Hard As It Gets

By: Laura Kaye

Chapter 1

Becca Merritt stepped through the heavy industrial door and into another world. A buzzer screeched above her head, sending her heart into quick palpitations somewhere in the neighborhood of her throat. Compared to the late April warmth, the indoor air was like a meat locker, thick and intensely cold—or maybe that was just the draining weight of her anxiety these past days. She hugged herself and rubbed her arms.

“Be with you in a minute,” a gruff voice called from the back. The driving bass beat of a hard-edged rock song echoed from the same direction.

Gripping her purse more tightly under her arm, Becca’s gaze scanned the colorful images covering every inch of wall space. Tribal birds, winged hearts, dagger-eyed skulls, full-faced roses, crosses, and cartoon characters were some of the designs she noticed at first glance. Playful, gory, beautiful, haunting, many of the images were objectively artistic and oddly compelling.

Becca found tattoos intriguing, and she saw a lot of them on patients that came through the emergency department. She’d never really considered getting one for herself, though. Her father would’ve flipped out, and she’d always valued his opinion too much to rock the boat. With her dad gone now, she supposed there was nothing stopping her besides not knowing what image she’d want permanently drawn on her skin.

Like nails on a chalkboard, the buzzer sounded again and the door banged shut behind her. Becca whirled, expecting . . . she didn’t even know what. Strange as the past few days had been, anything seemed possible right now. But it was just a woman. A totally fascinating woman. Despite wearing all black, she was a riot of color, from the dark red highlights in her shoulder-length black hair, held back in sloppy-but-cute pigtails, to the dramatic eye makeup, to the colorful ink running the length of both arms. She was the Goth yin to Becca’s Plain Jane yang.

The woman juggled a stack of huge pizza boxes and a plastic grocery bag of canned sodas. “Sorry if you’ve been waiting a while.”

“Oh, no.” Becca rushed to her. “Can I help you with that?”

“Aw, you’re a doll. Yes, please, before my wrist breaks off.” The woman twisted her hand out. Becca unlooped the plastic handle from her arm, revealing angry red grooves in her skin from bearing the weight of it. “It’s a good thing I like these guys so much.” A quick grin as she dropped the two pizza boxes on the counter, which nearly reached to her chest she was so short. She heaved a deep breath and braced her hands on her hips. “Now, how can I help you?”

Becca’s stomach flip-flopped. Would she finally start getting some answers today? “I’m looking for a Mr. Rixey.”

The woman arched a pierced brow. “Mr. Rixey? Don’t hear him called that often.” She chuckled and winked. Between her vibrancy and the mischievous sparkle in her dark eyes, she gave off such self-assurance that her presence dominated the room, making her seem much bigger than her petite stature. “And may I tell him who’s asking?”

“My name is Becca Merritt. I don’t have an appointment or anything.” The rich, spicy smell of the pizza made her stomach clench. When had she last eaten, anyway?

“I think he’s finishing up with someone, but I’ll make sure he knows you’re waiting. Have a seat, if you like.” The woman gestured to the Naugahyde couch behind Becca, the one that had probably been new when bell bottoms were fashionable, if the pea green color was any guide.

“Thanks,” Becca said. The cushion creaked as she sat.

The woman scooped the pies off the counter and disappeared behind a dividing wall. “Oh, Mr. Rixey, your presence is requested,” she said in a singsong voice. The response was muffled by an outburst of exclamations over the arrival of their dinner.

The strangers behind the wall hurled playful insults and sarcastic retorts at one another. Becca smiled, reminded of Charlie, her younger brother. The one she’d always felt motherly toward, despite only being a year older. The quiet one, who’d been withdrawing into himself more and more with each loss her family had experienced over the years. The one she hadn’t seen or been able to contact for almost a week—ever since their fight—not even through the private channels he’d set up just for the two of them.

And the one communication she’d received from him had ratcheted up her worry so much that she found herself sitting here. A ball of guilt and fear took up residence in her stomach and steamrolled right over those hunger pangs.

Five minutes passed. Ten. Fifteen. Becca mindlessly fingered the silver charms on her bracelet, a quirky collection of bars and circles, then spotted an album of photographs featuring satisfied customers with their finished tattoos. She flipped through the pages of colored ink, silently debating which ones she would’ve actually considered getting. Sighing, she returned the book to the table.

Damn, if coming to a tattoo shop with hopes of finding someone who could figure out what kind of trouble they were in wasn’t a sign of desperation, she didn’t know what was.

Footsteps approached from the back. Becca rose just as a man rounded the corner and stepped into the space behind the counter. The beat-up gray T-shirt he wore had an interstate sign that read ROUTE 69. Becca stared at it a minute and felt her eyes go wide when she realized what it said. Tattoos peeked out above his collar and down the lengths of both arms to his wrists. He was young and had emo hair, long and dark and disheveled in a totally sexy way. Two little rings of silver hung at the corner of his right eyebrow. She gaped for a moment, unsure what or who she’d been expecting. A flock of butterflies whipped through her abdomen.

He braced his hands on the counter. “Hi. Sorry to keep you waiting. You need to see me?”

Pull yourself together, Bec. Unable to sleep the previous night, Becca was already five cups of coffee into a possible nervous breakdown. She forced a deep breath. “Uh, yes. You’re Mr. Rixey?”

He smirked and flicked his tongue against the piercing on the side of his bottom lip. “Yeah. What can I do for you?”

Becca approached the counter, suddenly uncertain where to start. So she went with the basics. “I need your help.” The man frowned, but Becca pushed on. “Look, I’m sorry to just barge in here, but I might be in trouble, and I’m pretty sure my brother already is. He sent me this.” She rifled through her purse, removed the folded printout, and offered it to him.

His frown deepened as he unfolded the rumpled paper. She knew the words by heart—

“You’ve got the wrong man.”

Panic tripped her heart into a sprint. “No, my brother sent me here. He wouldn’t have done that unless he thought you could help.”

He shook his head, his odd yellow-green eyes filled with relief and sympathy. “It’s not that. You gotta be looking for my brother, Nick. I’m Jeremy.”

A headache bloomed behind Becca’s eyes. She pressed her fingers into her temple and rubbed a small circle. “Oh.”

He spun the sheet around on the counter and tapped his finger against the paper. “See, I’ve never heard of your brother, and I don’t know any colonels. But I’m guessing that’s some sort of a reference to the Army. Which was my brother’s thing. Me? Not so much.” He smiled, an expression that managed to be aw-shucks cute and flirtatiously sexy at the same time.

Becca accepted the printout of her last private message from Charlie, the one that had directed her to “Find Rixey, the Colonel’s team, Hard Ink Tattoo,” and sagged against the counter. “Do you know where Nick is? It’s really important I find him.”

“I’m Nick Rixey. Who wants to know?”

Becca jumped at the deep sound of the man’s voice. Geez. How long had he been standing there? And, big as he was, how had she not heard him approach? It was like he’d materialized out of thin air.

The surprise of his appearance pounded adrenaline through her system. Her racing pulse had absolutely nothing to do with the bulge of his impressive biceps straining the sleeves of his black T-shirt, the hints of ink just visible on his upper arms, nor with his harsh yet darkly handsome face. And definitely not with the way his jeans hung on those lean hips. Right. Definitely not.

Given who her father was, or had been, this was the type of man she’d expected to find at the end of Charlie’s cryptic note. His dark hair was a little on the long side, but the hard edges and leashed strength of his body clearly read ex-military. “I’m Becca,” she finally managed. “I think something’s happened to my brother, and his last message told me to find you.” She held the printout toward him, her bracelet jingling.

Arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the wall that led to the back of the business, Nick Rixey appeared for all the world to be nonchalant and unaffected. So then why did he remind her of a jungle cat poised to strike, all tense muscles and killer menace? His gaze held hers, and there was something so icy and calculating about it. She felt . . . observed and . . . evaluated. The color of his eyes was the same as Jeremy’s, but with none of the warmth. Becca had to make a point of not squirming under the intensity.

Just when she was certain he wasn’t going to take it, he slipped the paper from her fingers, his gaze never leaving hers until he finally glanced at the message. His eyebrows sank into an angry slash. “Got a last name, Becca?” he asked in a deadly calm tone.

She restrained from verbalizing the no that parked itself on the tip of her tongue. But after the week she’d had—hell, the whole year she’d had—Becca was in no mood to play, even with Mr. Tall, Dark, and Dangerously Sexy. So she swallowed the sarcasm and made nice. After all, she was there to ask him for help. “Merritt. My name is Becca Merritt.”

His jaw ticked and his narrowed gaze went arctic. “I can’t help you.”

Becca glanced to Jeremy, still standing at the counter watching their little drama unfold, then back to Nick. “But my brother—”

“If your brother’s in trouble, you should go to the police.” He tossed Charlie’s message on the counter in front of her.

“I have. They aren’t helping us.” Her stomach dropped into her sneakers. She knew little about Nick, except that this man was the only solid lead she had for help.

He shrugged. Shrugged! “Don’t know what else to say.”

Blood roared through her ears. Anger, fear, and desperation swamped her. “Charlie wouldn’t have sent me here without a good reason. I don’t know what else to do, where else to go,” she gritted out, hating the pleading in her voice.

“Sorry,” he said in a tone that didn’t sound regretful at all.

Becca stared at him, stared at the impassive expression on the face she’d found so incredibly attractive just a few minutes before. Now she wanted to haul off and deck him. Just to make him react. Just to make him care about something.

She was so done with the vortex of mystery and anxiety and uncertainty swirling around the edges of her life. Ever since their father died, Charlie had grown paranoid, distant, and reclusive, especially lately—and that was saying something for a guy who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t like. Becca had loved and admired her father, but she was so angry at him for getting himself killed and for never making things right with Charlie before he died. And she was equal parts sick with worry about her brother and pissed at herself for shutting him down when he’d tried to tell her about the supposed conspiracy he’d uncovered. Because, now that he was missing, maybe it wasn’t so crazy after all. But what it had to do with this Rixey guy, she couldn’t begin to imagine.

And now, another brick wall—this one made of six foot three inches of stubborn asshole. Clearly she’d put too much unwarranted hope into this stranger. She was as mad at herself for that as she was at him.

Grabbing the paper and stuffing it haphazardly into her purse, Becca heaved a deep breath. “I am, too. Sorry to have bothered you.” She lifted her gaze to Jeremy, wanting to thank him for being willing to listen, but she was unable to voice the words. “I like your shirt” came out instead. Awesome.

Without waiting for a reply or meeting the other Rixey brother’s gaze, she turned, walked past the wall of colorful images, and left Hard Ink Tattoo.

Fine. She’d figure this out on her own. Somehow. She just prayed Charlie was okay until she did.

Because no way was she losing another member of her family. Not again. He was all she had left.

“DUDE, THAT WAS harsh,” Jeremy said.

Resisting the urge to go after her, Rixey pulled his gaze away from the spot where Becca had stood and glared. His conscience was doing enough of a number on him without his brother starting in. “Don’t you have something to do?”

The younger man crossed his arms and returned the cold stare they’d both inherited from their father. “Nope. Seriously, man, why wouldn’t you even hear her out?”

Find Rixey, the Colonel’s team, Hard Ink Tattoo.

Because that message brought to the fore all kinds of bullshit he didn’t really want to deal with. He’d experienced enough trouble at the hands of a Merritt, thank you very much. No way he was signing up for more. Been there. Done that. Got the scars. And the discharge papers. No matter that he couldn’t ignore the way the woman’s pleading blue eyes had sliced into him. Or that a part of him wanted to put the hope she’d worn as she’d first looked at him back on her expressive face. He pushed off the wall. “Gonna grab some chow.”

Jeremy followed him into the back. “Fine. Play it that way. But it was a dick move, and you know it.”

Rixey passed the three tattoo rooms, the piercing room, and the shop’s office that comprised Hard Ink’s inner sanctum before stepping into the wide lounge, with its two tables in the center, a couch along one wall, and a wall-mounted TV in one corner. “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.”

“Yeah, and how’s that been working out for you?” Jeremy followed him in.

Jess looked up from her pizza. “Oh, look, it’s the Bickersons. I swear you two revert to twelve-year-olds in one another’s presence.”

“Shut up,” Jeremy said, smiling at Jess, his piercer, part-time artist, receptionist, and general Jill-of-all-trades. Nick’s little brother loved the girl like she was a sister, having saved her life a few years before. Rixey didn’t know the details, and he didn’t need to know. But he respected Jessica for the deep loyalty with which she repaid Jeremy. She’d more than earned the second chance he’d given her here.

Laughing, Taz rose and threw his plate in the trash. “Thanks for the grub, Jer. I’ll head out.”

Jeremy clasped hands with the man who was one of his oldest, regular customers. “You got it. See you in a few weeks and we’ll start coloring that bad boy in.”

“Sounds like a plan.” They exchanged good-byes and Taz left. Jeremy and Rixey sat at the table and accepted paper plates and drinks from Jess.

“Thanks,” Rixey said as he plated himself two slices. He took a big bite—

“So what did that cute woman want?” Jess asked.

Rixey managed to force the pizza down his throat without choking on it.

Cute? Cute didn’t begin to cut it. Becca Merritt was the all-American girl personified, with her fierce blue eyes and wavy hair the rich color of honey. Bet she tasted as sweet, too. And, damn, that body. It was all he’d been able to do not to gawk at the curves her fitted T-shirt hugged, or trace his eyes over the lace just visible through the thin cotton. It was like the sun had strolled through their front door, casting heat and light all over him. Only the haunted dark circles under her eyes ruined the analogy.

A part of him had felt twice as cold and dark when the door had closed behind her. She’d done just as he’d asked and split, so he didn’t understand the ache of emptiness ballooning inside his chest. No way he was examining it too closely, either.

“Something about her brother being in trouble.” Jeremy’s voice pulled Rixey out of his head. “But she wasn’t here to see me, she was here for Nick. But Nick refused to talk to her, even though she had great taste in T-shirts.”

Jess glanced between them and frowned as she ate. Her arched black eyebrow told Nick everything he needed to know about her opinion on the subject.

Rixey sighed and pushed up from the table, Becca’s hurt and disappointment playing on a loop in his mind’s eye. He grabbed his plate and an extra slice. Seeing her had brought the whole friggin’ mess with her father to the front of his brain. He was shit for company now. The loss of your friends, your career, and your honor did that to a man. Aw, sonofabitch. “I’m gonna take this upstairs.”

He tuned out their voices as he retreated through the back of the shop to the industrial stairwell that led to the upper floors. Jeremy had bought the three-story building with the money their parents left him, and Nick had given him most of his share, too, becoming a silent partner and occasional tattooist in his brother’s business. Not having been there to help Jeremy with everything that went down when their parents died in a car accident four years ago . . . Yeah, it was the least he could do. Literally.

Shit. He was on a roll with the bad memories.

On the second-floor landing, he turned right and keyed in a code. A metallic click sounded, and Rixey pulled open the heavy door to the warehouse-style apartment he shared with his brother. It was supposed to have been a temporary arrangement, but ten months later, he was no damn closer to getting a life because he couldn’t think of anything that came close to replacing the one he’d lost.

Inside, the space still possessed an industrial character, with its brick walls, exposed I beams, high, wide windows, and fifteen-foot ceilings. But Jeremy had done a phenomenal job refurbishing the place and installing modern amenities. Whether it was graphic art, tattoos, or building the interior architecture of their place, the boy had a pair of hands like you hear about. As much of a pain in the ass as Jer could be, Rixey had to give him that.

He crossed the wide living room, with its enormous leather sofa and pair of well-broken-in recliners claimed from their parents’ house, and headed down the hall to his office. He parked himself at his desk, booted up the laptop, and chowed on a slice of pizza while he waited for the login screen to load.

When the thing came to life, Rixey pulled up an internet browser and typed in Becca’s name. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was looking for, but something she’d said had dug its talons into his frontal lobe and refused to let go. “They’re not helping us.” Not me but us. Who the hell was the “us”? Just the brother she’d mentioned? A husband? A kid? Man, two of the three of them gave him a real gut check he had no business feeling.

More distracting was the niggling question of how and why the Merritts would come to him, of all people. He didn’t expect them to know that bad blood flowed like a river after a hard rain between him and their father’s fabricated fallen-hero memory—they’d have no reason to, since the Army prettied that sitch up real good for public consumption. The bigger question was how they knew about Rixey at all. Or why they thought he was the best person to help.

None of it made any friggin’ sense.

And, so what? Why the hell did he care? He owed Frank Merritt absolutely nothing. And his daughter even less.

True. But Rixey couldn’t deny a kind of morbid curiosity about how the daughter of the man who’d ruined his life came to stand in his shop and ask him—of all people—for help.

Scrolling through the search results, listings appeared for Merritts by both the names of Becca and Rebecca. He ruled out the ones who lived too far away or had pictures that clearly weren’t his Becca. His? No. Not at all what he meant. For fuck’s sake.

In the end, he narrowed it down to one of two possibilities. The Becca who was an emergency department nurse at University Medical Center, or the Rebecca who was a kindergarten teacher at a private day school in the city. The woman he’d met seemed the sweet, nurturing type, the kind who brought warmth and comfort to others, so both jobs fit the bill. Rixey opened up the people search page and gathered some possibilities for address.

Why was he doing this again? He didn’t need her address if he had no intention of tracking her down, seeing her . . . helping her.

No. He just needed to convince himself she was safe. He’d devoted a dozen years of his life to Mother Army because he wanted to help people—and something about Becca had resurrected that desire after nearly a year of lying dormant. Once, he’d idolized Colonel Merritt, his former commander, before it had all gone to shit. So, fine. It wasn’t any skin off his nose to spend an evening checking things out. It wouldn’t be like the process server jobs he did where confrontation was part of the gig. For this, he’d stay on the periphery, out of sight. Rixey excelled at not being seen unless he wanted to be seen. What the hell else did he have to do anyway?

And wasn’t that cheery thought just par for the mothereffing course?

Whatever. It was just a little surveillance to make sure his curiosity didn’t keep him up all night—like he needed one more thing.

Printouts in hand, Rixey stalked into his bedroom and changed into a pair of black cargo pants. He secured his ankle carrier and sheathed a blade, then shrugged the holster onto his left shoulder over his tee. He knelt in front of the open closet door and entered the code on his gun safe. The M9 felt like an old friend in his grip. He inspected the piece, holstered it, and slipped a spare magazine into the pocket on his thigh. Jacket, keys, phone, and addresses in hand, he made his way through the apartment and out the back entrance of the building. Last thing he wanted was to play twenty questions with Jeremy and Jess.

The gravel of the parking lot crunched under his boots. The last light of day held on for everything it was worth, casting bright pinks and dark purples across the twilight sky. But the old warehouse veiled the lot in thick shadows, making the black Challenger, except for its silver racing stripes, nearly fade into the dusky murk. Man, he loved that car. After a dozen years of humping it around in armored vehicles built for stability, not comfort, he’d promised himself something sleek, fast, and kind to the ass once he joined the ranks of the civilians.

He’d just never expected that to happen quite so soon. Or against his will.


Rixey dropped into the driver’s seat and took all kinds of satisfaction in the growling rumble of the car’s engine. Small pleasures, man, but these days, he’d take ’em where he found ’em.

Now, to find Becca and prove to himself all was well. And then he could say good-bye to the Merritts once and for fucking all.

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