At Your Service, Masters and Mercenaries~Topped Book 4

Juliana O’Neil’s promising future was burned away in the heat of battle. She had been an officer with a bright future in the military, but now she is struggling to survive. Her husband gone and her career in shambles, she finds a job at Top as a hostess and tries to put together the pieces of her life. The last thing she needs is any kind of male attention, but she can’t help but be amused at her neighbor and coworker’s lothario antics. Not that she would have anything to do with him, at least not for more than one night.

Javier Leones doesn’t understand monogamy. No woman could ever be enough for his endless libido, but he has to admit Juliana has his attention. For reasons he doesn’t fully understand, he can’t seem to get the gorgeous redhead with the sad eyes out of his head. After one scorching night together, he realizes he’ll never be able to get her out of his system. But with his reputation, he fears she’ll never see him as more than a one-night stand.

When their passions collide, these new lovers will be forced to confront Juliana’s past and come to terms with Javier’s present. Will they find their way or will this reservation be canceled at the last minute?


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Excerpt:

Chapter One

Juliana O’Neil stared down at the petite brunette named Suzanne and wondered if she was a bored housewife. She had that look about her. Not the bored part, exactly. The woman had a glow, a certain innocent awe for the little things that made Jules wonder how often she got out. The housewife part she fit. She looked like the kind of woman who had a husband she would dote on and a couple of kids who adored her.

So what the hell had gone so wrong that Suzanne was here trolling?

It was the fact that sweet woman with the Southern accent couldn’t seem to take her eyes off Javier that caught Jules’s attention. Had she met the gorgeous chef somewhere, he did what he did with all women, and now she followed him around like a puppy?

Somehow the idea of Suzanne finding a broom closet and having fun with the handsome chef didn’t sit right with Jules

“Was everything all right with your dinner?” Jules wasn’t sure how to go about trying to save a woman. Not that she hadn’t before. She’d totally saved people from mortar fire and bad guys. She’d been there, done that, gotten the T-shirt, which in this case was more like got the completely shitty prosthetic. Saving a woman from herself and picking the wrong dude to moon over was a completely new experience.

Suzanne glanced up from where she’d been staring and flashed a bright smile. “It was amazing. Truly. It was the best of all the meals I’ve had here. The bacon wrapped shrimp were better this evening. Not that they weren’t excellent when I had them two days ago, but this evening there was something…some extra zing to them.”

Suzanne waved a hand and Jules caught a glimpse of something on her inner wrist. Was that a brand? Maybe the sweet-looking housewife type had some secrets of her own.

“I tweaked the barbecue sauce they use. I didn’t do it myself, obviously. I merely mentioned that adding some cayenne would boost the flavor,” she admitted.

“I thought you were the hostess. I didn’t realize you were a chef.” Suzanne’s face brightened. “That’s very exciting. I love to cook. I would love to talk to you about the beef Wellington I had last night. The pastry was perfection. Do you make your own pastry dough or use a frozen puff pastry? I tried my hand with it, but it’s surprisingly delicate.”

Jules held up her obviously fake hand. “No, I’m not a chef. I simply help out in the kitchen from time to time. And I do believe the chefs make their own pastry. I wouldn’t be able to.”

Suzanne frowned. “Why not?”

Did she not see the prosthetic? “Cooking is one of those things that requires two hands for real precision. I only have one now and it’s not even my dominant hand. I was a lefty and now it’s gone. I’m not saying I can’t heat a can of soup, but cooking is an art form.”

“So is surviving,” Suzanne said with a wistful smile. “I think you could probably do anything you would like, but sometimes dreams shift. You seem to know how to fix a recipe.”

“Like I said, I help out.” She’d been thinking a lot lately about doing more.

“How long have you been at Top?” Suzanne asked, her eyes straying back to the bar.

“I hired on six weeks ago.” Yep, there it was, that longing look in her new friend’s eyes. How to handle this? Jules caught Ally’s stare across the room. Ally Miles was one of the servers, and she, along with Tiffany Lowe, had come up with the “save the civilian” plan. Ally nodded her way, encouraging her to continue. “I noticed you come in a lot.”

Suzanne nodded, her eyes still on the bar where Javier was sitting with a couple of friends. “Yes, I was quite happy to find this place. I’m recently moved here. Starting a new job and a new life, so to speak. It’s nice to find places where I feel comfortable.”

What did she say now? She wasn’t any good at this. Damn it. Why had she stopped at Suzanne’s table? If she’d just gone on about her business it could be Ally over here awkwardly warning a perfect stranger about venereal diseases. This was Ally’s table after all. It should be her job, but she’d found herself asking Suzanne about how the meal had gone. “I’m new myself. You know new girls gotta stick together.”

“Oh, yes, we do,” Suzanne agreed, leaning in. “Which is why I hope you’ll allow me to give you some advice. I’m very good at seeing things like this.”

“Things like this? What is this?”

Suzanne’s eyes lit up. “Sparks between people. You see, some in my family think I’m a bit of a busybody, but I like to think of it as using all my gifts for the betterment of humanity.”

“Gifts?” Was she losing control of the conversation? Now that she thought of it, she was kind of the one being a busybody. Who was she to care if some housewife went looking for a wild time with a bad boy?

Except Suzanne was sweet and Jules wasn’t sure she was capable of not falling for whoever she slept with. Unlike her. Hell, she’d managed to marry a man she hadn’t loved. She was fairly certain love wasn’t real, but Suzanne would believe.

“I’m a bit of a matchmaker,” Suzanne admitted, proving Jules right on everything she’d been thinking. “I mean I was way back in college. I might be a little rusty, but I think I’ve found your match.”

Well, at least they were talking about dating. It would be a good opening to warn her gently away from the manwhore of Top. Over the couple of weeks she’d known the dude, she’d heard story after story about his sexual proclivities. “I recently got divorced. Well, I got divorced eighteen months ago. It was amicable, but I’m not ready to date.”

There was no room in her life for a relationship. No way. No how. But would it be so bad to have a one-night stand? Every now and then.

Or a relationship based purely on need. Like some of the women who worked here had found at Sanctum. When she’d hired on, she’d gotten the spiel from Grace Taggart about the club many of the employees belonged to. They weren’t taking new members for the time being, but when they opened it up again, Jules would have a place if she wanted it.

A place in a BDSM club.

Yeah, she wasn’t sure about that, but she also wasn’t willing to count it out.

“I think you can do anything you put your mind to, Juliana.” Suzanne practically had a halo around her. She was sitting in exactly the right way to be illuminated by the soft light from the table behind her. “You just have to believe in yourself and the people around you. You can’t let anything hold you back. Not when you want something. Not when it’s right. I can practically feel the chemistry between you and that lovely man over at the bar.”

“Linc?” Lincoln was the bartender. He was cool, though a little on the paranoid side. He was putting a beer in front of Declan Burke, one of the bodyguards who worked for McKay-Taggart. He was a lovely man, but he rarely talked. He seemed to prefer brooding and working out when he wasn’t on duty. “Or Declan? Because I’m really not interested in improving my psych skills, if you know what I mean.”

“They are not crazy,” Suzanne said primly. “Though they might behave that way some of the time. I assure you their behavior seems perfectly normal to each of those men. You would do well to be more tolerant of the people around you. And no, I was talking about the other one. I think his name is Javier.”

She bit back a laugh. Wasn’t the world a crazy thing? “I was coming over to warn you away from him. That’s funny.”

Suzanne looked entirely satisfied with herself. “Then I was right. I’ve watched you two. I don’t have anything better to do. My job hasn’t started in earnest yet. I need a hobby. I think you should be the one to make the first move. He watches you, but he seems uncertain. Is he going through something? That might be why he’s hesitating. I think all it would take is you asking him for a drink and he’ll fall right into your arms.”

“Arm,” she corrected. “I’m not good with the prosthetic yet. I would probably drop him. I’m afraid you’re wrong. The servers are worried about you and they wanted someone to kind of gently give you the truth about Javi. I wasn’t going to warn you away because I want him for myself. I live across the hall from that guy and he’s a serious player. I mean a walking, talking venereal disease according to the rumors. I’ve only been here for a while, but I know not to walk into the broom closet if I hear something weird.”

At least that was what Ally had told her. She’d never actually caught Javier with his pants down, though she’d seen plenty of women doing the walk of shame out of his apartment during the first few weeks. It had been just after that night she’d helped him with his brother. She’d been surprised because he hadn’t called her to help out again, and he seemed to have found a way to watch his brother while keeping up with his active social life.

And then the last two weeks he’d gone quiet and it made her wonder what was going on. No late-night dates. No early morning good-byes.

Suzanne shook her head. “You can’t blame a man for his past. Can you honestly tell me you have no interest in him?”

“He’s hot.” She wouldn’t lie about that. The man was sex on a stick, which was probably why all those women made the long trek down the hallway in the morning, still shaking in their stilettos. “I can’t deny that. He’s a beautiful man and he’s pretty funny and nice, but I’m not interested in a relationship.”

But then was he? He wasn’t a serious guy. He was the very definition of good-time guy. She suspected he was taking out a whole lot of stress on those women he brought home. She had stress. Would it be wrong to take it out together?

Suzanne looked thoughtful for a moment. “I guess I was wrong. I’ve seen how you look at him, too.”

“I don’t look at him.” Did she? “I mean I look at him, of course. I have to. I work with him, but I don’t look-look at him.”

One brow arched over Suzanne’s eyes.

That was one judgmental brow. “Fine. I look at him but only because he’s hot. I’ve got eyes. But I also know when something’s bad for me.”

“Have you had a relationship since you lost your hand?” Suzanne asked quietly.

This was the point when she would normally shut down all talk and walk away. She didn’t have to answer this woman’s incredibly invasive questions. They didn’t know each other from Adam. She wasn’t sure why she found herself holding the menus to her chest with her good arm as she replied. “No, but I’m okay with it. I’m not all self-conscious. I lost my hand. I would do it again because it saved some really nice people. If some dude can’t handle it, I wouldn’t want to be with him anyway.”

“That’s a good attitude to have, but do you honestly believe you’ve moved on? Juliana, you’re working as a hostess for barely above minimum wage when your mother would pay you well to work for her.”

A chill went up Jules’s spine as so much about the woman in front of her fell into place. “My mother sent you.”

Her mother. America’s Favorite Hostess. Annaliese O’Neil was known across the country for her exquisite taste. She was a media queen with two television shows, a lifestyle website, and multiple cookbook and decorating book deals.

Yet, Jules remembered standing by the roadside with her trying to sell jam. She would make strawberry jam with her mom after Dad left them behind with nothing but a stack of bills. She remembered her mother crying and wringing her hands, and then standing up calmly to get to work because they had to make money and she only knew how to do one thing.

Jules also remembered the day her mother had told her not to call again, that she couldn’t handle watching her daughter ruin her life.

“My mother made herself very clear when I left home to join the Navy. I wasn’t welcome back.”

Despite her chilly tone, Suzanne still seemed warm, her eyes sympathetic. “Sometimes people say things in the heat of the moment that they regret. She hasn’t tried to contact you?”

Jules would give her mom credit. This chick was way better than sending some assistant around to get her to sign paperwork or to ensure she didn’t talk to the reporter writing a tell-all story. Suzanne was slick. She’d spent days being sweet to everyone and getting under Jules’s skin. “My mother contacts me when she needs something from me. That’s all.”

“I heard she paid for your divorce,” Suzanne reminded her. “That was kind of her.”

“She wanted to make sure Kevin didn’t have any way to come after her fortune. That was her grand sympathy for me.” Though she had sent her a card. That was her mom. Polite to the end. She’d likely gotten a blog post out of it—“Ten Ways to Support Your Daughter’s Divorce.” Probably would make a fortune off a whole new line of tastefully designed greeting cards.

“Or she wanted to make sure her daughter had what she needed,” Suzanne replied. “Maybe it’s not my place, but have you thought about the fact that she might have been reaching out?”

“It is absolutely not your place. Please tell my mother that if she wants to talk to me, she can pick up a phone.” Not that Jules would answer, but it was time to walk away.

Suzanne reached out, putting a hand on her arm, right above the spot where the prosthetic attached. “Sometimes it only takes a little bend to save the whole tree. Regret and guilt can do terrible things to a person. The kinds of things only forgiveness can heal. Just think about what I said. And think about Javier. Remember that a pretty face can hide much pain.”

Jules pulled away. “Maybe you shouldn’t come here again.”

Suzanne sat back, a sad smile on her face. “But then I would miss tomorrow’s special. I don’t know what it is, but I’m sure it will be amazing. I’ll be here for a while, Juliana. If you need to talk, come and see me. And you should write down that barbecue sauce recipe. It was delicious. Sometimes circumstances change, but that doesn’t mean you have to let go of your dreams. It merely means you adapt and come out of it stronger than before.”

Jules turned and walked away, not wanting to talk anymore.

Dreams. She’d already walked away from those. She’d wanted something real, something that was hers, and the Navy had offered it to her. She’d needed to feel like life wasn’t planned, like she wasn’t merely slated to take over where her mother left off.

Well, she’d gotten that life.

She couldn’t cook. Her dominant hand was gone and she was lucky to be able to hold menus in the one that was left. All she could do now was make a suggestion here or there and pray the chefs weren’t douchebags who thought their food was far too perfect for a hostess to comment on.

Javier had been sweet when she’d suggested adding the cayenne. He hadn’t looked offended at all. And he’d given her the credit when Chef Taggart had called him out for the sauce.

She glanced back to the dining room. Dinner service was over and there were only a few tables left finishing up. Javier smiled her way and held up his glass, as though offering her a toast.

Raven black hair. Chocolate-colored eyes. A jawline a superhero would be proud of. And that didn’t even cover how stunningly perfect his body was.

She nodded his way and then walked back into the kitchen.

Would it be so bad to get in line? As long as she remembered exactly what he was, would it be wrong to enjoy a single night with him?

She needed to think and it was far easier to think about Javier than the problems with her mother.

Jules moved back to the office and started getting the menus ready for tomorrow. Pork tenderloin with pineapple was the special.

Savory and sweet. Just like she liked it.

She settled in and tried to forget about the ridiculously hot man in the bar.


* * * *

“What’s up with the brunette? She’s been in every night this week, and let me tell you, she can put away some food. She’s tiny. I have no idea where it goes.” Javier Leones shook his head and turned back to his beer. It was closing time and his station was immaculate. He could head home, but then he would have to deal with his brother and the fact that his world had imploded. Sitting here at the bar and having family dinner after work seemed like the better bet.

It was the tradition at Top. After the doors closed at ten and all the patrons were gone, anyone who wanted to was welcome to sit down and have a meal with all the leftovers. Sometimes it was leftovers. Sometimes it was experiments. It didn’t matter because it was almost always delicious.

Except the time Chef decided to see what he could really do with tofu.

Linc glanced out over the bar as he wiped it down. He’d already pulled the wine for family dinner, and anyone who wanted a beer would have to get his or her own bottle. Otherwise, the bar was closed. “The weird one with the crazy eyes?”

“She doesn’t have crazy eyes.” Javier thought she looked kind of sweet. A little naïve. Like a sweet country mouse coming to the big city for the first time. “I think she’s just impressed with stuff.”

Declan Burke stared straight ahead. “I don’t know who you guys are talking about. I haven’t noticed anyone new. Not since Jules showed up. Jules doesn’t have crazy eyes. She’s got perfectly nice eyes.”

The big bodyguard put a hand to his head.

Jules had big doe eyes that kicked him in the gut every time she looked his way. “Hey, don’t you do the employee vetting on all the hires here?”

Declan worked for McKay-Taggart, a security services firm that provided everything from investigative pros to bodyguards to background checks. Top and MT were tied together since they were both owned by Taggarts. Chef Sean Taggart had left MT to start his restaurant empire and Ian Taggart had funded him with MT money. Big Tag, as they called him, came in several times a week, and the dude could eat.

But Javier kind of thought the tiny brunette ate more. He watched as she said something to Jules that made her smile. She had a bunch of daily menus held to her chest, her good hand covering her prosthetic. She did that a lot. She hid that hand or tried to cover it with something. She tried not to use it and it made her life hard.

Didn’t he know a thing or two about stubborn vets?

“Yeah, I ran some of the applications,” Declan replied. His eyes were narrowed, but he took a long drink of the beer in front of him. “You think I missed something?”

Javier should have known that was where he would go. “Dude, you’ve got to stop being pessimistic. You always go to the worst place.”

Declan shrugged. “If you always go to the worst place, you got nowhere else to go but up. I don’t get optimists, man. It’s like setting yourself up to fall. If you always think everything is shit and it’s all going to hell, then you can be pleasantly surprised when it works out for the best.”

Linc nodded. “Yeah, that seems like a good life philosophy.”

Javier shook his head. “No, it’s a terrible one. What happened to the two of you?”

“Lots of stuff,” Linc replied. “I got shot to shit in Iraq and Dec here keeps getting the worst headaches, and he has some weird dreams, I think.”

Dec shot Linc the finger. “I don’t need you to play doctor. I need you to pour me another beer.”

Javier could have told him the beer wasn’t going to help with a headache, but Declan didn’t look like a man ready to take advice. “And I was only asking because I’m curious about the new girl.”

Linc glanced toward the dining room. “The one with the crazy eyes?”

Sometimes he was certain Linc sampled the product too much. Other times he was aware that the big guy was a massive puppy who’d been kicked one too many times. He could still love a good pet from time to time, but he was capable of biting the hand that fed him. Linc had a metal plate in his head that made him near impossible to deal with at airports, and a load of shitty memories that made him go a little crazy from time to time.

“No, buddy. I was talking about Jules.” Jules, with the sad eyes and that crazy waterfall of red hair he thought about getting caught in. Like she was some gorgeous mermaid and her hair caught men and brought them in for the kill.

It might be a good way to go.

Declan turned, setting down the beer he’d been nursing. He’d come in the last few nights to hang out and start to get what he called a “feel” for the place. Javier wasn’t sure Top had a “feel,” but apparently it was important since they were hosting an up-and-coming country-western singer soon and Declan and the bodyguards were providing security. Javier kind of thought Dec had taken lead on the job for the free food and beer. “You interested in Jules?”

If by interested Dec meant couldn’t get her out of his head, Javier was interested.

But he wasn’t about to say anything so…touchy, feely. He wasn’t one of those guys. Nope. The kind who talked about their feelings and had feelings. Did he have feelings? He wasn’t sure. Oh, he was good with anger and irritation. Lately, he wasn’t so good with happiness or joy.

“I’m curious about her. She doesn’t talk a lot to the guys. I managed to find out that she was in the Navy. Eric served with her ex-husband and that’s how she got the job, but other than telling me how to cook, she’s pretty closed down.” Except sometimes she would laugh and her whole face would brighten. “She shows up in my life a lot lately. I wonder about her.”

“She shows up in your life?” Dec asked, suddenly getting serious. “You think she’s stalking you for some reason? Damn, man. I told you that dick of yours was going to get you in trouble. I didn’t actually run her application, but I’ll pull it and go back through her history. Do you think you had one of your encounters with her and she’s pissed?”

Sometimes it sucked to be surrounded by worst-case scenario guys. He held up his hands. “No. Absolutely not. She’s not stalking me. She moved in to the apartment across the hall. Eric asked if I knew of a place and it opened up. She certainly didn’t come looking for me. And she rehabs at the same center I take Rafael to. I’ve seen her talking to him but when I ask what they were talking about he tells me to mind my own business.”

“You think she’s moving in on your brother?” Linc asked.

He hadn’t even considered that. He didn’t like the thought. Not at all. Still, she hadn’t seemed flirty with Rafe. “First of all, she gave me the name of the rehab center. It wasn’t like she followed us there. And I don’t think she’s moving in on Rafe. No woman with half a brain would touch my toxic as shit brother right now. No. She was being kind to him. Not that he deserves it. I’m curious about her. She seems to know her way around a kitchen far better than any newbie hostess I’ve met.”

“That’s because she’s Annaliese O’Neil’s daughter,” Linc said.

Dec frowned his way. “How the fuck did you know that? I was told to keep that quiet.”

Linc shrugged, one shoulder moving negligently. “I like her show. She’s got a soothing voice and she has some very good tips when it comes to cocktails. Also, there’s a picture of her daughter in her biography. It’s Jules. If Jules knows something about cooking, it’s because she was raised by her mom.”

“You read some decorator’s bio?” Dec shook his head like he was trying to get the image out.

“I can read,” Linc shot back. “Mostly comic books and gaming magazines, but you know what—I’m single and I don’t want to live in squalor. Her notes on feng shui really improved my sleep patterns.”

Well, he was not going to judge a book by its outwardly masculine cover anymore. He needed to spend more time with Linc. Dude was a trip. “So she’s like an heiress or something? What’s she doing in my rathole building?”

“I don’t know what happened,” Dec admitted. “But I know she needed this job. She seems like a nice lady. She’s not your usual.”

Javier turned and Jules was frowning down at the brunette. It was obvious that conversation had gone wrong. He didn’t like the way Jules had paled. He slipped off his barstool, and tipped his glass her way. Maybe she would come over and have a drink with them. “Yeah, I know. I don’t think I have a usual anymore.”

Nope. Jules merely nodded his way and went back to the kitchen.

Dec’s brows rose. “That’s not what I heard. I heard you went on quite a tear.”

He felt himself flush. “I was stupid. You know how some guys get bad news and go on a bender? Yeah, I sometimes do that with sex.”

“Because of all the shit with Rafe?” Linc asked.

Javier couldn’t look him in the eye. He stared at his beer. “Yeah. About a month ago I decided to try, really try to settle down with a woman. Thought I found a good one. The night I was going to ask her to be my sub, Rafe showed up. She bailed as fast as she could. So instead of a pretty sub to take care of me, I get to take care of my brother, who hates everything and everyone. For a couple of weeks there I would put his ass to bed and call some women I knew. It wasn’t like they were looking for relationships, if you know what I mean. I’m sleeping on a pullout bed in the living room. It was all about sex.”

It was all about forgetting his shitastic existence for a few hours.

“Hey, no one is blaming you, man,” Dec replied. “I talked to Rafe for about two minutes before I realized I would rather punch him than listen to him. He’s pretty rough right now. Do you want me to look into those friends of his?”

“I would like to bar them from the apartment building, but then Rafe manages to get his ass out on the street, and that goes poorly, too.” He wasn’t sure what to do. One minute Rafe was apologizing and promising to be better. The next he was trying to punch a guy at the grocery store who he said was giving him the eye or something.

“Let me check ’em out,” Dec encouraged. “I got nothing better to do with my time.”

“Sure. That would be great. I’m just grateful that Rafe changed his mind about the surgery. He’s having a procedure in the morning that should help manage his pain. He’s having trouble with the prosthetics. This is supposed to make it easier for him to walk in them. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. He’ll be able to get his own booze or whatever.”

“I thought he said he wouldn’t do it.” Linc nodded as the brunette walked by. The one with the slightly crazy eyes. “Good evening, ma’am.”

She waved and that was when he realized she wasn’t looking at Linc. It was Dec who had her attention. She stared at him for a moment before hurrying out the door.

Top was closed for the night.

“Jules talked him into it.” He put his beer down, ready to put some tables together for supper. “I’m brother free for a few days and I have her to thank for it.”

And for his recent celibacy. He’d caught her watching as one of his fuck buddies said good-bye one morning. He hadn’t liked her seeing that part of him.

It was weird and he wasn’t sure what to do about it.

“You going to grab the grub? I’m starving.” Linc pulled his apron off.

Dec slid off his barstool. “I could totally eat.”

Yeah he was here for “work.” Javier started for the kitchen, but the other chefs were already bringing out the food while Ally and Tiff set the table.

Since he didn’t have a houseguest, shouldn’t he think about having someone over? Indulge in his drug of choice? He could have sex in his own bed for once.

He pushed through the doors and caught sight of her. Jules was talking to Grace Taggart, her hair pulled back. She smiled at something Grace said.

Or maybe he could try something different for a change. Maybe he could try something new.

God knew he could use it.


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