mom had understood it too.
“I’ll stay. I’ll stay and help,” my words had flown into the air without any hesitation.
“Kid, that’s sweet. But you aren’t even done with college yet. I thought you wanted to teach groups of little snot-nosed tyrants? You need the degree,” Preston had stated, firm and serious for the first time since my arrival. He’d stared me down, his face just a slightly older version of mine – dark hair, blue eyes, and a short-trimmed beard that I hadn’t been able to grow yet at that point.
“We get plenty of snot-nosed tyrants here. I’d still be teaching them, in a way. Just different types of things, I guess,” I’d returned calmly, my gaze unfaltering.
Preston shook his head at that.“You’ve always been way too nice, Penn. You can’t just give and give and give your entire adult life. It’s gonna wear you down. You gotta think about you.”
I had shrugged, my mind already made up. “I’m not gonna be happy if things aren’t okay here. So, call it a selfish decision. Just me lookin’ out for me.”
That had elicited a slight chuckle from drunk Preston. “You’re somethin’ else. This is why you’re Dad’s favorite.”
“And you were Mom’s. Stop whinin’,” I’d told him, managing a smile. Preston gave me a half-hearted playful punch to the shoulder, and then he’d risen to his feet.
“One of us should go check on Payden,” he’d said quietly. Apparently, he wasn’t only thinking about himself, either. “Kid is gonna stay out there in the cold till he loses his damn toes.”
“He’s processing. You know how Pay is.” But I’d been worried as well.
“I’ll take Payden, you take Pierce,” Preston had offered, staggering towards the front entrance.
“I thought you said we can’t talk to Pierce right now?” I had stood as well, unsure if I’d been offered a fair deal. Payden was calm and agreeable by nature. Pierce was an intense guy when he was in a good mood.
“I said I can’t talk to him. You’ll be fine, little brother.” Preston had disappeared then, and I remember taking a deep breath as I approached the staircase.
A heavy weight seemed to have been placed on my shoulders, and I had known. Penn Hardick’s days as a kid were done. I’d turned into a man that night.
Closed. Smith’s Hardware was one of maybe a dozen independent stores left in tiny Central Creek’s “business district”. We’d been coming here for as long as I could remember – at first because it was the closest to the ranch, and then because we liked the Smiths and had grown close to them over the years.
They always took a weeklong camping vacation in June, and I realized that it had completely slipped my mind. Bob Smith had called, and I did know that they weren’t open this week. Or, at least I did now.
Filling Sarah’s shoes hadn’t been easy, and it was fair to say that my brainpower was used up nearly every day to 100% depletion. I couldn’t seem to remember my foot from my face lately.
“Okay. On to Corydon, then,” I said to no one. The sidewalk was empty – Thursday afternoon didn’t mean much to Central Creek’s 2500 citizens. Corydon was only another five minutes down the highway, and even though it was an even smaller town than this one, I knew they, at the very least, had a hardware store.
I tapped my hand to the beat of the radio as I flew down the deserted road. The tiny green sign that declared I’d reached my destination was nearly covered in ivy vines. Corydon had the very specific feel of a zombie apocalypse movie set. There wasn’t a town square so much as there was a single main street that ran unceremoniously past what may at one time have been a lively little strip of small businesses. Now, however, I could only count four storefronts that seemed to be in operation, and lucky for me the hardware store was one of them. A simple banner reading “Kate’s Supplies” had been hung over the original brick that no doubt still harbored the ancient name of the original store in sorely faded paint strokes.
I wasn’t familiar with Corydon. There had never been any reason to become acquainted with it, as the interstate to Denver passed right by the sleepy village without so much as a mention of its existence. Central Creek was on an old highway as well, but that was as far as I usually went, because there hadn’t been a need to go any further.
An old-fashioned bell rang when I swung the door open and strode into “Kate’s”. The original floorboards seemed to still be in use, and every step I took creaked loudly, alerting anyone and everyone who hadn’t already been privy to the jangle of my entrance. I knew exactly what I needed – no need to bother anyone. I’d just find the nail section, zero in on the size, pay, and be blasting more classic rock ‘n’ roll from my truck radio in five minutes flat.
“Can I help you find anything today, sir?” I couldn’t find the face that belonged to the sweet, timid voice at first, and I had to stop myself from laughing at the address. I was twenty-four. “Sir” wasn’t something I’d been used to hearing.
A small dark-haired figure came around the corner of the aisle (one of four aisles total in the entire store), and I turned towards the woman whom I assumed would be Kate. But the person I was met with had an incredibly young face – not impossible, but improbable that she owned this little storefront. Her hair was back in a ponytail, and her eyes flashed bright green while she gave me her best, trained customer service smile.
“Are you Kate?” I asked amiably, not sure why that would make a difference or not. I was so used to making polite small talk with the vacationers at the ranch – it was second nature at this point to spout random, friendly inquiries.
The girl hesitated for a minute, her smile faltering almost unnoticeably (but I noticed), and then she seemed to recover. “No, no, I’m not Kate. She’s the owner. I just work for her. She’s in the back if you need me to go get –”
I shook my head, smiling. “No, no need. Just never been out this far. Nice to see new faces.” And it was. I didn’t know the first damn thing about Kate, but this girl – woman, I could tell she was at least twenty – was the prettiest face I had seen in a very long time. Possibly ever.
She grinned again, making me notice the giant dimple on her right cheek and inspiring a giddy roll inside of my stomach. “Okay then. Just let me know if you need anything, alright?” She was walking away then, her tiny butt swaying in beat with her steps.
“What’s your name?” I blurted out – unsure if I was being rude or not. It didn’t really seem to matter. I wanted to know who this woman was.
She stopped – this time seeming to hesitate for an oddly long amount of time – and asked without turning around, “Why?” She’d frozen, and I was reminded of how the horses would tense and sometimes stop on the trails if they sensed a bear or other predator nearby.
“Oh. Just being friendly. Sorry. I didn’t mean to be nosy. I’m Penn. My family owns a ranch not too far from here. I, um. I’ll just shut up now,” I rambled, laughing a little as I did. I wasn’t sure if I was laughing out of embarrassment or from the heat that had seemingly spread throughout my entire body. I felt off balance… but in a way that I liked.
She turned then, the polite smile carefully back on the beautiful face. “Oh. No, I’m sorry. I was being rude. I’m Anne,” she told me, nodding her head once and then quickly retreating to the check-out counter.
Anne. Simple. Sweet.
It took a great deal of self-discipline to remember why I was there to begin with, but I managed. I made my way slowly down the aisle with two large boxes, nervous for no explicable reason. I met new people nearly every day. It was part of my job, and I enjoyed it. I didn’t get nervous in such encounters. Not ever. I’m Penn Hardick. I like people, and people generally like me. No need for nerves.
Anne was watching me alertly as I made my way to her. I plopped the nails down on the counter, and watched her slim fingers click across the pre-historic dinosaur of a cash register that graced Kate’s Supplies. More than once she peeked carefully up at me, always seeming to blush uncontrollably when she found me staring right back at her. I tried to smile, but I was stuck in some type of awe. I just wanted to look at her.
I could look at you all day long, Anne.
That seemed like the wrong thing to say, so I kept it to myself. I didn’t need to add “creepy” to my new resume of “awkward and overly curious”.
“Get a lot of traffic here these days?” I asked instead. The question was absolutely ridiculous, as any idiot with half a brain could see that traffic – of any type – did not exist in Corydon, Colorado.
Anne giggled (I was instantly rock hard at the sound), and shook her head. “Not a lot of traffic, no. Mostly just locals…” She was biting her lower lip, and her hands trembled while she sacked my items. It would have been flattering – the thought that I was making her just as nervous as she had made me – if it didn’t seem that there was a touch of actual fear in her movements.
What are you so scared of, Anne?
“Yeah. The damn interstate doesn’t do small towns a lot of favors. It’s like this place doesn’t even exist, according to the signs,” I offered, realizing that I didn’t want this conversation to end so quickly – or at all.
Anne’s head whipped up sharply when I said this. “I like it. It’s quiet.” It was a pleasant statement, but her face was grave.
“I like it too. I like it a lot more now,” I said, holding her gaze steadily and smiling. She seemed to thaw a little, and the grin came back.
That dimple. Jesus. Just look at it.
Her lips were full – a natural soft pink – and for the first time ever I was starting to believe that hypotonization was a very real thing. It was hard to say how long I could stand there, carefully taking in every delicate part of Anne’s face, but I had a feeling if I stood there too much longer, I’d grab those adorable cheeks and kiss the hell out of her. That long, silky ponytail hanging so lush… so seductive… I wanted to pull it. I wanted to pull it and attack her slender, porcelain neck. Kisses. Bites.
“Do you need anything else, Penn?” Anne asked suddenly, clearing her throat anxiously afterwards.
“Maybe,” I replied, still in a daze. Anne’s smile had disappeared again, and I realized that I was probably the creepiest human being she’d yet encountered in life. “I mean, no. Thanks. I’m good. I got the nails.” I held up the sack, bobbing my head enthusiastically and stepping away from the counter.
“Yep,” she agreed, nodding along with me. Silence – the two of us just surveying the other in the dusty daylight of Kate’s Supplies hardware store. “Well. You have a good day.”
That was my sign – my signal to go. She was letting me know as politely as possible that it was time for me to hit the road, and man oh man – I didn’t want to.
I walked towards the door anyway, no longer knowing how to stay without solidifying the concern that I was some type of psychopath. “You have a good day too, Anne,” I called out to her, backing out of the store with unwilling movements as tingling tidal waves swooshed over my body. She gave one last nod and one last grin, and I walked heavily to my truck, throwing the sacks in the passenger seat. I started the engine and leaned my head back against the headrest.
Don’t meet girls like that every day.
In the entire four years since I had left college, I couldn’t remember meeting a single woman that made any lasting impression on me whatsoever. Not at the ranch, not at the fancy auctions and benefits we were constantly forced to attend.
One of those very events was coming up shortly. Saturday night – just three nights away – and I’d mentally been blocking it out. That was what I normally did right up until the moment I was begrudgingly putting a tux on.
This gathering was going to be worse than normal. It was a party being thrown for my father, in honor of his hundredth published novel hitting the shelves nationwide. He had told me that it was a milestone he wasn’t positive he’d live to see, and I knew it was incredibly important to him that I be there – that all of us brothers be there.
We would be. There wasn’t really any doubt about that. But so would throngs of fame worshipping fans who were wild at the idea of meeting Paul Lincoln Hardick in the flesh. Add in the money mongering publishers and producers, the wanna-be writers who attached to Dad’s success like suckerfish… The party had all the tell-tail signs of a nightmare weaving itself together with academy award winning horror.
My brothers and I usually stuck pretty close together during such events. Pierce hadn’t brought a date since Sarah died, and I was almost positive he never would again. Preston liked to “go solo” so he could find the hottest catch of the night, free and clear. Payden was too goddamn shy to ever ask a girl to anything. And I… I just hadn’t ever liked anyone enough to want to bring a date. It seemed a bit misleading – to take a girl I wasn’t that interested in to such a high-end extravaganza.
I knew it was a ridiculous thought. One conversation in a run-down hardware store with a complete stranger didn’t mean it was okay to just ask them out. Then again, Preston, on occasion, slept with girls he’d barely known for two seconds. Most of them were girls he didn’t really have much intention of even seeing again, let alone dating.
My truck had only made it three blocks when I whipped it back around and drove straight back to Kate’s Supplies. I was walking through that door, the bell making its ancient jingle once again, before I had a chance to even try and think it through. I knew I would just talk myself out of it, and I was positive that I didn’t want to logic myself away from this idea.
Anne’s green eyes widened in surprise and her cheeks went pink.
“Hi again!” I greeted her cheerfully, unsure if the smile on her face was a good sign or a precursor to hysteria.
“Hi.” She backed away from the counter.
I took a deep breath, and spit out the words as fast as I could. “I’ve got this party to go to… for my father… It’s on Saturday night. I know I’m like, a total stranger but I just… I don’t have a date and I thought maybe you could… Do you wanna come with me? I mean. There can’t be a lot going on in Corydon on a Saturday night, right? Promise, I’ll get ya home in one piece before the clock strikes midnight. You can even keep both of your shoes,” I blabbered, sounding like an idiot, but hoping I was at the very least a charming idiot.
Anne’s face was a mixture of happiness and… something else. Whatever that something was, it seemed to have a rather tight grip on her mouth, because it felt like an entire hour had passed before she finally nodded her cute little head and said, “Sure. Why not?”
I’m Alexa. Author, wife, mommy to two adorable fur babies and big-time hopeless romantic. When I’m not writing I love spending time with my amazing husband (my real-life bad boy), growing gorgeous flowers in my garden and finding inspiration for my next book literally everywhere I look. Love is all around us and it brings me so much joy to bring that love to life in each story I write.
I love bad boys and a good sweet and dirty romance. I can’t wait for you to check out my books and let my hot, filthy guys rock your world! Buckle up! This is going to be a wild ride.
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