Desiree Holt | USA Today & Award-Winning Author

Downstroke

It’s been twenty years since Charley Roper and Dallas Creed parted with great bitterness. In that time, she’s made a career for herself with the FBI and private security and he’s been a country rock music icon…tumbled to the bottom and risen again. Now someone’s trying to kill him, and Morgan Creed wants Charley to protect his brother and find out who’s after him. When they meet again after all this time it’s obvious the chemistry is still there, stronger than ever. They’re older, but are they wiser? Caught up in the bitter wash of memories and the tension of a killer in stalking mode, Charley and Dallas begin a roller coaster ride that is emotional erotic and suspenseful. Is their love strong enough after twenty years to pull them back together?

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Prologue

The moon was nearly hidden behind scudding clouds, making long-range vision almost impossible. But the man some called Heartless didn’t care. He had night-vision goggles and the scope on the rifle could see through anything. He crouched below the crest of the hill behind a thick, ancient oak. Waiting. His quarry would be along sooner or later, and he had nothing to spend but time. His first two efforts had gone wrong, which really pissed him off. He’d wanted this to be once and done, but apparently fate had other plans for him.

Thinking about how things had turned upside down brought a bitter taste to his mouth. What a good deal they’d had going, he and his so-called partner. A sweet business that netted them hundreds of thousands of dollars. Only Mister Smooth was greedy, now. The asshole. He wanted more. Much more.

Killing Dallas Creed hadn’t been Heartless’ first objective, but he couldn’t come up with an alternative. His so-called partner had turned squeamish on him but finally agreed they had to do something.

Heartless hunkered down, trying to quell his impatience. He really wanted to take out Dallas’ brother, but that might bring too many questions. And everyone knew big stars like Dallas had people who hated them. Stalked them. For any reason. Crazy reasons. After a while, the trail would grow cold, and police would stop looking. And Heartless could draw a full breath.

He glanced down again at the road twisting its way through the extrusions of land that gave the Texas Hill Country its name. He’d come here almost every evening for a week, now, hoping not to get caught, waiting for his chance. He knew Dallas sometimes went into town after dinner to shoot the shit with people at the local bar. People he’d grown up with, who didn’t expect him to be Dallas Creed. Heartless couldn’t get onto the ranch, so this was his best opportunity.

These days Dallas’ brother came along, so he could get rid of the real problem with no one the wiser. He really regretted having to do this, but sometimes you just didn’t have any other options. So. Shoot the tires out on the bad curve and get Dallas to roll the truck like he’d done three years ago when he nearly killed himself. Only, this time, when Dallas rolled, Heartless would hit the gas tank, and it would all be over.

Headlights pierced the darkness below him, and his heartbeat ratcheted up a notch. He pushed back the NVGs, shouldered the rifle, and set his eye to the scope.

Wait for it. Wait for it.

Breathe in. You know what to do.

He timed the shot to hit right when the truck took the second curve, where the road dropped way off down the hill.

Crack!

Lowering the rifle, he pulled the NVGs down again. Adrenaline rushed through his system as he watched the truck go into a skid, tires screeching, the vehicle slewing this way and that before crashing into the guard rail.

Good. Good. Roll, you son of a bitch. Good riddance.

But the truck didn’t roll. Somehow, whichever one of them was driving managed to get it under control, and it came to a sliding stop at the edge of the precipice.

Damn. Damn, damn, damn. How could that happen?

He cocked the rifle again and aimed for the front left tire.

Crack!

The windshield exploded under the impact with a satisfying sound. The truck skewed and fishtailed but was soon under control. Meaning he’d missed the driver. Damn, what a royal clusterfuck this was turning out to be. How could he be so stupid? How the hell had he misjudged this so badly?

He watched the Creed brothers get out of the truck, keeping low as they looked up and around. Trying to find the direction of the shot. Morgan, who Heartless knew was always armed, held a gun in his right hand as he crouched down by the front door of the cab. Could he risk another shot? No, damn it. This had to look like an accident.

Because I expected him to roll the damn truck like he did the last time. Only I forgot to allow for the fact he’s not drinking anymore. Well, hell. Fucked again.

When both men seemed to focus in his direction, Heartless scrambled backward to where he’d parked his vehicle, at the tip of the road leading down the other side of the hill he was on. He could roll it a long way down without starting the engine and giving away his presence. He cracked open the rifle, unloaded the remaining ammunition, and dropped it into his pocket. Then he put the rifle on the backseat. In a moment, he was in his truck and moving noiselessly down the road.

Shit!

Everyone would be on edge now, on alert. What the hell was he supposed to do about that? How in the hell was he supposed to get rid of this problem before he was ruined? It wouldn’t be much longer before Morgan Creed stuck his nose too far into where it shouldn’t be and told Dallas everything. That could not happen.

Make a better plan. That’s what I need to do.

By the time he finally reached a place where he could turn on the headlights and start the engine, his mind was already working. When he hit the highway, the beginnings of a plan formed in his mind.

Chapter One

One week later

I stood in the back of the Baker Amphitheater, leaning against the brick half-wall that separated the seats under the roof from those on the lawn, wondering for the hundredth time what the hell I was doing here. It wasn’t that I’d never been to a concert before. I’d been to plenty, running security detail for high-profile musicians. But I’d never been to a Dallas Creed concert. A deliberate choice, one I’d stuck to until tonight. Morgan Creed, Dallas’ brother, had given me a ticket to the performance with a seat right down front, but I didn’t want to be that close to the man yet. Or give him a chance to see me.

When Dallas Creed and I destroyed our relationship twenty years ago, I stumbled away from it with my heart bleeding and swore never to lay eyes on him again. I had loved him with an intensity that consumed me, and I’d been so sure he felt the same way. Then he dropped his bombshell, leaving me emotionally wiped out, with a bitter outlook on love and a determination never to be hurt again.

All these years, I’d managed to hide behind an invisible wall, refusing to buy any Dallas Creed albums, as if by ignoring his music I could ignore the man. But his songs were played everywhere and television covered him like green on grass, so avoiding him completely had been next to impossible. It bothered me after a while to discover I actually liked listening to him. Despite that, I was definitely finished with the man. Over and done. Finis.

When he’d had his disastrous accident, I hadn’t even called to find out how he was, afraid to open old wounds and let my heart bleed all over the place again. The man was plain poison to me. Or maybe we’d poisoned each other. I didn’t know anymore; only knew that I’d survived by keeping my distance all these years. We’d been too obsessed with our own careers to care enough about each other to compromise. The blame was certainly not all his. In that secret place I’d deliberately hidden away, I knew that. I was equally as guilty as him, but it made it easier for me to lay everything at his door.

Yet, here I stood, waiting for the show to begin. I wondered not for the first time what had driven him to the excess of drugs and booze that led to the accident, and why he was so determined to put himself through the agony of the climb back to the top.

Stop!

I mentally shook myself. I didn’t want to know and didn’t care. Silently, I repeated it over and over to myself, much as I had to Morgan Creed when he’d appeared in my office two days ago…

 

Just seeing him, with his close resemblance to his brother, was a kick in the stomach. Same dark-blond hair, same smoky-gray eyes, same lean build and loose-hipped walk. The smile was a little tighter, the eyes not quite as intense, but add a couple of years, and it could have been Dallas standing in front of me.

Thank god it wasn’t. I used every bit of my willpower not to affect an air of disdain.

“Whatever you’re selling, I’m not interested.”

“You’ve done very well for yourself,” he commented, ignoring me and looking around at my surroundings. “I’m impressed. There aren’t too many women who’ve reached this level in your business.”

He was right about that. Roper Protective Services was my baby, probably the only one I’d ever have, and it had grown and prospered. My love life might suck but, otherwise, I was great. In the central computer system was a file that gave the location and assignment of every agent at all times. On the other side of my office door, my secretary worked steadily, updating the current files. Down the hall, any operatives who weren’t already on the road were planning for their next assignments and tying up loose ends from the last one.

Yes, I’d done well. I’d gotten the success I’d obsessively believed was so important. But had I paid too high a price? That was something I chose not to think about.

“You have a great reputation in the industry,” Morgan went on. “You’re known for providing the best security for iconic figures.”

“Iconic?” I couldn’t keep the sarcasm from my voice. “Exactly what does that mean?”

“You know damn well what it means, Charley. And you know you’re the best.”

“Thanks, but I don’t think you came here to pay me a compliment.” I fiddled with a pen on my desk, needing something to do with my hands. “I was shocked when I saw your name on the appointment schedule.”

And that wasn’t the only reaction I’d had. When I’d seen Morgan’s name on the calendar, it had reminded me of Dallas, a sharp sensation like a punch to the gut. It invaded my body, stirring up memories and emotions I’d worked so long to keep under lock and key.

“You could have called me and canceled,” he pointed out.

Which I probably should have. “The message said it was important.”

He smiled, the same little-boy smile Dallas had, the one the Creed brothers apparently never lost. My stomach knotted, and my mouth went dry. No, no, no. Not after all this time. Would I never recover from my shattered heart? By sheer effort of will, I managed to block Dallas’ face from my mind.

“And you were curious about what I wanted.”

I kept my face impassive. “Mildly.”

“But not about Dallas,” he added softly.

Yes! No! Go away, Morgan.

“My personal interest in Dallas Creed has long since disappeared. I don’t want to know anything about him.” I dropped the pen and picked up my coffee mug. Anything to keep Morgan from seeing how much discussing Dallas unsettled me. “I have to say, though, he’s certainly had a long ride.”

Morgan nodded. “The majority of performers like him peak after five years, slide back down to appearing in clubs, then retire before people begin to feel sorry for them.”

“But not Dallas.”

He nodded. “But not Dallas. And I’ll be goddamned if I can figure out why. Maybe because he’s neither pure country nor pure rock. He crosses over, a very important thing in success in the music industry.”

He paused.

“And?” I prompted.

“And…he’s got…something indefinable that takes him to the top and keeps him there. Not once, but twice. Charley, he’s bigger this time than he ever was.”

I shrugged and sat up straighter. Why was I even listening to this? It killed me to realize that after twenty years, my emotions could still be so raw that just discussing Dallas made them bleed around the edges.

“Not my business, except I’m curious why you might need my services. I thought all promoters had security.”

“That’s basically to keep people from rushing the stage and weird things like that.” I couldn’t mistake the tension in his voice. “Or to keep a lid on the groupies.”

I made a rude noise. “That must not go over very big. Keeping the groupies away.”

The look Morgan shot me was hard, but he didn’t comment. Instead, he walked to the big window and stood there, hands in his pockets. When he finally spoke again, I had to work hard to conceal my shock at what he said. The very last thing I’d expected him to tell me was that someone was trying to kill Dallas. That there had already been three attempts, and he was getting threatening notes as well.

“Kill Dallas?” I still couldn’t wrap my mind around it. “Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

“But who would want to kill him? He’s just a….”

“Singer? Performer?” He turned to look at me. “When you reach that level of fame, there’s always someone out there making you a target. Failed wannabes. Discarded groupies. Someone with an imagined slight.”

“Why not report it to the police?” I asked. “Let them handle it?”

“Because I have no one to point the finger at. No place for them to dig. And it would throw the tour into chaos.”

“Oh yes.” I couldn’t keep the tinge of bitterness from my voice. “Let’s be sure nothing happens to the tour.”

It was a resentful thing to say, a leftover from long ago, and I hoped I didn’t sound like all the discarded women I’d met over the years. But Morgan didn’t seem to notice. He shoved his hands into his pockets.

“Look, Charley. We’ve got only four more dates left on this tour after the one in San Antonio. Then I can take him home and hide him at the ranch. Meanwhile, I need someone to be with Dallas 24/7, so no one can get to him. Who can provide security no matter where he is. Someone who can also dig into why this is happening. Like I said, Roper Protective Services has a reputation for being the best.”

Give Dallas Creed that kind of protection? The man who still starred in the erotic fantasies that crowded my mind despite my best efforts to banish them? Whose music seemed to follow me wherever I went? Not even on the coldest day in hell.

I walked over to the credenza and poured more coffee into my mug, giving myself a chance to collect my scattered thoughts. “I don’t think so, Morgan. You wasted your time coming here.”

“But I told you, Charlotte,” he objected, “I want the best, and that’s you.”

“You won’t get it by calling me Charlotte,” I snapped. I’d hated that name all my life.

He chuckled. “Touchy, touchy. I thought your professional status demanded that formality. But okay, no problem, Charley.” His face sobered. “However, we both know you are the best, and I won’t risk my brother’s life on second-rate help.”

“There are a lot of—”

“No.” The sharp protest cut me off. “I want you.”

My immediate thought was, well, you can’t have me.

“Why?” I was curious. “Do the attempts on his life have something to do with you being along on the tour? You never did it before.”

”Not exactly.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and walked to the window. “There’s a lot you don’t know, and I’m not going to tell you unless you take this gig.” He turned back toward me. “So what’s it going to be?”

“First of all, if you don’t find out who’s behind this, the minute he’s out in public again he becomes a target. And why haven’t you gone to the police?”

“And tell them what? We think someone shot at him? We think someone’s after him?” Morgan sounded disgusted. “That’s why I’m here. You can investigate and you can protect him.” He paused. “Come on, Charley. No matter how you feel, you can’t hate him enough to just hang him out there to dry.”

I fiddled with my coffee mug again, wishing my pulse would quit trying to hammer through my veins.

“How about this,” he suggested. “I’ve got a ticket with me for tomorrow night’s concert. Why don’t you at least go and take a peek? You might even have a good time. Then we’ll talk. Will you do that much?”

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