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Excerpt: Torque

Excerpt: Torque

Book 4: Burns Brothers Series

Chapter One

Madison Roberts

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t in love with Nathan Burns.

I met him when we moved into a house down the street from his family when I was six, and it was love at first sight. He was doing wheelies on his bicycle in the middle of the street like a bad boy. But then, he was eleven at the time. So much older and more experienced than me.

Twenty years later, not a lot had changed.

I was still in love with Nathan Burns. He was still a bad boy who had seen and done more than me.

Not that he saw me.

Case in point, we were all at his Aunt Wendy’s house for their weekly dinner tonight—I’d been included since I’d been best friends with his sister, Sabrina, for forever—and Nathan hadn’t spoken more than ten words to me. He was still hounding Sabrina.

“It’s too soon for you to come back.” Nathan shook his head, a muscle in his jaw flexing as he was no doubt biting back whatever he really wanted to say. “You were just in a fire, Sabby. They carried you out on a fucking stretcher. You were hospitalized.”

Then again, maybe he wasn’t biting any words back.

Sighing, I tried not to be obvious and stare at him with puppy eyes.

At least, that was what Sabrina had called them once.

I tore my eyes away from Nathan’s chiseled features and chased a pea around my plate with my fork.

“That was almost a month ago, Nate.” Sabrina didn’t look the least bit intimidated by Nathan’s overbearing act. But she was used to it; since Wendy had raised all of them, they were more siblings than cousins. “I’m off oxygen. I got the all-clear from my doctor last week. I’m coming back to work.”

Nathan grunted. He turned his attention to Logan, Sabrina’s boyfriend, sitting close to her side. “You got anything to say about this?”

Logan raised his eyebrows and exchanged a look with Sabrina. Then he slowly shook his head. “Nope.”

That was it. Logan bent his head over his plate and resumed shoveling Wendy’s delicious meal into his face. Even though they’d both gone through a near death experience, I envied the hell out of them. My bestie had found the guy she could lean on. Even though she was capable of standing on her own two feet.

Nathan stared at Logan in amazement. It had to be killing Nathan that no one was agreeing with him. He huffed a sigh and after a moment shot Sabrina a smug look as he pointed his fork at her. “What about the fact that you don’t even want to work there? You quit, remember?”

Sabrina shrugged. “And I took it back the next day, Nate. I told you all, it takes a bit of time to get all my qualifications together to apply for veterinarian school. I’ll let you know when I have a plan together, but since Mom’s restaurant burned down, my workload is a lot smaller. I can do part time at the shop while I study for the entrance exam and get my hours in at the clinic. But I’m coming back Monday.”

I swore I could see steam rising from Nathan’s head. He was used to getting his way. It was easy enough for him at the shop, where he built custom motorcycles with his brothers. They each kinda did their own thing for the most part. Except when they butted heads, and then it really hit the fan. Which was why the Urban Channel had signed them for a second season of their reality show.

Nathan’s fork fell to his plate with a clank. “That’s bullshit. It’s too soon. You need to stay home and recuperate.”

“Nathan, dear.” Wendy leaned across the table with the bowl of mashed potatoes. “Sabrina is a grown woman. If she says she’s ready to return to work, then she’s ready. Drop it.”

Nathan shook his head. “But—”

“Drop. It.” Wendy scooped some potatoes and slapped them onto his plate. “Here. Clearly you need something to fill that mouth of yours. Eat up.”

An awkward silence hummed in the room. I stared at my mashed potatoes in fascination. I bet with a few more, I could build a mountain like that guy in Close Encounters. Anything to avoid the tension in the room. I really hated confrontation.

But after a minute, Nathan reluctantly went back to eating, and conversation started up again.

And still Nathan didn’t say anything to me. Or even look in my direction.

Not that I expected him to.

“Hey Maddie,” Dylan, my other best friend, and Nathan’s brother, nudged my arm. “Did you still want to swing by your place and pick up some clothes?”

I nodded tightly, trying not to draw any attention to myself since my apartment had been a hot topic lately.

But apparently today was not my day.

Nathan’s head snapped up. “Why are you swinging by Maddie’s place? I thought you moved out of that hellhole.”

And now I was the one under the wrath of Nathan Burns. I slumped down in my chair. “Not yet. I haven’t had time to clear the apartment out.”

Mostly because I didn’t want to go back there alone. Not that I would admit as much to Nathan. Now that I had his attention, I quivered like a rabbit in headlights.

It didn’t help that he clearly saw me in the same vein as Sabrina.

Family.

Not girlfriend material at all.

“Well, shit. Let’s get a convoy together and get your shit. I bet between all of us, we could pack up your apartment in one haul.”

Oh my god. I fought to hide the blush that was no doubt staining my cheeks.

“You’re still young enough that we can move you with garbage bags like we did with Sabby last time. Only took like two truckloads, I think. I miss being able to pick up and move like that. Damn, those were the good ol’ days.”

Of course he had to point out our age difference and compare me to his sister. Agony.

I continued to stare doggedly at my plate. I couldn’t trust myself to look at him tonight. Seeing what Sabrina had with Logan, and knowing that Nathan would never feel the same way about me had my feelings a little too close to the surface. “No, we’ve got it.”

I could practically feel his eyes on me. But I knew it wasn’t because he was finally seeing me. He was still pissed that I chose to live with Dylan. When the family found out about me staying on Dylan’s couch, Nathan had offered his guest room up for me. But I couldn’t stand the thought of living in the same place with him and seeing him come home with beautiful woman after beautiful woman. Although in hindsight, staying the condo next door wasn’t exactly the smartest choice. I still had a prime view of the parade of Nathan’s women.

Nathan huffed. “What if your neighbors hassle you?”

I looked at Dylan out of the corner of my eye.

He gave Nathan a baffled look. “Do you think I can’t handle a couple of small-time thugs?”

“Have you looked in the mirror lately?” Nathan drawled. “You look like you’ve lost twenty pounds at least. A stiff breeze would knock you over, let alone a couple dealers.”

“He’s not wrong, Dylan.” Wendy interjected; her brow wrinkled in concern. “I’m worried about you, sweetie. You’ve hardly touched your dinner tonight. Are you feeling all right? Have you been to see your doctor?”

“I’m fine.” Dylan groaned before pushing away from the table with a screech of his chair. “I just decided I don’t want to keep up with the whole musclebuilding thing you guys are doing for the show. I don’t have time for it. You ready, Maddie?”

I pushed away from the table with a screech of my own chair. Dylan had been my ride here so if he was ready to leave, so was I. “Yeah. Yes. I am. Thank you so much for dinner, Wendy. It was delicious.”

“You guys aren’t staying for dessert?” Wendy asked as she stood as well. “I made your favorite, Dylan. Cherry cheesecake.”

She must’ve been worried about Dylan if she went to the trouble of baking a cheesecake for him. Since her restaurant burned down, though, Wendy had nothing but time on her hands while the arson investigation and the insurance company drug their heels.

“Nah. Thanks though, Aunt Wendy.” Dylan crossed the room to drop a kiss on her cheek. “I’ll swing by tomorrow and grab a slice if there’s any left.”

“There won’t be.” Nathan retorted from his side of the table. “I’ll make sure of it.”

I raised my eyebrows but didn’t say anything as the brothers bickered over dessert and who got how much.

Wendy crossed the room and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. “You sure you can’t stay for dessert?”

I smiled wanly. “I don’t think Dylan is in the mood for dessert.”

“Dylan hasn’t been in the mood for much lately. I’m worried about that boy.” Wendy pulled back so she could look me in the eyes. “If you knew what was going on, you’d tell me, right?”

I didn’t want to lie to her, but I also didn’t know what was going on with Dylan. He’d been gone more often than not and never wanted to talk about where he’d been. I hitched my shoulder in a shrug. “Maybe. If it was something important that he needed help with.”

Wendy rolled her eyes. “You’re a good friend, but you’re a shit spy.”

Laughter bubbled out of me. “Thanks, I think.”

“And you know, the offer is always open if you want to take one of my spare rooms. It can’t be easy living with Dylan and next door to two of the boys. Ryan is settled now, but Nathan…” She sighed.

She didn’t need to finish the thought. I knew what she meant. Nathan was gorgeous and arrogant and aggravating. He always had to have his way, but it was because he thought he knew what was best for the people he loved. He’d do that cocky head tilt thing and just say what he thought in that obnoxious way of his.

He was lucky he was so pretty.

And muscular.

And those tattoos…

What were we talking about again?

I shook my head. “It’s fine. Really. Dylan’s couch is comfy. And it’s only temporary. I’m still trying to get hold of the landlord to talk about breaking the lease. But he must be out of town or something.”

“Busy raking in the profits from his drug operation, you mean.” Nathan murmured as he popped up next to me on my other side.

I sent a desperate look Dylan’s way, but he was busy arguing about cheesecake slice sizes with Sabrina. “My landlord isn’t a drug dealer. My neighbor is.”

Nathan snorted. “And the landlord is just turning a blind eye to the operation? I don’t think so. Guarantee you that bastard is getting a cut of the profits. And I bet you a hundred bucks he’s gonna give you the run around about breaking your lease, too.”

“I guess we’ll see,” I said.

Nathan sat back in his chair and crossed his arms. “You shouldn’t have paid your rent this month. You’re not even living there.”

“My stuff is there, therefore I pay rent.”

“You never should’ve moved into that hellhole in the first place. I don’t know why you were so goddamn stubborn. We wanted to help you, Mads. You know you’re like family. If you’d let my lawyer—”

“Dylan?” I interrupted Nathan’s familiar tirade. “What’s going on? We leaving or what?” That like family comment felt like a physical blow. It was one thing when I thought it about Sabrina and Wendy, but for Nathan to say it about me? Ugh. It hurt. “I don’t want to be out too late. I gotta work tomorrow.”

“Yup. Let’s roll.” Dylan hugged some Tupperware to his chest and turned to the door. Calling over his shoulder, “Later, all.”

I should’ve known he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of cheesecake. I forced a smile and waved to my friends. Hiding my true feelings about Nathan was my normal—I had twenty years of practice. I moved to follow Dylan, but Nathan grabbed my arm.

“Mads, you shouldn’t—”

“I gotta go, Nathan. See you later, okay?”

He’d never see me as anything other than a pseudo-sister. Someone he had to look after and solve my problems. Definitely not someone he’d ever see as an equal.

Or want to see naked.

I’d been, and always would be, friend listed. It was time that I accepted it and moved on. Literally.

Dylan was surprisingly quiet on the drive to my apartment. He usually had a few rants about his brothers; the guys were typically at each other throats at least once a week. But not tonight.

That was fine by me. I wasn’t in the mood for chit chat. Or to talk about his brothers.

We were idling at a red light when Dylan’s phone pinged with a new text.

I bit my lip as he pulled his phone from his back pocket and read the message. Since we weren’t driving, it wasn’t exactly bad that he was reading his texts. But he could still get a ticket.

The thought flew from my head as I watched the blood drain from Dylan’s face.

“What’s going on? Are you okay, Dyl?”

He didn’t answer me or reply to the text. It was either a novel length text or he was reading it over and over. Either way, it didn’t look like it was good news.

“Dylan? You’re kinda scaring me here. Who texted you? What’s going on?”

A horn blared behind us. We both jumped and looked up at the now green light. Dylan cursed under his breath, shoved his phone into the center console, and sped through the intersection.

“Uh, I can’t take you over to your apartment tonight, Maddie. I gotta go take care of something.”

“Okay.” A pit formed in my stomach as I stared at Dylan’s stoic features. There was so much he wasn’t saying. What was going on? Was it a girl? His dad? Something I didn’t even know about? I might’ve only been living with Dylan a few weeks, but I knew he was hiding something from everyone in his life.

If he wasn’t talking to me about it, I could guarantee he wasn’t talking to anyone else about it, either.

“What’s going on, Dylan? You know you can tell me anything, don’t you?”

But Dylan just shook his head and didn’t say anything.

I sighed. “Just know, whatever it is, I’m here for you. You’re one of my best friends. There’s nothing you could do that would make me not love you. Just tell me when, and I’ll show up with a shovel and a bag of lye, no questions asked.”

He snorted. “A bag of lye? Really?”

“For sure. I’ve read a ton of romantic suspense. I know how to hide a body and not get caught.”

“Okay, that’s frightening as fuck.”

“That’s love, buddy.”

“It is. And I love you too.” He sighed. “But I can’t. I’m not ready to talk about it.”

I stared at him in silence. I wished like hell that he’d let me in. But I also understood he wasn’t ready. “’Kay. But just so you know, when you are ready, I’ll be there. Shovel or no.”

Dylan chuckled unsteadily. “You’re fucking whacked. But thanks.”

The rest of the drive passed in silence. Only this time, I had a million thoughts running through my head. Instead of just being sad about Nathan, now I was wondering what trouble Dylan had caught himself in. Was it a girl? Maybe she was pregnant? Or had an STD? Who else would be texting him bad news so late on a Thursday night?

I blinked and we were pulling up to his condo in Midtown. But instead of pulling into his driveway, Dylan idled at the curb.

“I need to go take care of something. Do you mind taking my cheesecake in for me?”

“Your cheesecake? Did you seriously not grab me a slice?” I tried for a teasing tone, but I was seriously worried about him.

The smile Dylan gave me in reply was nowhere near his usual dimple twinkling grin. “Maybe. If you’re nice to me.”

“Sure. Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Always. Lock the door behind you.”

I grabbed the plastic containers from the backseat and gave Dylan another searching look that he avoided. Sighing heavily, I pushed my door open and climbed out of his lifted pickup.

I don’t think I’d made it even five feet up the sidewalk before he left in a screech of tires. That wasn’t out of the ordinary. All the Burns brothers—even Sabrina—drove like bats out of hell. I tried really hard not to read anything into his urgency to leave.

But it didn’t make me worry any less.

When I got to his front door, I juggled the dishes and my purse as I dug for my key. But of course, me being me, I dropped one of the dishes then my purse. Cursing, I ducked down and thanked god that the lid had stayed on. Dylan wouldn’t be happy if I got gravel in his cheesecake. After shoving everything else back into my purse, I found my keys and had a better handle on my load as I stood up again. I moved to push the key into the lock when I felt something press into my back.

“You Dylan Burns’ girl?” A deep and threatening voice asked from behind me.

It felt like everything slowed down except my heartbeat. It thrummed in my head so loud I swear I could taste my pulse.

“Well, are you?” He asked again, pushing what I was pretty sure was a gun deeper into my back.

“I-I-I am.”

What the hell? Why did I say that?

“You tell him that the guys aren’t happy with him. And if I have to come back and deliver the message again, I won’t be so fucking nice about it.”

My eyes widened as I felt him step closer to me. A waft of tobacco, sweat, and peppermint had me gagging. Or maybe it was the way he rubbed his erection into my lower back.

“Or I can be really, really nice. You get me, sweetheart?”

“I-I do. Get you. I understand. I’ll tell him.” The words left me without conscious thought. I’d tell him the sky was green if it would make him leave me alone. Oh god.

“You be sure to do that. I’d hate to come back out here again.” He dug the gun deeper into my back while rubbing against my lower body at the same time. “Or maybe I’d really love it. We could have some fun together—me and you.”

Bile tickled at the back of my throat. Oh god.

“I’ll tell him.” I whispered. “I promise.”

“Mmmm, too bad. You’re all soft and round. The way I like my women.” He grunted low in his throat then pushed harder against me. “What the fuck?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Nathan’s voice thundered from somewhere behind us. “What the fuck is going on here?”

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