Worth the Risk

The McKinney Brothers, Book TWO

 
Love, love, love! Read Claudia Connor for a consistently raw and emotional love story.
— New York Times bestselling author Carly Phillips
 
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Two hearts locked away . . . Hannah Walker spends her days coaching children through injury and trauma, one therapeutic horseback ride at a time. She knows all too well how violence can change a child and leave scars that never heal. It’s easy for her to relate to the kids; what isn’t easy is the thought of facing her own harrowing past.

Millionaire playboy Stephen McKinney could use a little coaching himself. Five years ago he encountered his most horrible nightmare—and the nightmare won. No matter what he achieves, nothing can make up for that awful night . . . or so he believes.

Both desperate for a second chance . . . Stephen is used to getting what he wants. And he wants Hannah. So when she turns him down, he’s intrigued. What he doesn’t know is that her secrets will lead him to a place he never wanted to go again . . . to a side of himself he’s tried to forget . . . a side that would scare Hannah away from ever loving him. Now his only chance to win her trust is to bare his soul, risking everything he tried so hard to protect.


Achingly real characters, combined with Connor’s deft and tender handling of complex issues, make for a compelling, layered read.
— USA Today bestselling author Maggie McGinnis

Excerpt

Worth the Risk is a story of healing, of overcoming heartbreaking memories and panic-inducing fears, and taking the risk to trust and love again. You do not want to miss this wonderfully emotional story by one of my new favorite authors!
— Wendy S. Marcus, author of Loving You Is Easy

Chapter 1

Hannah’s eyes burned and her head ached from the effort not to cry as she pulled into a parking spot at Foodland. At eight o’clock that morning she’d walked into the veterinarian’s office a dog owner. Three hours later she’d walked out . . . not.

She cut the engine, her forehead dropped to the steering wheel. She’d known Max wasn’t himself, that he might be sick, that eleven was old for a dog, especially a large shepherd mix. But she hadn’t expected to hear the words nothing we can do, or best thing for him.

Biting her lip against tears, she forced herself out and into a spring day so bright and beautiful she couldn’t decide if it was cheerful or a slap in the face.

She grabbed a cart and mentally planned her route hitting produce first. Avocados, jalapeños, tomatoes. She searched her fuzzy brain for what else she needed for guacamole, her standard contribution when she went to her brother’s. Exactly where she did not want to go tonight. She didn’t want to watch the brothers who’d raised her tiptoeing around, giving each other worried looks, thinking they needed to fix it like they always did. They couldn’t fix this. A lot of things couldn’t be fixed.

Finished with that, she silently repeated the rest. Chips, bread, beer. Chips, bread, milk, beer. She added things and ticked them off as she went. But old habits were hard to break, and like a car on autopilot, she found herself in the dog food aisle.

All she saw were Max’s big eyes fixed on hers. Trusting her when she said it would be okay, not understanding the vet’s syringe was filled with enough anesthesia he’d never wake up. The lump in her throat swelled until she couldn’t swallow past it. Her nose burned and the bags in front of her blurred.

Just get the beer and go. She wheeled around and turned the corner of the next aisle.

She couldn’t handle a pity party tonight. Of course if she didn’t go, if she said she just wanted to hang out at home, they’d cancel the whole March Madness deal and insist on coming to her house. Her house, where a certain brown-eyed shepherd wouldn’t be waiting. An enormous weight settled on her chest.

Don’t cry. She scanned the beer case and swiped at her eyes. She wasn’t going to cry. She bit down on her bottom lip.

Damn it. She was. No wonder her brothers treated her like glass. Broken glass.

“Bad day?”

Hannah jerked at the deep voice beside her. Right beside her and way too close. Dark, tall and wide, the man filled out his expensive-looking black suit like an athlete entering the stadium tunnel before a game.

“I’m fine.”

He angled his head, smiled, and her heart actually stumbled. “You know, people usually cry in their beer after they drink it. Just saying.”

He continued to study her with soft brown eyes, and for the first time in a long time, she didn’t want to look away. But she did. And pulled the sides of the long-sleeved shirt she wore open over a tank top closer together. Because of the frigid air coming from the beer case, and because no matter what she had on, no matter how covered, she could never shake the feeling people could somehow see through to what lay beneath. “Well, I’m done now.”

He looked back to the case as well, but even from the side she could see a smirk pulling at his lips. “That’s good.”

She grabbed a six-pack of AmberBock, spun her buggy around, and headed to the front, feeling the stranger’s eyes burning her back the entire way.

Stephen McKinney watched her go, enjoying the way she moved in tan riding breeches that hugged her legs before they disappeared into tall, brown leather boots. He smiled, enjoying it a little longer. Golden-blond hair hung in a long, loose braid nearly to her waist. He had a flash of it tangled in his fingers, spread across silk sheets. Beautiful. And gone.

He loosened his tie and opened the top buttons of his dress shirt as he made his way through the express lane.

Still feeling a stab of disappointment, he exited alone. But the sun warmed him and, it seemed, blessed him, with extreme luck, because, as he stashed his items in the tiny trunk of his Porsche, he caught sight of Goldilocks pushing her cart straight toward him.

Grinning, he pretended to search his bags as she made a wide birth around him and stopped at the neighboring car—a black 4Runner that had seen better days. She rearranged some piles in the back then stashed her groceries, not once looking at him.

While she delivered her basket to the holding pen, he closed his trunk and stepped around to lean against the side. He waited, watched, noting the deliberate way she walked. Tall and lean, though he still had a good six inches on her.

Still several feet away, she slowed, a touch of fight-or-flight in her eyes. She took a few more steps, maintaining a certain distance he felt compelled to close. But he stayed where he was, legs crossed in front of him, effectively blocking her way. “Have dinner with me.”

Golden eyes blinked up at him. Not the shade of the gold bars stacked inside the national reserve, more like the dark whiskey he’d drunk too much of not so long ago. 

“What?”

“I’m asking you to dinner.”

She looked around again, seeming more concerned with the parking lot than with him. “Oh.”

Not exactly an answer and not the effect he usually had on women. “Stephen,” he said and offered his hand.

She hesitated so long, he thought she might leave him hanging. But finally, and with obvious reluctance, she slipped her small hand into his. He got a little buzz from the slide of her palm against his. He imagined the rest of her would be just as soft. “Your name?”

“Hannah.”

“So, Hannah,” he said, wanting to tug until she was flat up against him. “Will you please have dinner with me?”

“No.” She didn’t consider it for even a second and pulled her hand free.

“Ah.” He inclined his head toward her bags. “Chips. Beer. You have plans. Another night then.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Give me your number and I’ll call you.”

“Yes. I mean . . . no.”

“Not sure?” Now he was getting somewhere. She rolled her bottom lip between her teeth. If she was playing hard to get, he could play too. And he would win.

“I mean I can’t give you my number and yes, I have plans.”

She flicked her eyes toward her driver’s side door.

Nervous? It was broad daylight and not like they were standing in a darkened alley, but he straightened, gave her a bit more space. Though there was no way was he about to leave things like this, just watch her drive away. Not when he was dying to touch her, brush back the wayward strands feathering around that gorgeous face.

“Maybe just a drink then. No pressure.”

Seconds ticked by and she bit at her lip again, making him think about biting it too. She seemed to weigh her options, possibly deciding which was the better offer. If he’d been interested before, now he was damned intrigued.

“I guess I could meet you somewhere.”

He cocked his head, resisted giving her the head-to-toe perusal he wanted to. “Is that the best deal I’m going to get?”

“It’s the only deal you’re going to get.”

In the second their eyes connected, he caught a touch of sass, before she looked away. Cute. Very cute, on top of being very beautiful. “Okay. Reno’s.” If she was surprised at Norfolk’s exclusive, impossible-to-get-into restaurant, she didn’t show it. His phone rang and, without taking his eyes from hers, he slipped it out of his pocket. “Seven thirty?”

She gave a swift nod and escaped to her car.

As a businessman he knew compromise could often get you farther. And sometimes, he thought, sliding into the deep black leather, it was best to let your opponent think they’d won.

He brought the cell to his ear. “Hey, Adam, what’s up?” As he listened to the young intern he’d recently taken on, he watched Hannah leave the parking lot.

“So how should I reply?”

Stephen started his own car and pulled out. “You tell them the deal’s off. They want to sell more than we want to buy. That’s the point. Find out why they’re so eager and then we squeeze. Three to one he caves by midweek.” Which were better odds than his date showing up tonight.

“And that’s why you’re the shark.”

Stephen smiled at the young man’s enthusiasm. “I’ll be back in the office in twenty.” He ended the call and dropped his phone into the console, his mind more on a golden-haired angel than a major land acquisition. He had other acquisitions in mind.

His smile grew at the thought as he muscled into midday traffic and took the I-4 into downtown. Breast-hugging tank top he’d only gotten a peek of thanks to the shirt she wore over it. That shirt had also partially blocked his view of a very fine ass. Just the right curves in addition to a sinfully sexy mouth. And a single tear tracking down her cheek that had twisted something inside him. Not at all the kind of thing he liked.

He preferred happy and carefree, conceited and self-involved. All of which turned the spotlight on someone else and turned both parties away from matters of the heart. But he was a man who got what he wanted, and the longer he’d stood there beside her car, the more he’d wanted Hannah. Plus, she’d said no. That alone had sealed her fate.

Feeling triumphant, Stephen pulled up to his office located in one of Norfolk’s newest high-rises—his high-rise. All glass and sleek metal, the silver edges gleaming in the afternoon sun, the space between reflecting the clear blue sky.

Damn, he loved this building. And he should, he’d had a lot to do with the design. More than that, it had come at a time when he’d needed it most. His tangible proof that he’d made it through the nightmare that had almost destroyed him.

But it hadn’t. The glass building stood, breakable but surviving. And so was he.

He crossed the cool lobby, his dress shoes clicking against the smooth black marble, and keyed into his private elevator. He gave a smile and a nod to the young blonde manning the main desk as the doors closed, taking him swiftly to the top of his own company, Trace Development.

He strode down the hallway to his home away from home. He’d been gone longer than he’d planned, working hard for a date with an alluring woman who’d shown a hint of sadness.

He didn’t slow down as his admin got up from behind her desk. “You have six calls. Tanner and Associates and Robert Sinclair are the most pressing. You have a conference call with Mr. Jiāng at two.” She quick-stepped to keep pace with him. She had no choice.

Stephen smiled at his straightforward administrative assistant. In a black skirt and standard white blouse ruffling out at the top, she looked as formidable as ever. Her crisp voice and gray bob only added to her air of efficiency. “Thank you, Dee.”

First order of business was to cancel his prior commitment for the evening, easy enough. He sat at his desk and pulled up the number. He’d had a fun couple of weeks, but things between him and Nicole had run their course and they both knew it. She’d been the one to cancel last time. Women used him for his money and prestige. He used them for . . . some would say sex. He thought of it more as sleep aid without the pills.

Nightmare suppressers.

When that was done he dug into the Shanghai file, barely looking up when his partner, Dave Pietro, strode in. His tie was a blast of orange against a navy pinstripe. And that was Dave, from his three-thousand-dollar shoes to his slicked-back hair and shrewd black eyes. Dave’s favorite saying was “shock and awe.” More often than not, it was just shock. But he was sharp, and he enjoyed playing the political side, something Stephen had no patience for.

“Congratulations.” Dave waved a magazine, one he’d already seen.

Stephen McKinney, Norfolk’s Most Eligible Bachelor.

“You didn’t tell me.”

“I forgot.” Since making his first million in college and being dubbed the Stock Whisperer by Forbes, it was always something. He’d been recognized in Top Ten Young Professionals more times than he could count. One article had even called him a young Donald Trump. That one he appreciated, as he had great respect for the man.

He’d strategized, negotiated, and outsmarted, gaining power and leverage with surprising speed. But it was the bigger, more recent, risks that had gotten him farther, faster. It wasn’t hard to risk everything when you had nothing to lose. Nothing to live for.

“So, how many women did you have to screw to get that Most Eligible status?”

“I don’t know,” Stephen answered dryly, thinking Dave actually sounded jealous. “I didn’t count.”

“Well, either I’m not screwing enough or not the right ones. Better up my game.”

Stephen looked up just in time to see Dave cover his tone with a smile as he passed him a file.

“New property. I want it.”

Always with the new deals, the quick and easy profit. Stephen wasn’t against quick money, but he held majority in Trace and small projects offered little challenge, in addition to wasting time. While Dave went on about an empty stretch of land and the commercial opportunities, Stephen’s mind wandered to a real challenge.

Hannah. The name suited her somehow. Soft and earthy. Full lips and a mouth he could spend hours exploring. He was well aware he might never see her again.

It wasn’t at all like him to care.

Chapter 2

Hannah parked off to the side of the barn, waited for the swirl of dust to clear, and asked herself again, What the hell did I just do? She didn’t talk to strangers. Not in grocery stores. Not in parking lots. Not ever. Until today.

He’d caught her at a weak moment, and then . . . he’d just caught her. Completely unignorable with his crooked smile and hint of dimples to counter a dangerously hot man. And obviously not the type to take no for an answer. Any other day she would have brushed him off easily. Any other day, her usual awareness of her surroundings would have staved off any interaction in the first place.

She got out and made her way across the grass and gravel parking area. Inside the barn the air pulsed with the feel of live animals; the scents of their bodies, their feed, and their home. Old wood and manure greeted her like an old friend. It was here in this place she mostly hid, going unnoticed and unseen. Being noticed made her antsy, edgy. She’d felt that way with Stephen, but she’d also felt something else. Something like an opportunity.

He didn’t know her, not her last name, not where she lived or worked. In a very weird way, that made it feel safe. A public place, she wouldn’t go anywhere else. And she didn’t want to be with her brothers tonight. Didn’t really want to be alone either. Stephen had given her an out. With Luke home on leave, she had one more nosy brother to dodge and now she could do it without lying.

Her palomino, Winnie, blew hot horsey breath in greeting then bumped her shoulder. “Hey now, what did we talk about? You already had your treat for the day.” She gave Winnie’s caramel neck a pat and moved on.

When she’d greeted the four horses in the barn, she went into the tack room, illuminated by a single yellow bulb hanging from ceiling. She breathed in the smell of old leather and oil as she gathered the special saddle pads and straps she needed for her first student.

“Hannah?”

“Yeah, in here.”

Her assistant, Lexie, came around the corner. There were only seven horses total. Not exactly a farm that required hired hands, but Lexie had always been here, and when the original owners died, she stayed. Stout and sturdy and of undermined age, she helped lift the heavier students into the saddle.

“Hey, girl. I expected you earlier. Everything okay?”

Hannah stared hard at the bridle in her hands. Adjusted the buckle that didn’t need adjusting. “No, um . . . they had to put Max to sleep.”

“Shit.”

Hannah had to smile at the sentiment even as she blinked back a new wave of tears. “I’m okay. And I’m sorry. He was kind of your dog too.” The previous owners, and closest thing Hannah had ever had to grandparents, had left it all to her. The house, the barn, the land. And the dog. He’d lived with her, slept with her, but everyone loved him. Which meant she’d have to tell the kids at some point.

Hard-edged Lexie sniffed. “He was a damn good dog. Nothing else needs to be said.”

No. There was nothing else to say. The sound of a car door closing signaled it was time to pull it together. With a deep breath she wiped her eyes and went out to greet her first student with a smile. She wouldn’t throw a shadow over this child’s time here. It meant too much. Eighteen months ago a drunk driver had run Allie’s family van off the road. She’d lost her mother, a baby brother, and her right leg just below the knee. She was six years old.

“Hey, squirt.”

“Hi, Hannah.”

She took Allie from her father’s arms and caught the relief in his eyes. He’d lost so much, and she got the sense he was hanging by a thinner thread than usual. “I have some extra horses that need brushing today. Mind if I put your girl to work when she’s finished?”

Allie’s eyes danced with excitement, her father’s with gratitude. He ran his hand through hair. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” She met his gaze with understanding. “Just make sure you stay gone an extra hour.”

As always, they began Allie’s therapy with grooming. Hannah held out an arm, offering as little assistance as possible as Allie balanced on her new prosthetic. They talked and worked. She’d only known Allie a few months but she loved her. 

When Hazel was ready, Lexie supported Allie in the saddle while Hannah fastened the special straps around the girl’s waist and thighs.

“Okay, girlfriend. You ready to ride?”

“Ready.” Allie sat tall and proud, her eyes bright under the bill of the velvet riding helmet. Her grin wide enough to reveal a tiny gap from her first lost tooth.

Hannah smiled back. After more surgeries than she could count and years of therapy, learning to walk again, she knew that joy firsthand. She understood how riding a horse lifted you up, leveled the playing field, and gave you a borrowed strength. Understood the sense of power and confidence. The freedom and fresh air after the stink and general misery of the PT room.

Using Hazel’s steady gait, they spent an hour strengthening Allie’s core and balance, learning to compensate for the part that wasn’t there anymore. When they were finished, Hannah led them across the lower pasture to a strip of trees. She fingered the lead rope loosely in her hand, and waited, giving Allie room to talk if she wanted. 

The rhythmic steps of hooves on newborn grass and Hazel’s horsey breath joined the sound of trickling water. Sunlight filtered down as they followed a path along a shallow creek that wound its way around three-quarters of the property. It wasn’t a huge piece of land, nothing fancy, but it was her home, her livelihood, and at one time had been her salvation.

“I think maybe I should cut my hair.”

Hannah glanced up at the dark strands hanging in a long ponytail down her back. “Do you want to cut it?”

“I don’t know.” Allie let out a long breath much too weary for such a tiny girl. “It might be easier. My mom used to braid it,” she added softly.

And there was the real problem. She could only imagine the pain in this little girl’s heart. Having a mother, knowing her, then losing her. She wanted to take Allie off the horse, hug her tight and never let go, but she looked up and smiled. “I think your hair would look cute short. You’ve got the face for it. Not everyone does, you know.”

“Do you remember your mom?”

Allie knew Hannah’s mother was dead, they’d covered that common bond on the first day. “No. But I was really little when my parents died, way younger than you,” she assured her. “Practically a baby. But I always had my brothers.” Hannah pointed as they stepped out of the trees. “There’s my bossiest brother now.”

Her oldest brother, Nick, stood leaning against the hood of his SUV, looking like the formidable FBI agent he was. Tall and handsome, Nick’s hair was dark brown to her light and he wore the perpetual unshaven look well. It gave him a tough look just short of scary.

He lifted his hand and she waved back. Afraid she couldn’t tell him about Max without crying, she’d texted him. And now he was here, checking on her like he always did. Her brothers had raised her, sacrificed for her. Nick more than any of them.

Lexie met them and took Hazel and Allie into the barn. Hannah turned to find Nick’s cop eyes full of concern. That was the look she couldn’t spend an entire night with.

“I’m okay. I’m sad, but I’m okay.”

Nick said nothing for several seconds, just gave her his I-can-read-your-mind stare. “I talked to Luke and Zach. They’re fine with changing plans tonight.”

“I knew you’d say that.” She headed into the barn to get ready for her next student, leaving Nick to follow. “You don’t need to change your plans.”

“Well, you’re sure as hell not sitting home alone.”

“You’re right. I’m not.” She stepped into the tack room and Nick stopped just outside.

“Really?”

“Yes. Really. You can still have your guy party. I have plans.”

“Plans?”

“Yes.” She looked back at him and smiled. “I can have plans, you know.”

“I know you can, you just . . .”

“What?” She reached for a piece of support foam. “Never do?

He leaned against the doorway, watching her. “Where are you going?”

“Dinner.”

“With who?”

She stepped around him and moved down the aisle for Big Ben, a small chestnut pony. “A friend.”

“A friend.” He said it full of suspicion and disdain for someone he didn’t know. Big brother syndrome plus FBI equaled over-the-top.

“I also manage to have friends.” Kind of. She slipped the halter over the pony’s head.

“Where are you going?”

She speared him with a glare over her shoulder.

“Okay. Sorry.” He held up his hands. “But why don’t you and your friend come over to watch the game?”

“No.”

“No?”

Hannah tilted her head. “Is there an echo in here?”

“On top of not knowing who this friend is, I don’t like the idea of you coming home at night to an empty house.” Immediately he looked remorseful and scrubbed a hand over his face. “Sorry.”

She blew out a shaky breath before speaking. “It’s fine. Dogs don’t live forever, you knew that when I moved out here.” Something he’d been adamantly against, but having the dog had helped.

She loved her four brothers, and she wouldn’t say they suffocated her, though the hum of their hovering could be deafening at times. FBI, Special Forces, firefighter, cop. It was like her very own big-brother protection force. And every one of them liked to be in charge and in control. Especially Nick. If they knew she was going out with a man, let alone a man she didn’t know, they’d freak. Even if it was for their own good.

“I know how to lock a door.”

“I know you do.”

She met her brother’s worried eyes, and not for the first time thought what it must have been like for him at nineteen, suddenly responsible for four siblings. Then she thought of how much more she’d put him through. Put them all through.

If they were ever going to believe she was really okay, if she was going to believe it, she had to prove it. Time to push herself out of her comfort zone. For herself. For all of them.