Justify Me - J. Kenner

Justify Me


A Stark International/Masters and Mercenaries Novella

McKay-Taggart operative Riley Blade has no intention of returning to Los Angeles after his brief stint as a consultant on mega-star Lyle Tarpin’s latest action flick. Not even for Natasha Black, Tarpin’s sexy personal assistant who’d gotten under his skin. Why would he, when Tasha made it absolutely clear that—attraction or not—she wasn’t interested in a fling, much less a relationship.

But when Riley learns that someone is stalking her, he races to her side. Determined to not only protect her, but to convince her that—no matter what has hurt her in the past—he’s not only going to fight for her, he’s going to win her heart. Forever.

About this Story

Publication Date 04/10/2018 Story Type Novella Series Lexi Blake Masters and Mercenaries Crossover Collection Genre Contemporary Romance



I should never have let him get close, this man who swept into my life like living flame, beautifully wild and dangerously enticing.

Didn’t I know the risks? The price?

Wasn’t my soul already bruised and battered?

And yet he slipped through my defenses and edged close to my heart.

Now I’m balancing on a precipice, and all I can do is hope that, despite everything, he’ll catch me if I fall.


Chapter One

Riley Blade reeled back as the frog-faced man’s surprisingly strong punch landed soundly against his jaw, snapping Riley’s head back and pissing him off.

This, he thought. This was why he’d sworn to stay the fuck away from Los Angeles.

And yet here he was again, risking bullets and bruises when he could be downing a Scotch in one of the many bars that dotted the international terminal at LAX.

Clearly, he needed to have his head examined.

Then again, he thought as Froggy took another swing, maybe he should take the punch and see if it knocked some sense into him.

Since that option sounded more painful than practical, he shifted left to avoid the impact, swung his own arm up in a maneuver designed to both deflect and detain, then grabbed Froggy’s wrist and twisted the wiry punk around. By the time Froggy started to howl, Riley had him in a headlock.

“I warned you not to hit me,” he growled, to which Froggy replied with a heartfelt, though not very inventive, “Fuck you.”

“Not my type,” he said amiably, then spoke to the security team listening to the conversation through the hot mic and earpiece Riley wore. “All done. You wanna come relieve me of this piece of shit?”

“Good work, Blade. On my way.” Less than fifteen seconds later, Ryan Hunter stepped in, tall and lean, and looking every bit the badass. The dark-haired security chief for the multi-billion-dollar Stark conglomerate and Riley went way back. Although Hunter had always been private sector, their paths had crossed multiple times during Riley’s days in LA as an FBI SWAT team member, and they’d become good friends, often mistaken for brothers because of their similar build and coloring.

They’d kept in touch even after Riley escaped from La-La Land, and it was that tug of friendship that had landed Riley in this cheap motel room that stank of sex, urine, and something else that Riley really didn’t want to think about.

“Appreciate the assist,” Hunter said. “I’ve been knee deep in assholes for the last few days. A little conversation with this one should go a long way to rounding up a few more and clearing my workload.” He flashed a wicked grin at Riley. “Which means Jamie thanks you, too,” he said, referring to his wife. “She gets cranky when my nights are spent without her. Especially if I’m in a motel.”

If what Riley remembered about the stunning brunette was accurate, she was more of a Ritz-Carlton girl than a No-Tell Motel type. But he understood where Hunter was coming from. Not, however, from personal experience. Riley’s nights had always been his own, and if there was a woman in his bed beside him, there was no expectation on either of their parts that she’d still be there the next night.

Justify Me

For years, that had been the way Riley rolled. Lately, though, he’d been spending too much time with Ian Taggart, and the man was so damn in love with his wife. Hell, it would be sickening if it wasn’t so, well, appealing. And cute. Yeah, it was actually fucking cute.

And now, as he listened to that tone of adoration in Hunter’s voice, Riley couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to have a woman waiting for him at home. Someone who worried about where he was. Someone who shared hopes and dreams and a life.

The odds of that ever happening were slim to none. Hell, he was edging up against thirty-six, but he’d only ever met one woman who’d truly gotten under his skin. A woman with whom he’d imagined long walks and easy conversations. Along with the more standard fantasies involving heated passion and sweaty, naked nights, of course.

Natasha Black.

Her tall, slim body with her just-perfect breasts. The cool gray eyes that could cut like a knife, and that wide, gorgeous mouth that was made for naughty things. Just the thought of her made his cock stiffen and his fingers crave the smooth brush of her skin. She, however, had very soundly shut him down without so much as a movie and popcorn between them.

Just one more reason not to come back to Los Angeles, because why intentionally rub his nose in something he couldn’t have? And yet here he was again.

Not, however, for much longer. This was supposed to be his vacation, after all, and after his last operation with McKay-Taggart, he damn well deserved it. Especially since the operation had been in Los Angeles’s backyard. Fucking Taggart. Riley had told Big Tag that he didn’t do LA, and Big Tag had just shot him that cocky I’m in charge here grin, then informed Riley that Malibu and LA were two completely different cities. When Riley had retorted that they were both in the same damn county, Big Tag had told him to pull up his flowered pink panties and get with the fucking program.

So Riley had hauled his manly brief-covered ass to Malibu and the mission. What the fuck, right? At least the assignment hadn’t been in the damn city limits. But he’d been all too happy to leave Malibu-that-wasn’t-LA after the mission.

As for today, the layover was a necessary evil, and Riley had never intended to leave the airport.

But now here he was again, right smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles, getting his ass kicked as usual.

Apparently, he never learned.

As soon as two of Hunter’s men arrived to take custody of Froggy, Riley and Hunter took the back stairs down to the parking lot. “How badly did I screw with your schedule?” Hunter asked as he leaned against a midnight blue Range Rover.

“No worries,” Riley assured him, even though the truth was that he was itching to get the hell out of there. His flight had arrived just after noon, and his connection to vacation-land wasn’t scheduled until after midnight. He’d texted Hunter from the tarmac to see if his friend wanted to pop over to LAX for a post-lunch libation, but instead Hunter had begged a favor.

Justify Me

Apparently, Froggy had been in Hunter’s sights for a while, but the little worm was familiar with the members of the Stark International security team and getting close was proving tricky. Hunter was about to call in outside help when Riley had phoned, and Hunter had recruited his friend to play the point man.

Which meant that instead of getting a drinking companion, he’d gotten a punch in the face.

“I’d give you a ride back and shoot the shit,” Hunter said, “but thanks to your good work, my dance card is full. I’ll have one of my guys give you a lift, though.”

“Fair enough,” Riley said, then promised to send his friend a postcard from China.

“Why China?” Hunter asked as a tall blond man in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a shoulder harness headed toward them.

“Why not?” Riley shot back, making Hunter laugh.

Moments later, he was in the passenger seat of the blond man’s tricked-out Grand Cherokee, they were heading South on the 405 toward LAX, and Riley was pondering the question. Why had he picked China? His first instinct had been Hawaii. He’d imagined himself watching girls in bikinis as he kicked back on the beach with a thriller in one hand and a beer in the other. But somehow, Hawaii didn’t seem far enough away. He wanted to get lost. To go someplace completely unfamiliar. Where he couldn’t even read the signs. Some place that forced him to think.

And then, maybe, he’d think about what the fuck he wanted to do next. Because the truth was, he’d been at loose ends for one hell of a long time. But damned if he knew how to tie those ends up.

“Mind if I play some tunes?” his companion asked.

“Go ahead. Sorry I’m bad company. I’m already sliding into vacation mode.”

The guy chuckled. “No worries,” he said, then pushed a button on the console and filled the interior with ghetto rap as his blond head and shoulders gyrated to the music. Riley dropped his head back, letting the music pound against his brain.

They were almost to the airport when he miraculously felt the buzz of his phone in his pocket despite the deep thrum of the music. He fished it out, checked the Caller ID, then grinned as he gestured toward the volume. “Sorry, man. Do you mind?”

The guy waved off the question with a good-natured shrug, then flicked the radio off right as Riley took the call. “Hey man, how’s London? I’m about to get the hell out of your neck of the woods.”

“You dick,” Lyle Tarpin said. “You’re in town and you don’t even call?”

“Hello? Because you’re in fucking London. You’re there doing publicity bullshit. Or am I wrong?” One of Riley’s oldest friends, Lyle Tarpin was fast rocketing into one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. He was also Natasha’s boss, and when Riley had been in town about a year ago consulting on one of Lyle’s movies, she’d once again firmly shut down Riley’s advances. At which point Riley resolved to quit trying. He was a lot of things, but not a masochist, and going after Natasha Black was like beating his head against a very hard—but very pretty—brick wall.

Justify Me

“Shipping out bright and early tomorrow.”

“Ah, hell. I’m sorry I missed you.”

“Me, too.”

There was a pause, and Riley was about to ask about Lyle’s wife, Laine, when Lyle jumped back in with, “Listen, I need a favor.”

“Anything, man. You know that.”

“Can you recommend a security company? I need to hire a bodyguard.”

Riley understood that. He’d been in town when Lyle had met his wife, Laine, and had seen the boy fall hard and fast. No way would he leave without making sure she was well protected. Whether Laine wanted to be or not.

“Have you talked with Hunter?”

“Ryan Hunter? Not about this, and I won’t. He’s got his hands full with something, and I don’t want him to feel obligated to cover for a friend.”

Riley scowled, thinking of his early conversation with Hunter. “What’s he chasing?”

“Who knows? But I figure a man like Damien Stark gets a lot of threats. And you know damn well that Ryan’s going to take each and every one of them seriously.”

It was a good point. Suddenly Hunter’s cushy job for the billionaire seemed a little less cushy.

“I have a few names I could give you. Does Laine have any personality preferences for her security detail?” Most of the celebrity wives he’d dealt with preferred a bodyguard to fade into the background like wallpaper. But Sugar Laine was not most celebrity wives. She had a sweetness and charm about her that set her apart from the crowd.

Lyle’s brow furrowed in confusion. “Sugar?” he asked. Lyle was the only one who called Sugar by her given name. Everyone else called her by her surname, Laine. “Oh, no. She’s going with me on the tour.”

“Oh.” Honestly, Riley should have assumed as much. “Then who are you protecting?”

“Natasha,” Lyle said, the name sinking like a stone in Riley’s stomach. “A couple of things have happened, and I just want to play it safe.”


Riley didn’t bother to ask for details. If Lyle was worried, then so was he. Without even being aware he’d made a decision, he snapped his fingers for the driver’s attention, then pointed toward the next exit. As the car veered across three lanes of traffic, Riley clutched the door handle. Not for safety, but because otherwise he’d have put his fist through the glass out of worry for Tasha. “Are you at your office? I’m on my way.”

“What? Why—”

“I’m staying,” Riley said in the kind of voice that brooked no argument. “I’ll watch out for Natasha.”


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