Retired from the military and finally free of the demons of past missions, former Special Forces soldier Charlie “Red” Cooper leads a blissfully calm life running his successful distillery. At least until the day he finds his partner and best friend drowned in one of their best barrels of whiskey. Now he must dredge up old skills and memories to not only avenge his friend’s death, but to protect the one woman who has always made his pulse race—his friend’s grieving widow.
Shocked by her husband’s death, Josephine Swift should be mourning, but instead she’s terrified and…pissed. Turns out the husband she’d fallen out of love with was into some seriously bad business. Even worse, he’s dragged her and his partner into his web of deceit and danger. Now his mistakes could get them both killed.
Jo is glad to have the benefit of Red’s skills to keep them safe. She shouldn’t be interested in him—especially not now—but there’s no denying the white-hot attraction that smolders between them. Red’s far too honorable to sully his best friend’s memory by giving in to his desire for Jo. But when their lives hang in the balance, all bets are off. And as the depth of their passion grows, Jo dares to hope for a future. First, though, they have to survive…
Ravaged With You is Story # 7 in the Stark Security - Standalone Novels series.
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About this StoryPublication Date 09/07/2021 Story Type Book Series Stark Security - Standalone Novels Place in Series Story #7 Genre Romantic Suspense
He wasn’t supposed to be the one. This man who watches me with sensual, luminous eyes, his hair like a crown of fire. This battle-scarred warrior who so tenderly holds my life in the palm of his hand.
My life … and, yes, my heart.
So many lost years hang between us, along with the weight of so many bad choices, each a scar on my soul. And yet when I look in his eyes and see those dark and haunted shadows, I can’t help but think that mine was the easier burden.
Now tragedy and danger draw us together, but we can’t ignore the electricity that crackles around us. And that is an altogether different kind of peril.
I’m not a fool; I know I can’t have him forever. And I fear that his scars have hardened his heart too much to ever completely let me in.
But as we scramble day after day to stay one step ahead of our enemy, I can’t deny one simple truth: I only feel truly safe and happy when I’m in the warm, protective circle of his arms.
“Hey, Mel, I’m here. Sorry I’m late.” Charlie “Red” Cooper paused in the doorway of the Swift Red Distillery’s public tasting room and breathed in deep. God, he loved this place. The look of it, all wood and steel and glass. The handcrafted bar he’d tooled and polished himself. The fixtures he’d chosen after countless hours in the Pacific Design Center.
And, oh, the scent of it, that enticing aroma of fine whiskey. Wonderfully heady, and all the more appealing because the place belonged to him.
Well, part of it did, anyway. He and Mel Swift, his best friend since high school, ran the place. And the two of them owned it together with Mel’s wife, Jo, the third member of their three-pronged friendship that had started back in college.
Was it only two years ago that they’d celebrated the distillery’s grand opening? Now, Red could hardly imagine any other life. Which, considering he woke up each morning trying to forget the past, was something else in the distillery’s favor.
He frowned, suddenly uneasy, those long ago days creeping up on him like shadows. Back it down. It’s nothing.
He took a breath, then another, all the while cursing himself for opening the damn door in the first place. The door to the dark place where the memories lived. The past. His subconscious. Whatever the fuck the shrink-of-the-week wanted to call it.
Red just called them flashbacks, and those memories had no business here. He might have been the one who’d opened the door, but now he was damn well shutting it again.
“Mel? Hey, buddy, where are you?” He moved through the tasting room as he called, then pushed through the swinging doorway that led to his and Mel’s private offices. “You back here?”
Silence. Red frowned, then shot his buddy a text. He waited for the three dots that signified an impending reply, but the screen stayed stubbornly blank.
His frown deepened, then he sighed, shaking his head as reality struck him. Of course. He should have gone straight to the distillery. Red loved the business as much as his partner did, but to Mel, it wasn’t about the public-facing side, but the magic that turned grain into drinkable alcohol.
In contrast, Red got off on the knowledge of what they’d accomplished. That the public came in, tasted their bourbon, and bought their own bottles to take home. They’d built a business from nothing and had made a drink from grain and chemistry. It was enough to make a man giddy.
Still, he should have known that when Mel said to meet him at work, he didn’t mean the public tasting room or even their private offices. What he meant was the solid oak table he’d set up in the rickhouse where he could sit and peruse the books or do paperwork while surrounded by white oak barrels full of aging bourbon.
Now confident he knew where to find his partner, Red headed through the tasting room’s back door and toward the huge, corrugated steel building where the real magic happened.
They’d lucked into the property. A former prop warehouse for a company that had supplied to the studios back in the heyday of Hollywood, its location on Santa Monica Boulevard near the Hollywood Forever Cemetery meant they had a lot of walk-in customers, both locals and tourists.
Best of all, the property consisted of two separate buildings. The front was where the original owners had showcased their various props and set pieces. The back building was a warehouse in which they’d manufactured everything from period-specific furniture to crazy hotrods for seventies-style action movies. Back then, it had been one huge space, but Mel and Red had subdivided it into the various rooms that aligned with the distillation process.
A small dirt area separated the two buildings. Or it had until Red spent a full month converting the space into a garden paradise, complete with outdoor seating for guests, along with a secondary bar.
Now, he walked the flagstone path from the public area to the actual distillery. It was a journey he’d taken hundreds—probably thousands—of times since they’d bought the place, and yet he never stopped enjoying it. The way the area smelled of flowers and fruit trees. The way it looked with the stone tables and the fire pit.
It was calming, and God knew that calm had been what he’d been looking for when he’d come back to Los Angeles. He’d needed peace after the hell he’d experienced in Romania.
Not now. Just back it down, buddy.
Red’s body tensed from the rising memories, his blood pounding harder in his veins.
Don’t go there. Just chill. Think of sunshine and the beach and puppies so goddamn adorable it’s a wonder they don’t melt in the rain from their sugary sweetness.
Anything. He needed to think about anything other than those years.
Like, for example, catching up to his elusive partner.
With a sharp tug, he pulled open the main door to the distillery and stepped over the threshold and into the rickhouse with its racks of aging bourbon and rye, including Cooper’s Slow Burn Rye. A great label, if Red did say so himself.
He saw Mel’s table right away, a few papers scattered on top, held down by one of the Swift Red paperweights that Jo had given each of them as a grand opening present.
Mel, however, was nowhere to be found. And he still hadn’t answered Red’s text.
Again, Red reminded himself that he was the one who’d arrived late, and he set out in search of his partner. He passed through the aisle formed by two racks, then hooked a left toward the long hall that led to the stillhouse. He passed through the series of doors that helped regulate the temperature, then entered the room itself. Immediately, he started sweating, the heat all part of the process.
At first glance, everything in the room looked just fine. The three stills were doing their thing—the Millennium Falcon, the Enterprise, and Firefly. The only thing missing was either Mel or the floor manager, because their number one rule at Swift Red was to never leave the equipment unmonitored.
Frowning, he checked all the gauges himself, saw that everything was well, then shot off a text to Jessn, the floor manager on the schedule for Monday, the one day of the week they were closed to the public.
You with Mel?
Jessn’s reply came quickly: He gave me the day off. Said he wanted to hang at work and catch up on stuff. I’m at the beach. You didn’t know?
Red’s fingers hesitated over the phone, trepidation rising. But all he wrote was, Crossed-wires. It’s fine. Have fun.
They’d agreed to always discuss any kind of personnel shift, something Mel clearly hadn’t bothered with today. Still, Mel must have had his reasons, and Red was pretty damn anxious to hear them. And since Mel clearly wasn’t in the stillhouse, Red exited the room, then followed the maze of racks to the fermentation room, also set off by a series of halls and doors.
This was the room where yeast was added to the crushed grain and water mixture, then left to ferment in a process that increased the alcohol content, but also released carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Because high levels of the off-gas were potentially deadly, this was the most highly monitored room, with a complex series of vents coupled with a monitoring system that not only visually showed the level of the gas in the room, but also sounded an alarm—and automatically texted all personnel—whenever anything wasn’t within the proper parameters.
Red had received no such alert and the building was not rocking from the deafening sound of an alarm—which was why the fact that the visual indicator above the door was now showing a deadly-level concentration in that room scared the shit out of him.
Immediately, he grabbed an emergency breathing apparatus from a hook by the door. There were windows on either side, but as the gas was invisible, nothing seemed out of sorts, and he saw no sign of Mel. He pulled down on the lever designed to evacuate any gas from the room by increasing the suction from the constantly working filters while increasing the flow of clean air. An expert in all the ways a project could get fucked up, Red had insisted the distillery have safety protocols even beyond those that were required or typical in the industry.
He checked the gauges, saw that neither the filters nor blowers had kicked in. That’s when he aimed his gaze upward and was horrified to see that the ventilation system had been manually closed. And now, as he looked around the room at the floor-based scrubbers, he saw that each and every one of them had been unplugged.
Without hesitating, he donned his mask and rushed into the room. Right away, he plugged in each of the scrubbers, their noise immediately filling the space. He looked around, searching for Mel among the dozen waist-high tubs filled with bubbling mash. Not because they were sitting on heat high enough to boil, but because the yeast was doing its job.
He found no sign of his friend, though. He started to pull out his phone and call, then hesitated. Safety first, and he used the ladder to climb up and manually reopen every air vent.
Next, he went to the control panel, only to see that the alarm had been turned to mute, a feature that required the admin password that only he, Mel, and Jo had access to.
What the hell?
Worried and confused, he pulled his phone out again, then checked the gauge. The level was still too high to take off his mask, but was dropping rapidly. He called anyway, intending to talk through his mask. He anticipated hearing either Mel’s voice or his damn voicemail message. Instead, he heard an echoing sound. The distinctive refrain of Willie Nelson’s Whiskey River.
The song that Mel used as his ringtone. And it was coming from among the maze of tubs.
Something dark rumbled in his stomach, churning there like a living thing. Dread, rising and falling. Teasing and taunting. And before Red even knew that he was moving, he’d walked three lines of the grid of tubs that covered the cookhouse floor. He found Mel’s phone in the middle, wedged down near the base of one tub.
And there, marked on the tub’s plastic outer wall was scrawled a single word: Sorry.
Red’s chest tightened, fear stealing his breath. The phone’s lock screen showed messages from both him and Jo. And still, there was no sign of Mel.
“No. Oh, no, buddy. Tell me you didn’t.”
Moving as fast as he could, he raced to the wall where they kept the sterile stir sticks. But this wasn’t for stirring. Instead, he returned to the tub, then slowly prodded. And—as he’d feared—he hit something solid before the bottom of the tub.
Carefully, he used the stick to hook the solid thing—please don’t be Mel—of course it was Mel—and ease it up far enough so he could grab the familiar blue shirt with the Swift Red Distillery logo.
Forcing himself to stay calm, he hauled Mel up far enough to check his pulse. It wasn’t necessary, though. There was no doubt that his friend and partner was dead.
Despite the urge to pull his friend free, Red released the body, letting it slide back into the mash. He’d already disturbed the scene, and even though every sign pointed to suicide, Red knew enough about the process to know that there would have to be an investigation.
Suicide. Why the hell had his friend committed suicide?
And why hadn’t Red picked up on it? What kind of friend was he that he’d missed the warning signs? Sure, Mel had been acting off lately—tricky negotiations for a hotel supply contract was what he’d said, but Red had known that wasn’t all of it. There’d been something else on Mel’s mind, but Red had never pushed.
Dear God, he should have pushed…
He’d assumed the troubles were between Mel and Jo. They’d gotten married a few years before the grand opening, and he’d been the best man. Which had been both a pleasure and Red’s worst nightmare. Because though he would never tell another soul, and especially not the woman herself, the thought of Jo in another man’s bed just about killed him.
A totally ridiculous reaction since he couldn’t have her. Hell, he’d pushed her away with both hands.
A woman like Jo deserved better than a guy with Red’s fucked up issues. But ridiculous or not, his gut had been in knots the day of the wedding. And as he stood by his two friends’ side while they exchanged vows, Red had felt light-headed from the intensity of emotions warring within him. Blood red jealousy and, surprisingly, bittersweet relief. Because at least Jo would be happy. Something that would never happen if she’d ended up with a guy as screwed up as him.
Except now it looked like Mel had been screwed up, too. Everybody had their weak spots. Their vulnerabilities that could push them over the edge.
He ran his fingers through his hair and told himself to back off and get his shit together. He needed to call the cops and let them do their thing. He needed to call Jo and let her know what had happened.
Bottom line? He needed to put aside his anger and his confusion and his grief. There were things to handle, and he was the man at the rudder.
“Right.” He drew in a deep breath, then started to put the phone back where he found it. He stopped cold, though, when it rang, the screen showing no caller ID. He hesitated, but answered it.
“I would say that I’m sorry your friend is dead.” The voice was filtered, and Red couldn’t even tell if it was a man or a woman. “But I’m not.”
“Who the hell—”
“He was a bad man. He made bad choices. He kept something that didn’t belong to him. Something that belongs to me.”
He looked around, trying to locate the speaker. They knew he’d found the body, so the person must be watching him. But watching from where?
“I’m listening,” he said as he slowly stood up, then walked to the windows that looked out onto the hall.
Whoever was at the other end chuckled. “That would be too easy.”
Cameras. But where were they mounted? A quick scan of the room revealed nothing.
“What do you want from me?”
“I thought that would be obvious. I want what belongs to me.”
“Keep this phone. If you value your life—or the life of his wife—you won’t give it to the police. You’ll call them, of course. But you will say it was suicide. An investigation would be most inconvenient.”
“What did he take? What is it you want back?”
“In case you didn’t know, your partner’s phone passcode is 798465. An interesting little number. Almost as interesting as the last video that’s saved on his phone. Take a look. And remember—keep the phone. It’s our link to you. And, though we found nothing of note, perhaps you can uncover a clue to where your partner has stashed our package.”
“If you think—”
“I don’t mind killing you, but if you do what I say, I’ll forgo my jollies and let you and the little wifey live. If you speak to the cops, though … if you refuse to help me regain what is mine, I will kill you. But I’ll kill her first. Watch the video, Charlie. And don’t make your partner’s mistakes. Be smarter. I’ll be in touch.”
The phone went dead, and some of the tension drained from his body. He shot a look at the tub his friend was in, his heart heavy. “Mel, buddy. What the hell did you get yourself wrapped up in?”
He didn’t want to, but he knew he had to watch the video. He keyed in the passcode, thankful that his training had cemented the number in his memory.
He found Mel’s photos, and the last addition was a video, timestamped just a few hours ago.
Someone thin and dressed head-to-toe in black held Mel by the back of the neck. His partner’s body was weak, his efforts to struggle useless. They’d already beaten him, the bastards. More than that, they’d already tampered with the CO2 scrubbers, allowing gas to accumulate to toxic levels. The assailant was masked. Mel was not.
Then the assailant shoved Mel forward, his face going into the bubbling, semi-liquid mash. One second. Five. Fifteen. Forty. One minute.
Water rushing. Pulse pounding. Garbled voices.
For years, he’d managed to keep those demons at bay. Then New York happened and—
Stop it. You can do this. Just shove the memories away.
Right. He could do this.
He drew a breath, then rewound the video to where he’d been. He watched once more, gasping, as the assailant yanked his partner up. His hand went automatically to the knife he always kept in his back pocket, and he tried to calm his heartbeat.
In the video, Mel’s head wobbled as he tried to catch his breath in a room that was rapidly filling with poisonous air.
Then he was pushed head down into the mash again. Thirty seconds. A minute. Ninety seconds.
You think you can play the hero? You’ll only play the fool.
And then back up to try to breathe, only to find there wasn’t any more air on the outside than inside that tub.
Mel? Or Red? Who was it who needed air?
Again and again and again until finally the assailant shoved Mel’s limp body all the way over the waist-high lip of the tub. And down he went, the mash sucking him in like quicksand.
Memories crashed through Red’s mind. He gasped, dropping the phone as his hand reached for his throat. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t fucking breathe.
He tried to swallow, forcing himself to concentrate as he grabbed Mel’s phone and shoved it in his pocket.
Under the water. His lungs squeezing. No air. Needed air.
Gasping, trying to breathe, he pulled out his own phone and dialed 911. He heard himself say that his partner had killed himself. That they needed to send someone. His voice was raw. He had no air. He couldn’t hear the operator, only the hollow echo of the water that surrounded him.
Then his legs gave out, and he crashed to the floor. He could still hear the emergency operator talking as his entire world went black.