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He wanted nothing at all…
Until he found she had everything to give…
Sunder lead singer and guitarist Sebastian Stone has everything—fans, fame, and fortune. He also has a heart full of bitterness and a reputation for a short-fused temper. But an outward reputation rarely reveals the true man inside. Facing assault charges after trying to protect his younger brother, Sebastian is sent to Savannah, Georgia to lie low until the dust settles in L.A.
Shea Bentley is beautiful, kind, and hiding from the very lifestyle Sebastian has always embraced.
When the mysterious, tattooed stranger begins hanging out at the bar where she works, Shea is quick to recognize he is nothing but trouble, but she's helpless to the way her body lights up every time his intense gray eyes tangle with hers.
They both soon find themselves drowning in a sea of desire and passion that won’t let them up for air.
Sebastian knows firsthand secrets never die, and he’s not the only one who’s hiding them.
Loving someone always comes with a price. But will it be Shea’s past that costs them everything?
A.L. Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of Take This Regret and Lost to You, as well as other contemporary romance titles, including Pulled and When We Collide.
She first found a love for writing during her days as a young mother and college student. She filled the journals she carried with short stories and poems used as an emotional outlet for the difficulties and joys she found in day-to-day life.
Years later, she shared a short story she’d been working on with her two closest friends and, with their encouragement, this story became her first full length novel. A.L. now spends her days writing in Southern Arizona where she lives with her husband and three children. Her favorite pastime is spending time with the ones she loves.
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A Stone in the Sea
by A.L. Jackon
by A.L. Jackon
I drew in a thick, soggy breath, and my boots sank into the damp sand as I met the shoreline. Humidity clung to the dark, endless sky, a dense mist hugging the surface of the ocean that seethed in the night, a toiling mess of beauty and contradiction. I lifted my face to the stars that stretched on forever, an eternal canopy that seemed too low yet impossible to touch.
Sometimes I wished I could reach through it to find all that had been lost.
Lights shined from the huge house on the hill behind me, life stretching its fingers out into the shadows, seeking a way to connect with my spirit, just as the tide raced in as if to embrace me. To wrap me in its arms and pull me under.
It didn’t matter what sea I brushed up against.
He was always there.
Waiting for me.
I raised my arms out to my sides and welcomed him because I never wanted to let him go. Didn’t ever want to forget. Wind pounded at my face, the taste of salt and sea filling my senses, and I remembered exactly why I was here.
What I was willing to protect, no matter the cost.
Savannah. Fucking. Georgia.
How the hell did I end up here?
I propped my hand up against the molding encasing the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. In the daylight, it appeared peaceful and serene, a gentle rush of the tide as it staked its claim up the bank, then slowly rolled back out to sea.
“You okay?” Anthony asked from behind me.
All the rest of the guys were still asleep, but I finally gave up on trying to catch a even a wink when the sun came up.
I jerked my attention to where Anthony leaned up against the massive island in the center of the opulent kitchen. My brow got all twisted up in an incredulous scowl, all of it directed at him. Anthony Di Pietro.
Sunder’s agent and one of the few people in this world who I actually liked.
Even though I couldn’t look at him right now without feeling all pissy and annoyed. This was the guy I trusted with the three things in this world that were important to me—my band, the guys in it, and my baby brother.
“No, I’m not okay. There’s not one fucking thing okay with this, Anthony. Can they even do this?”
His shoulders lifted to his ears, and he puffed out a heavy breath with a slow shake of his head. “They can do whatever they want. They own you, Baz.”
I bit off a bitter laugh. All my life I’d worked to make sure no one owned me. Music setting me free. Then I’d just turned around and sold my soul to the devil.
“You know nothing right now is definitive,” he continued. “It might be another warning, but you and I both know we’re running out of strings to pull. You all made the right choice, coming here.”
Turning around, I raked a hand over my face. “Still can’t get my head around this shit.”
Guilt got all messed up with the aggression I’d dealt with my entire life. The two were enough to strangle me. Yet another fucking disaster I’d gotten myself into. Only this time it affected everyone. But what was I supposed to do? Let that pompous asshole get away with what he’d done?
My chin took on a defiant set when I looked at Anthony. “I won’t apologize for what I did.”
He was a good guy, mid-forties, three kids he adored, a wife he adored more. Not many people had that kind of integrity in this industry.
Hell, not many people had that kind of integrity at all.
“I’m not asking you to. You think I don’t know why you did it?” he asked, his voice coated with empathy, and I knew in my gut the guy completely understood. He tipped his head to the side and narrowed his eyes to prove a point. “But do you really want to broadcast that to the rest of the world?”
I attempted to swallow around the lump wedged at the base of my throat. “No.”
He pushed off the island and began to pace, his dress shoes echoing on the marble floor. “You know I’ll do everything in my power to put enough pressure on this guy to drop the charges, but in the meantime, you guys need to take advantage of the quiet. Write some music…do some recording. That’s why you’re here. You don’t have to think of it as for any other reason.”
Looking to the high ceiling, I rubbed under my jaw, trying to keep my shit together. Right. Like this was just some kind of awesome retreat. Like we weren’t here hiding away at Anthony’s seaside mansion when we were supposed to be on our way to France for the start of our European tour.
That’s what we’d tweeted to the world to announce the cancellation.
And our fans were pissed.
No, we weren’t the biggest band in the world. Our style was too dark and gritty and loud for the mainstream airways, but we had a huge-ass following, our shows selling out city after city, our songs downloaded at a rate that blew my mind.
We played and people listened.
But now even that was being threatened.
When I got slapped with assault charges and they yanked the tour sponsorship, Anthony had convinced us to come here. The bottom floor had a state of the art recording studio, plus Anthony figured the place was so secluded and we were so far away from L.A., there was little chance of anyone recognizing us.
The rest of the guys knew why we were here.
The last thing he needed was another cross to bear.
Anthony pulled on his suit jacket, straightened his tie. “All of you just need to lie low for the next few weeks. Fitzgerald doesn’t want you anywhere in the public eye. Not until Mylton Records decides if they’re going to pull the label or not.”
“Thought they ate up the punked out drama.” It was all a sneer.
It was good for image. That’s what that greedy bastard Fitzgerald had said when he signed us, practically salivating at the mouth when he found out I had a record about ten miles long, and not the music kind.
Anthony curled up his own sarcastic grin. “Oh, you know how the saying goes, Baz…it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt. You start beating on industry execs and the industry is going to take note.”
Yeah, and I’d do it again. Without hesitation. I’d always protect my own just like I always had. Scum like Jennings didn’t deserve their next breath.
“You know this band has taken on a lot of heat, Baz. First your father, then Mark, and now this.”
I tried not to flinch with the impact of Mark’s name, but it was there, like a bolt of fiery lightning. I ground my teeth against the pain. Couldn’t even begin to go there. Not yet.
It was too raw.
Too fucking raw.
After Julian, I knew that kind of wound didn’t heal.
On an exhale, Anthony set an almost pleading expression on his face, like he knew whatever he was getting ready to say was going to be met with resistance. “Just do what I ask for once, Baz. Stay here and pretend like this is exactly where you want to be.”
This was the last place I wanted to be.
My voice was hard. “I’ve never run from the shit I have to face.”
“I beg to differ, my friend. You just run the opposite direction…head first into it with fists flying. You need to take a step back and rein yourself in. I mean, God, Baz, you beat an executive producer to within in an inch of his life.” He took a step forward and set his hand on my shoulder. “I know you, and I know all of this is killing you. But you’ve always stood up for everyone else in your life. It’s time you stood up for yourself and took some time to deal with what’s going on inside of you. Because if you don’t? You’re going to end up losing everything that’s important to you and there won’t be a damned thing in this world I can do to stop it.”
My guts got all tied up in a hundred knots and nausea coiled in my stomach.
He squeezed my shoulder and tossed me a wry smile, doing his best to lighten the mood. “Come on, think of this as a vacation. Just keep your dick in your pants and your fists out of asshole’s faces, and everything will turn out fine. I’m heading back to L.A. and I promise you I’ll take care of this shit with Jennings, but I can’t do it if you’re stirring up more trouble.”
I almost snorted.
That shit followed me wherever I went. Didn’t matter if I was here or in L.A.
Anthony’s phone buzzed, and he swiped his finger over it and read the message. “My car’s here.” He tucked it in his jacket pocket. “I’ve got to get to the airport. I’ll keep you posted on everything.”
He grabbed his briefcase, adjusted it on his suitcase, and pulled it behind him through the large, open living area toward the double doors leading out front. He paused in the foyer and looked back at me.
“If you can’t do this for yourself, then do it for the band. But know they love you, Baz. Don’t doubt they understand why you did what you did even better than I do. None of them want to see a repeat of Mark. I’m not sure any one of you would survive it. And if Austin’s your family, then he’s their family too.”
Feeling like he just drop-kicked me in the stomach, I stood there in silence and watched Anthony walk out the door, the thought of losing Austin enough to weaken my knees. That kid was my life. My responsibility.
Sucking in a breath, I forced myself to move, turned around and plodded up the large curved staircase so I could hit the shower. I froze when I rounded the top and found Austin huddled on the top step, fists gripping handfuls of light brown hair as he rocked with his head buried between his knees.
“Austin.” I grabbed the railing to help myself kneel down in front of him. He’d just turned eighteen, was all legs and lanky body, had the same grayish-green eyes as mine, and his hair was shaggy and just as messy as the warped emotions that skewed all of his thoughts. He was good, through and through, but held a heart so full of self-hatred he could see none of it.
He took the blame that was mine and I’d spend the rest of my life erasing it from him.
“Austin,” I called again, quieter this time, tugging at one of his hands that ripped at his hair. “Stop.”
He shook his head almost violently. “It’s my fault.”
I grabbed him by the outside of his head, forcing him to look at me. “No. It’s not. It’s not.” I dropped my forehead to his, pleading with him to for once believe it, my voice rough and shallow. “Not your fault.”
Dim lights filtered down from the high, exposed rafters of the old historic building, and flameless tabletop lamps flickered from the tall round tables and secluded high-backed booths. The yellowy glow clung to the dingy air, casting everything in a dusky fog. Still, it felt almost as if the night was set on fast motion, a projector beaming blips of indistinct faces and muffled voices through the packed bar, these stolen moments spinning by so quickly as people sought the reprieve found in this special place.
The cavernous room was always dark and seemed to hold a mystery, like a million secrets had been told here and the walls protected them in the safety of their arms.
Never had I imagined I’d come to make this place a piece of my own. All the years that had been spent priming and molding and shaping me for one singular goal, and yet my path had led me straight back here.
But I learned early on some things are much more important than any ambition.
I wound around the tables set up on the hardwood floor and made my way back to the gorgeous antique bar that sat like an island adrift in this sea of revelry. It was a massive oblong that made a full circle, and besides for when the stage was serving its purpose where it was positioned at the very far end of the colossal building, the bar commanded the focus of Charlie’s.
I leaned my elbows on top of the dark polished wood. Even though I was tall, I always felt inclined to lift up on my toes, as if to match the lift of my voice. “Hey, Charlie,” I shouted over the din of the noisy room. “I need a gin and tonic and two amber ales.”
Charlie’s back was to me as he hustled behind the bar. He reached up to grab several hurricane glasses from the bar racks suspended on chains from the high ceiling.
Over his shoulder, he shot me a crooked, bearded grin. “You got it darlin’. Give me a sec to fill your last order. You’ve been firing ‘em at me faster than I can fill ‘em.”
“That’s because the place is packed tonight. I can’t keep up myself.”
With a short shake of his head, he spun around and began mixing drinks in front of me. “You keep up just fine. This place hasn’t run so smooth in years…not until you came back to me.” He sent me a wink and slid two drinks my direction, which I quickly arranged on my tray. “I was five minutes from shuttin’ this place down until you came and rescued it.”
I rolled affectionate eyes at him.
“Oh, aren’t you the charmer.”
Always the charmer and always completely full of it. Charlie’s had been a staple in Savannah for years, and he’d never been anywhere close to shutting it down.
Really, it was Charlie who had done the rescuing.
That charmer who scrambled around the gorgeous antique bar? He was also my uncle, my mother’s brother. He was the only one who had been there for me when I didn’t have anyone else to turn to, because everyone else had turned me away. He never told me it was a waste or called it a mistake. He just encouraged me to live my life…on my own terms…terms that everyone else had always tried to set for me.
Charlie stepped back and wiped his hands on a towel before he ran it over the bar top, eyebrow quirked up as he cast me a teasing smile. “That’s why you love me, Shea Bear.”
The soft spot I’d always held for him glowed with the pet name he’d used for me since I was just a little girl.
I balanced my tray in my hands and eyed him over the top of the bar. “I love you because you’re the best, Charlie.”
It was just a flash, but I saw it there in the brown eyes that were the same as mine, that he cared for me just as much as I cared for him.
In my twenty-three years, I’d come to recognize there were three types of guys.
Maybe it was wrong of me to lump them into categories, but I’d learned to do it for my own self-preservation. As a way to survive in a world that wanted to use me up before it hung me out to dry.
First, there were the assholes. They were easy to spot. They were always after one thing and one thing only.
It didn’t matter if it was sex or money, fame or comfort. It all amounted to the same thing. Every move they made was purposed to bring them self-gratification and they were all too happy to reach out and take whatever they wanted to make it happen. Most of them didn’t give a second thought to those it hurt in the process. Hell, they usually took a little more pleasure in doing it.
Then there were the nice guys. These guys were a little harder to read because they didn’t set out to do people wrong. They were sweet and nice and treated you like a princess right up to the point when they didn’t get what they wanted or after they’d had their fill of it. These guys would hit you with all kinds of valid excuses, rationalizing their actions away to make themselves feel better. Half the time they left you feeling like you were the one who’d done something wrong in the first place.
Last, there were the good guys.
Guys with character. The one’s who’d sacrifice for someone else, even if it meant it cost them something or they had nothing to gain. Even if it meant the end-result might not stack in their favor. They just did it because it was the right thing to do.
He was one of the good guys.
He gave me a little salute before he turned to grin at Tamar, one of the other bartenders who slipped under the small opening at one end of the bar, arms full of bottles that needed to be restocked. She was older than me by a year or two, flaming red hair, and pretty much looked like a modern-day pin-up girl, all curves and tattoos and flawlessly done make-up. Plus the girl took crap from no one. She was the perfect fit beside Charlie who was as casual as they came.
Her full red lips spread into a seductive smile. I was pretty sure she didn’t know a different one. “I leave for five minutes and this guy is already slacking off? Get back to work, old man.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He cocked his head her direction, eyes on me, and mouthed, “Slave driver.”
Laughing, I situated the last of the drinks Charlie poured for me on my tray. “Now Tamar is the real reason this bar is still afloat. You’re lucky she headed east when she did.”
“Now don’t go fillin’ this one’s head any fuller than it already is. She already thinks she owns the place.”
Tamar maneuvered to set the base of all the bottles on the far countertop, arms wrapped around them like she was hugging them. Glass clanked as they settled, and she straightened up to her full five foot one stature. Her five inch heels still didn’t bring her close to Charlie’s chin. She tossed her hair off her shoulder. “What do you mean, think?”
Charlie laughed and tossed a balled-up towel at her, which she snatched out of the air.
“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of thinking anything, sugar. Now help me fill these orders. This old man is falling behind.”
Somehow that smile turned soft and she went to work.
Without a doubt, it was Charlie who owned all of us.
With my tray balanced on my hand, I moved back through the bodies who were gathering thick, smiling my most welcoming smile as I issued a couple of excuse me’s and sorry’s so I could shoulder through. Music blared from the speakers, all thanks to our sound guy Derrick, and a local band was setting up on the stage. They played here often, always a big draw for Saturday nights, both for our regulars and the tourists out looking for a good time after they’d spent a lazy day on the beach.
I dodged a few grabby hands from a group of college guys who had clearly had too much to drink and were in danger of skating from nice guy zone and straight into asshole territory, but I’d worked here long enough to know how to deal with them. I just grinned and let it slide right off my bare back.
I stopped at a couple of tables and dropped off drinks, grabbed the order from a group of younger women who had pulled two tables together to accommodate their party, and let my gaze wander to see if I’d missed anyone who needed attention in my section. It got stuck on the lone figure hidden away in the farthest corner booth who hadn’t been sitting there the last time I made my rounds.
Weaving through the crowd, I edged toward him. Somehow my footsteps got slower the closer I got. He wore a black beanie, his head down and all his attention trained on his phone that was lit up in the backdrop of darkness. My eyes got drawn to his hands that held the expensive device, all big and strong, seeming to be just as powerful as this guy’s presence. He wore a long-sleeved button up shirt, the cuffs rolled up his forearms in a careless fashion, his forearms exposed and revealing the intricate ink scrolling along his skin.
A knot of intrigue formed somewhere in my chest.
I was suddenly wishing to be closer, just so I could make out the design.
Even though we got people here from all walks of life, young and old, country and rocker, bikers and businessmen, he still seemed to stick out, too vibrant to belong within the confines of these walls. And I hadn’t even seen his face.
Inwardly, I rolled my eyes at myself. Get a grip, Shea.
Sucking in a breath, I pulled myself together and forced myself to the edge of the table he was tucked behind. In a voice loud enough to cut through the music and jumble of voices, I gave him my standard greeting. “Hey there, welcome to Charlie’s.”
His hands gripped tighter at the phone when my words hit him, and it seemed to take him an eternity to lift his head, as if he were contemplating whether he really wanted to reveal himself.
And when he did, I kind of wished he wouldn’t have.
For one rapturous second, time stood still as I got lost in a face that had to be the most beautiful I’d ever seen. It wasn’t perfect, and maybe that was the problem. His full, full lips were a little crooked on one side, his cheekbones high and defined, his jaw all severe, sharp angles and coated in what had to be three days of scruff. A scar split through his right eyebrow, making it appear lower on that side, and there was a trace of another at the bottom of his chin.
But it was the hardness burning from his strange grey eyes that knocked the breath from my lungs.
No, not perfect.
Just beautiful and dark and a little bit frightening.
My heart thudded and I couldn’t stop from taking a startled step back as a slow slide of attraction trickled beneath the surface of my skin, like feathers touching me everywhere, before it gathered to flutter low in my belly. Maybe it’d been far too long since I’d allowed a man to touch me, because I all at once felt the grip slipping on my own little reality. The reality where men didn’t cause a reaction like this in me because I knew better than to go looking for that kind of heartbreak.
No, I didn’t have a bunch of priorities or concerns.
I had one.
I couldn’t afford to flirt or play, not like normal women my age, couldn’t risk the trouble a boy like this would most assuredly bring.
As if he’d want me after he knew, anyway.
The beautiful stranger’s frown only deepened, and I felt like a total idiot standing there with my mouth hanging open, tongue tied.
Blinking away the stupor, I swallowed hard and painted a smile on my face, knowing it probably appeared just as fake as it felt, but this guy had left me staggered, confused and affected in a way I didn’t necessarily like.
“What can I get for you?” I finally managed to say.
Those burning grey eyes narrowed in speculation, and not exactly in a friendly way. Waiting. As if he were waiting on me when I was the one who’d asked the question.
My own head tilted, searching him in the shadows in return, wondering what he was thinking, because he was looking at me as if he were expecting me to call him by name. Suddenly all of those years of self-consciousness came bounding in, and discomfort shifted my feet as I went cold with dread.
Did he recognize me?
It was rare, because I’d grown from a girl to a woman, and my once short straight blond hair was now long with wavy curls, woven with streaks of light browns and blonds.
Just when I was about to bolt and send over a different server, he leaned forward and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Uh…yeah…sorry. Gran Patron Platinum or Suprema. Neat.”
That voice chased away all my worry. Eclipsing it in song. A rich, velvety sound filling up my ears and tickling my senses.
“Please,” he said a little harder than the last, jarring me from the faraway place my mind had just gone. A smirk ticked up at the corner of his pretty, pretty mouth, like he knew precisely where my head had been.
God, this guy was dangerous. And had very expensive taste in tequila.
With one harsh shake of my head, I regained my composure, that feigned smile back in full force. “Sure thing. I’ll be right back.”
He only nodded, but his eyes softened a fraction.
Just like quicksand.
I wondered what it’d be like if I jumped in.
Tearing myself away before my mind had a chance to entertain any more ridiculous thoughts, I spun around and put some much needed space between us. I stopped to check on a few of my other tables on the way back to the bar, all the while pretending like I couldn’t feel the heat of his gaze penetrating me, my spine tingling in awareness where he traced along the skin that was exposed with the draping, backless fabric of my blouse.
When I returned with his drink, he mumbled a quiet, “thank you,” and I found myself having to force myself not to linger or stare, but couldn’t help it when he kept those grey eyes trained on me and tipped the crystal to his pouty mouth, just enough to wet his lips. His tongue peeked out for a taste, and my knees went a little weak.
Good God, he was a sipper.
With shaky fingers, I touched my forehead and felt the heat there. Self-consciously, I tucked a thick lock of my long bangs behind my ear and did my best to clear the lump from my throat. Still my voice was hoarse. “Let me know if there’s anything else I can get for you,” I said, fumbling as I backed away.
Every instinctual piece of me knew I needed to run, that there was something about this beautiful stranger I couldn’t resist. What scared me most was the intensity of his stare told me he knew exactly what it was and he wouldn’t be opposed to using it against me.
I almost breathed a sigh of relief when I found him gone the next time I made my rounds, a hundred dollar bill trapped beneath the empty glass. Only the feeling was distorted by an overwhelming rush of disappointment.
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