Bridget Donnelly wants to be more than just another Donnelly Devil. For years, she’s worked to save enough money to open her own winery. All she needs is a few more years as the town’s bookie. But when she catches the eye of the sexy new police chief, her dangerous desires put her own future at risk.
Ethan Ford used to spend more time breaking laws than enforcing them. Now, he’s determined to redeem himself by cleaning up Lost Coast Harbor’s police department…but his attraction to the seductive local bookie is tempting him back to his sinful ways…
When a real threat emerges, Ethan will do anything to protect Bridget—but he can’t protect her from herself. Can he look the other way while the woman he loves defies the law he’s sworn to uphold—or will he gamble it all to save her?
Welcome back to Lost Coast Harbor!
The Devil’s Gamble—Chapter One
Bridget Donnelly navigated the dark, uneven parking lot that led to the dive bar. She hated this part of the job, but if Frank was going to dodge her calls, she had no choice.
These visits went much better when she had her brother standing behind her glaring at the client, though. Niall was out of town for the weekend and she couldn’t wait any longer.
The tremor of excitement in her stomach increased as she approached the scarred door to the Vista del Mar and the muffled sounds from inside grew louder. Music from the aged jukebox. Yelling. Crashing. The muted sound of fist meeting flesh.
Bridget stepped aside seconds before the door burst open and two burly men tumbled out, propelled by the rotund bartender/owner/bouncer.
“Not inside!” he yelled, kicking one of the drunken patrons in the ass for emphasis. “You take that shit outside.”
Bridget parked herself in the doorway so Frank couldn’t miss her on his return trip. Hands on hip, feet shoulder-width apart. Her boots had a two-inch heel, low enough to run in if she had to, and giving her just enough extra height that she’d tower over most men. She pulled hers shoulders back, trying to take advantage of the few inches she now had on the bartender.
He nearly jumped. Would have, if his bulk could have left the ground.
“Jesus, Bridget,” he said, his hand flying up to his heart, though Bridget had yet to see proof Frank had one. “Didn’t see you there.”
She raised her chin and looked down at him, letting a slow smile spread over her face. “Yes, I know.”
Frank shifted and looked around nervously, but when he didn’t spy Niall Donnelly, the desperation on his face faded.
“I was gonna call you back. It’s busy tonight. I’ll get you next week.”
He started toward the door but she planted her feet in the doorway and stood firm.
“I’ll get it tonight.”
He laughed. “Whatcha gonna do, Bridget? I don’t see your muscle around here.”
She shook her head and crossed her arms. “Now, Frank, we’ve always had a good professional relationship. I’d sure hate for that to end over such a small matter. I’m sure you can hit up the till and pay your debts.”
He snorted. “I’ll get ya next week. I told you. You know I’m good for it.”
A crash behind her warned that another brawl was about to break out and Frank took advantage of the distraction to push her to one side and get into the building.
Jerk. He owed her two thousand dollars and was a week late in settling up. If word got out that people didn’t have to pay her, she’d be out of business in no time.
She stalked him to the bar, through the rough crowd, several of whom called out to her.
“Bridget girl, you slummin’ tonight?” a man at the bar asked. “Why ain’t you at your brother’s? That’s a better place for a girl like you.”
“Hey, Lyle. Just doing a little work,” she said. “You doing okay?”
Lyle, a dockworker and steady customer, shrugged. “Did all right on the last round. What’s the line on the Villanova game?”
“Five points, Villanova.”
Lyle smiled and showed off a gaping hole where a front tooth should have been. He ran a hand over his graying beard. “I’d take that. Say, a hundred.”
“You got it, Lyle. A hundred on Villanova. Good luck.”
Bridget turned her attention back to the bartender who was staying at the other end of the bar, even though everyone there had full beers. Frank was ignoring her. No one ignored Bridget Donnelly.
She made her way to the middle of the bar and leaned over. “You can at least buy me a beer, Frank.”
His beady eyes squinted, nearly disappearing under his unruly eyebrows. “Since when do you drink here?”
Since you forced me to step into this creepy dive. But instead of speaking her mind, she smiled. He pushed a cold beer across the bar toward her.
“That’s all you’re getting tonight.”
Bridget took a sip. It was ice cold, which was refreshing in the hot and humid bar. It also effectively hid the taste of the cheap brew. Frank watched her with a suspicious glare as she raised the glass.
“You’re busy tonight,” she said, keeping her voice casual.
He nodded. “Yeah, about time, too. Been a damn ghost town in here lately.”
Not tonight. It was a Friday and there was nothing else to do in Lost Coast Harbor, so the locals went out to drink. The Vista del Mar was the watering hole for the dockworkers, timber fallers, and other rough crowds. You came here if you were looking for drugs or a fight or to make other regrettable decisions. There was a reason it was also known as the VD by the Sea.
“Looks like it’s picking up,” she said, and took another sip. Ugh. The temperature had risen a couple of degrees and it was enough to make the brew bitter. “Be a shame if the party had to shut down early.”
She slid the mostly unfinished beer back to Frank, who frowned.
“See you tomorrow, Frank.”
Frank’s already beady eyes narrowed further. “What are you up to, girl?”
She gave him a knowing smile and then walked out of the door without looking back. The door slammed behind her and she gritted her teeth.
Son of a bitch.
Frank might think he could ignore her because she didn’t have her brother with her, but he was wrong. She was more than capable of handling her problems. That bastard owed her money and damn it, she was getting it. She had plans for that money.
She hit the button on her key fob to open the trunk of the red convertible and then fished around for the lug nut wrench. She closed the trunk, and then she set her purse and jacket inside the car, and walked to the front bumper. The heavy metal tool was loose in her hand and she tested the weight while she looked around the parking lot. Mostly empty of people, but crowded with cars. And dark. There was not much security around the VD by the Sea.
She took a practice swing, then stepped up to the bumper, pulled the tool back and swung with all her strength at the headlight.
The light shattered with a minor explosion. She moved to the other one, reared back, and let go.
No one in the parking lot seemed the least bit interested in the woman destroying a car, so she continued her work. Focusing on the hood, she banged the wrench into the metal, leaving several large dents and scrapes in the paint.
Her breath came faster. Her heart thumped in her chest. She swung again, taking out the front quarter panel with a loud crunch.
When the car was sufficiently damaged, she straightened and admired her work. It was going to cost a few hundred dollars to fix, but that was the price of doing business. It would cost far more if her customers stopped paying their debts. With a satisfied nod, she examined the tool and saw some red paint scrapes on the metal. She walked down to the dock at the edge of the parking lot and tossed the wrench into the water. She took a deep breath, rolled her shoulders, and the tension in her neck eased. This was just what she needed. It was better than boxing at her brother’s martial arts studio. It beat the hell out of yoga.
On the way back to the car, she took her phone out of the pocket of her jeans and tapped a number.
“9-1-1, what is your emergency?”
Bridget smiled. “Someone damaged my car down at the Vista del Mar. Can you send an officer to take a report?”
While waiting for the cops to arrive, she put her jacket back on, and sat on the trunk. The bar was nearing capacity. It was almost ten o’clock, and the party should be going full force for another few hours.
It took a whole six minutes for the Lost Coast Harbor police cruiser to turn down the sloped drive in front of the dive bar, lighting up the parking lot with the red and blue lights. Bridget stood and waved at Officer Sean Hollis, who returned the wave with a smile and parked behind her convertible. The driver door opened and the youngest and newest member of the police department stepped out, a fresh-faced recruit with an earnest smile.
“Hey, Bridget. What happened here?”
The passenger-side door opened and another man stepped out. Bridget’s composure slipped for a moment.
Holy mother, who is that?
Tall, broad, with a short-trimmed beard, and hair that her fingers begged to run through. He walked around the car and stood next to Sean, emphasizing the officer’s boyishness. This was a man.
A helluva man.
“Bridget, this is Ethan Ford. He’s our new chief of police,” Sean said. “Chief Ford, this is Bridget Donnelly.”
The tremor of excitement she’d felt when she approached the bar that night, and the rush of adrenaline she’d experienced while beating the crap out of her own car—those paled next to the electricity in the police chief’s touch as he shook her hand.
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Donnelly,” he said, in a voice that was warm and deep.
She had to look up at him to meet his gaze and guessed he was at least six-four. His hair was a russet brown, and a bit too long for a police officer. He was wearing jeans and a heavy canvas jacket, not a regular police uniform.
He didn’t look like any cop she’d ever seen before.
Eyes the color of whiskey stared back at her, and his lips quirked up at her deliberate study of him, as if curious as to whether he’d passed her inspection. He certainly had.
She smiled in return. “Welcome to Lost Coast Harbor.”
He tilted his head slightly and his eyes crinkled up at the corners. In an instant, she knew—there was a spark there, a challenge, a puzzle to solve.
She’d always loved puzzles.
So this was Lost Coast Harbor.
Ethan took in the scene in front of him—the red and blue lights reflected off the puddles in the rutted parking lot and the dirty siding of the bar. A steady stream of patrons exited the bar, pulling caps down low over their faces, and averting their eyes as they scurried into the shadows and away from the Lost Coast Harbor police cruiser. Like cockroaches running for cover when a light was turned on.
It was a rough crowd, and if the rookie officer would look up from his inspection of Bridget Donnelly’s front end, he might actually see a few patrons who were wanted on outstanding warrants. As yet, Ethan was too new to the department and the town to be that familiar with the warrants or the residents.
This was his first chance to do a ride-along with his officers and get to know his new town. Lost Coast Harbor was worlds away from Bakersfield in every way. His former home was flat, dry, and sprawling. Lost Coast Harbor was a quaint town on a remote stretch of the Northern California coast that drew tourists with its charm and the chance to experience the unspoiled landscape.
And while Bakersfield had its share of crime, Lost Coast Harbor had a slightly different crime problem—the small town had recently lost its police chief and a senior detective to a corruption scandal. It was ugly, and the town council wanted it cleaned up fast. Lost Coast Harbor depended on its tourism season, and this was bad news.
The town needed someone to come in and make a clean sweep, and the timing couldn’t have been better for Ethan. It was time for a fresh start for him as well.
Despite the town’s recent history, Lost Coast Harbor was exactly what he was looking for—a small town, with small problems. The cancer of corruption had been excised, and now the new police chief could make a difference, set things back on track. Make the picturesque town everything it should be. Safe. Secure. Mayberry by the Sea.
The young woman at his side looked pleased as she watched the crowd walking away from the tavern. Ethan studied her in the dim light. A hint of a smile hovered around her full lips, and she didn’t seem to be the least bit upset about her car being bashed in. He had a hard time imagining that this was her usual hang-out.
“Wouldn’t Donnelly’s Pub be more your speed?” he asked.
She flashed him a smile that made his heart stop—wide and bright and charming. “Sure, if I wanted to hang out with my brother. But I don’t.”
Of course. Lost Coast Harbor was a small town, far smaller than Bakersfield. Two people here with the same last name were very likely related.
“This doesn’t seem like your crowd,” he said, watching still more people vacate the building like it was on fire.
“I just stopped by for a beer,” she said.
Ethan leaned back on the cruiser’s hood and crossed his arms. He’d been suspicious before, but this was a flat out lie. “Really?”
Bridget Donnelly returned his direct and suspicious gaze without blinking. She was tall, not as tall as her boots made her out to be, but tall nonetheless. And she was fucking gorgeous, with a long mane of dark hair, pale skin, and large blue eyes. Her lips were full and pouty, almost looking bruised. And she didn’t apologize for her beauty or hide behind false modesty. This was a confident woman.
And there was no way in hell she was stopping in at the Vista del Mar for a drink after work.
“Wow, Bridget, you must have really pissed someone off,” Sean said from the front of the car where he was cataloguing the damage. “I’m afraid you can’t drive this home tonight. Need me to call you a tow?”
“Thanks, Sean, that would be great,” she said, then turned those spectacular eyes back to Ethan. “So, Sheriff, how long have you been in town?”
“Just a couple of weeks,” he said. “And it’s chief. Not sheriff. The sheriff’s office patrols the county.”
From the teasing tone in her voice, he had no doubt that Bridget Donnelly knew the difference.
She shrugged. “Sure. Where did you come from?”
“Guess I don’t need to ask why you left, then,” she said with that wide smile.
“It’s not as bad as its reputation,” he said. “And what do you do, Ms. Donnelly?”
“It’s Bridget. And I work at Donnelly Lumber.”
Another Donnelly business, and one he knew more about. Donnelly Lumber was one of the largest employers in Lost Coast Harbor. The family also owned a construction company. Gavin Donnelly had the pub on the town square, where Ethan had already enjoyed a couple of pints. And another brother had a bookstore, he recalled.
“And what do you do there, Bridget?”
“I’m the controller.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “You are?”
Bridget’s lips turned up. “Yes,” she said, leaning forward as if to tell him a secret. “I’m actually quite intelligent.”
He laughed and held up a hand. “I meant no offense. You seemed a little young for that title.”
“And I am,” she said. “But I also have a master’s degree in finance.”
And her father owned the company. How much did that help her in her career?
A stout man in a stained white shirt emerged from the knot of bar patrons who were still exiting the building like it was on fire. He stomped across the parking lot toward them, gave Ethan a murderous glare, and then shoved a paper bag into Bridget’s hands. Without a word, he waddled back to the bar, closed the door, and a second later the neon “open” sign went dark. Ethan had never seen a single police cruiser clear out a party so fast.
“What’s that?” Ethan asked, nodding at the bag in her hands.
Bridget smirked. “To-go order.”
He raised an eyebrow at her words and got a sly smile in return. While it had a reputation for being the dregs of the dive bars, he doubted the bartender would be bold enough to hand over a bag of drugs right in front of the police car with flashing red lights. And Bridget Donnelly didn’t look like a drug dealer.
She looked like trouble—just not that kind. She looked like the kind of trouble that ended with a hangover in Vegas and a cheap gold band and a lot of blank spaces leading up to that. And Ethan Ford’s new mantra was to stay away from trouble, of all kinds.
Bridget tucked the brown paper sack into her purse with a satisfied smile on her face.
“Any idea who would want to beat your car up?” he asked.
She shook her head and her long hair fell about her face. “No idea.”
“Are you a regular here?”
“Here? No. I try and avoid this place.”
“But you stopped in for a beer?”
She shrugged at being caught in her own lie. “It was convenient.”
He tilted his head and watched her. She was lying, but he had no idea why. Someone had taken a crowbar to her sweet little convertible and she was acting like it was no big deal. Insurance would cover it. A minor inconvenience.
And he supposed that was true, but the privilege she had wrapped around herself rankled. Growing up poor, bouncing between foster families and various juvenile facilities, that little red sports car would have been an unattainable dream. To have someone damage it would have been devastating. Even now, as an adult with a solid career and retirement plan, that cavalier attitude rubbed him the wrong way.
“You can come down to the office on Monday to pick up a police report for the insurance claim,” he said.
She nodded, watching him. “Why did you come here?”
“You called 9-1-1.”
She shook her head, sending a ripple through the long black waves of hair. “Why did you come here, to Lost Coast Harbor?”
“They hired me to be the police chief.”
Bridget continued to study him openly and the intense scrutiny made him feel as if he were naked. And then he thought about being naked with her and was uncomfortable in a whole new way.
“What time on Monday?”
Her question ripped his thoughts out of the gutter. “Pardon?”
“What time on Monday should I come by your office and pick up the report?”
He didn’t bother to say that she could pick it up at the public counter. He wouldn’t mind seeing her again. Maybe a view of Bridget Donnelly in the bright light of day would dispel the inappropriate thoughts gathering in his mind.
“Anytime after eight o’clock.”
A dark, sleek sedan pulled up and idled near them and Bridget threw her purse over her shoulder.
“That’s my ride,” she said, meeting his gaze. “See you around, Sheriff.”
He grinned at her and walked her to the car.
“See you around,” he said, helping her into the car, which was driven by a young man whose jacket indicated he was a security guard for Donnelly Lumber. “You stay out of trouble.”
She winked, communicating what both of them knew—that wasn’t going to happen.
* * *
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