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#1 NEW YORK TIMES Bestselling Author

COMING JUNE 11, 2019

June 30, 2009

Straight from the Hip

Lone Star Sisters, Book No. 3

Recently blinded, Izzy Titan is angry at the world and in no mood to fall in love with survival instructor Nick.

Izzy has always been the fearless Titan sister. But when an oil rig blows up, leaving her barely able to see, her sisters find themselves as concerned by her emotional withdrawal as by the possibility that the explosion was no accident. Are the mind games their long-lost brother Garth has been playing turning physical? Or is someone else out to get them?

When her sisters enroll her in a survivor training camp, Izzy is not happy. Nick, her instructor, is determined that she won't be left in the dark. In more ways than one. But if he tells her the terrible truth behind why he's helping her, he'll never see her again. Unless they're both willing to take the biggest risk of all.

“One of the Top 10 Romance Novels of 2009!”

NOTE: Susan was the only author to appear on Booklist’s Top 10 Romance Novel  in 2007, 2008, and 2009 consecutively.

Booklist

“…my heart opened up and fell in love.”

Coffee Time Romance

“A truly lovely romance.”

The Romance Readers Connection

"Susan Mallery has delivered a wonderfully exhilarating story!"

Manic Readers

4.5 stars! "Snappy dialogue is something Mallery excels at, and considering the heroine's testy frame of mind, it can be humorous. Mallery never disappoints!"

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RomCon Readers

Chapter One

In the movies there was always a warning before something bad happened. Music swelled, the good guy promised everything would be fine now or the camera suddenly went into slow motion.

Life wasn’t so tidy.

Izzy Titan sat in the window seat, as she had every day for the past month, staring out at a blurry world and feeling sorry for herself. While it wasn’t a career choice everyone would make, it filled the day. She ignored her sisters’ pleas that she join them for lunch or shopping or even come downstairs to dinner. Like a regular person. When it got too annoying, she pointed out she wasn’t regular anymore—she was handicapped. If that didn’t work, she slammed the door and locked it until they went away. She’d always given everything she had, but she was ready to become the self-pity queen, if necessary.

Finally her sisters stopped bugging her. Which should have been a really big clue.

There wasn’t any warning. One minute she was sitting in her usual spot, the next, someone grabbed her around the waist, pulled her to her feet, then tossed her over a very broad, very hard shoulder.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” she yelled as blood rushed to her head, making her a little dizzy.

“My job. Go ahead and fight me all you want. You can’t hurt me.”

It was a challenge she couldn’t ignore. But when she tried to kick her attacker, he wrapped one arm around her legs, holding her still. Wiggling didn’t help either. The man had muscles like rock and a month of immobilizing self-pity had left her girlishly weak.

“I swear,” she began, as the guy turned and started walking. “Do you know who I am?”

“Izzy Titan. Hey, Skye.”

Hey, Skye?

Izzy raised her head and tried to make the room focus. Unfortunately it was dark and blurry and she couldn’t see any details.

“Skye?” she yelled. “Are you there?”

“Oh, Izzy.” Her sister sounded concerned, but not worried. Not afraid. “We didn’t know what else to do.”

“We?”

“I’m here, too,” Lexi, her other sister said. “This is for your own good.”

“Having me kidnapped?

“Nick comes very highly recommended. Your doctors wanted to put you on an antidepressant, which you’d never agree to. This is better.”

“What?”

“You wouldn’t leave your room or talk to us. It’s been a month, Izzy.”

“You’re having me kidnapped because I wouldn’t go shopping with you? Are you insane?”

They moved into the hallway. She could tell because the room got darker and her fingers brushed against the walls. Then they were going down, down, down into more darkness.

Each step jarred her entire body. If she’d had that lunch her sisters were so hysterical about she would be throwing it up, right about now.

“I’m not kidding,” she yelled. “Stop this right now. All of you. Nick, I don’t care what my sisters said, I didn’t agree to this. Put me down or I swear I’ll throw your ass in jail for so long, you’ll actually learn to enjoy being Bubba’s love slave.”

“You signed a release,” rock-guy said calmly, still moving through the house.

“What?”

“You signed a release. I’ve got it here in my pocket.”

Izzy wanted to scream in frustration as she remembered Skye asking her to sign a few checks so her sister could pay Izzy’s bills. “She tricked me. I’m blind! I didn’t know what I was signing.”

They went outside. She saw the blurry outline of trees and the welcome light and heat of the sun.

“You shouldn’t sign what you can’t read,” Nick told her.

She could hear the humor in his voice and that really pissed her off. Seconds later, he opened a car door and dumped her onto a smooth leather seat. Before he could close the door, she pushed past him and bolted for freedom. She made it all of three steps before he grabbed her around the waist and pulled her against him.

It was like pressing against the side of a mountain. She kicked and tried to pull his arm free. Irritation turned to fury and betrayal. She turned toward the house—at least she could see something that big—and assumed her sisters were on the porch.

“How could you do this to me?” she demanded. “You’re my family.”

“Izzy, we love you.” There were tears in Skye’s voice.

Good, Izzy thought furiously. She hoped Skye felt guilty for the rest of her life.

“We didn’t know what else to do,” Lexi called, sounding less than sure.

“I would never do this to you,” Izzy screamed. “Don’t think I’ll ever forgive you. Ever!”

The last word was cut short as she was tossed back into the rear of a car or SUV. She couldn’t tell which. The door slammed shut before she could run again. She lunged for the door handle, only there wasn’t one. Nor could she open the windows.

Seconds later she discovered a thick, mesh screening behind the seat and between her and the front of the vehicle. She was trapped.

She heard the door open and vaguely saw Nick slide behind the wheel. Then they were driving away. Her sisters had hired a stranger to take her from her home and do God-knows-what to her. They’d abandoned her. No. This was worse—this was actual action on their part. The two people she’d counted on her entire life had discovered she was too much trouble and had tossed her out like the trash.

#

For the next three hours, Nick Hollister drove ten miles above the speed limit. He wanted to go faster, but knew he couldn’t outrun the inevitable. His pretty, dark-haired passenger was staring out the window with a determination that told him she was about ten seconds from losing it.

“You can cry if you want to,” he said. “It won’t bother me.” He’d seen a lot worse than tears.

Izzy didn’t turn toward him. “I won’t give you the satisfaction.”

“You think I win if you cry?”

“Don’t bullies always enjoy knowing they’ve hurt someone? You didn’t win. You can’t break me.”

She raised her chin as she spoke, instinctively defying him. Good, he thought grimly. She was going to need every ounce of strength she had if she wanted to find her way back. Which was his job—to make sure she did.

“Break you?” he asked, ignoring that she’d called him a bully. He’d stormed into her life and taken her away from everything she knew. Hardly comfortable circumstances. He understood the fear of the unknown, although her unknown was a whole lot more controlled than his had been. “Dramatic much?”

“Hey, you’re the one who tossed me into the back of a car.”

“SUV.”

“Whatever. This is kidnapping. I get to be however I want.”

“Your sisters know where you are and what will happen when you get there.”

“And I should find that comforting why?” She swallowed. “Don’t even talk to me.”

He heard the fear in her voice. He could see it in the way she kept herself stiff. Behind fear was terror and while he wanted her attention, he didn’t need it that bad.

“My name is Nick Hollister,” he said, using the same tone that calmed unbroken horses. “I run a school that teaches corporate survival training. That pays the bills. I also take in kids who have suffered a traumatic loss or been victims of a violent crime. I teach them how to survive in my world. That helps them cope with their own.”

Izzy stared out the window, obviously ignoring him. He wondered how much she could actually see.

“Your sisters asked me to take you on for a few weeks, to help you adjust to being blind.”

“I’m not blind,” she snapped. “I have thirty percent of my sight.”

“You’re acting like you’re blind,” he told her. “You’ve been hiding in your room for a month.”

“It’s not like I can do anything else.”

“You life is over? Because of one little challenge? That’s impressive.”

“Shut up,” she yelled. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You can see fine.”

“Wouldn’t it be interesting if I couldn’t?” He swerved slightly as he spoke. The SUV swayed. Izzy didn’t bother looking at him.

“Very funny.”

“I thought it was,” he said. “Look. They care about you. Your sisters,” he added, in case she wasn’t following.

This time she did glance at him, only to roll her eyes. The hazel irises were unmarred by her injury. “I’m more than capable of carrying on a conversation. I’m probably smarter than you.”

“I doubt that.”

“Oh, please.”

“How smart is sitting on your ass, feeling sorry for yourself?”

She straightened and glared at him. “I was in an explosion,” she said, speaking slowly, as if to make sure he would understand. “I could have been killed.”

“But you weren’t.”

“I was seriously injured and I lost most of my eyesight.”

“Which you could get back tomorrow if you weren’t such a girl about the surgery.”

He glanced in the rearview mirror in time to see her narrow her gaze.

“A girl?” she asked softly.

“Yeah. You know. Chicken. Lacking in bravery.”

“That’s it!” she yelled. “Let me out, right here. Let me out or I swear, I’ll kill you myself. I’ll rip you apart with my bare hands and feed your body to the snakes.”

“Snakes wouldn’t eat human flesh.”

“Shut up!”

“Skye didn’t say anything about you being hysterical.”

“Let me out!”

“No.”

She grabbed the mesh screening and rattled it, but it had withstood a lot more than a scrawny woman without much muscle on her.

“She did warn me you would be difficult,” he said. “I charge extra for that.”

Izzy sank back in the seat and resumed staring out the back window.

“If you won’t have the surgery, then you have to survive with what you have,” he told her. “That’s where I come in. I teach you how to make it. You’re staying with me until you can be on your own.”

“What if I don’t want to be on my own?”

“You think your sisters want you hanging around all the time? They have lives. You’re what? Twenty-five? Twenty-six? You ready to give up so fast?”

“Go to hell.”

“I’ve already been there.”

He turned onto the familiar paved, private road and drove toward the two story main house. He’d bought the run-down ranch nearly eight years before. Neighboring ranchers leased his pasture for their cattle, while he used the twenty acres of wilderness for his retreats. He kept a dozen horses in the big barn and had built several guest houses where clients stayed. There were meeting facilities, a restaurant grade kitchen that could serve up to fifty at a time and a big media room that rivaled a multiplex.

Not that Izzy would deal with much more than the barn. He planned to work her hard enough that she didn’t have time to feel sorry for herself. The little he knew about her told him she would fight him every step of the way, but he didn’t care about that. He would win in the end because he had to.

He parked in front of the house and turned off the engine.

“We’re here,” he said in the silence.

Izzy folded her arms across her chest and stared out the window.

“When I let you out, you can run if you want. We’re about a mile from out closest neighbor and ten miles from the nearest town. But if you want to go looking, I won’t stop you. The temperature is close to a hundred. Without water, you’ll last maybe three days. Assuming you don’t get bit by a rattler and die sooner.”

“Oooh,” Izzy said, still not looking at him. “I’m all tingly with fear. Want to threaten me with whips and chains next?”

“I don’t usually work with adults, but I’ve made an exception for you. Don’t think this is going to be easy. You’ll work for your room and board. No work, no food.”

She snapped her head around until she was facing him. “My sisters are paying you. You can’t starve me.”

He grinned. “I can do anything I want. I’m not the one who’s blind.”

“Fuck you.”

“You’re not my type.”

If there hadn’t been mesh between them, Izzy would have scrambled over the seat and gone after Nick with everything she had. He was so smug and mean and dismissive. Didn’t he know what she’d been through? She’d lost most of her sight. It was easy to be oh, so confident when you hadn’t suffered. She would bet Nick didn’t know anything about being afraid.

She hated him and right now she hated her sisters. It was hard to say who she resented more. Anger burned within her, making her want to lash out. The problem was there wasn’t anyone she could fight. At least not yet.

Nick climbed out of the SUV and walked around to her side. The door opened. She felt the blast of afternoon heat on her skin.

She wanted to be back at Lexi’s house, in the cool room with the window seat. Over the past month, the four walls had been a refuge. But her sisters had sent her away. She was on her own.

She slid out of the seat and followed Nick into a large house. The second they walked inside, the light dimmed and so did her ability to see. The world darkened until it was little more than blurry shapes.

“This is the main house,” he said. “You’ll be sleeping upstairs. First door on the left. There’s an attached bathroom. You’ll find your luggage there. You can unpack later. This is the living room. We don’t use it much. Through here is the kitchen.”

She knew from his voice he’d moved away, but had trouble seeing. She managed to follow him, only to bump into a table and then trip on a single step he hadn’t bothered to mention. She tried to catch herself, but there was too much momentum. The ground raced toward her.

A familiar strong arm grabbed her around the waist and jerked her to her feet.

“Maybe you should use a cane,” he said.

“Maybe you should warn me about stairs.”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“That’s it?” she demanded. “Let’s pause for a moment, because your incredible concern is making me all teary-eyed. I fell.

“I know. So what? You’re going to fall. Then you’re going to get up and move on. Or are you the type to just lay there, feeling sorry for yourself? Never mind. I already know the answer.”

She wanted to tell him she wasn’t like that. She was the one who climbed mountains and jumped out of airplanes and swam with sharks. She didn’t believe in self-pity or giving up. At least she hadn’t until the explosion.

“You don’t understand,” she told him.

“You sure about that?”

She heard footsteps, but couldn’t tell the direction. Who else was here and what would he or she want from her?

“Oh, you’re back. Good. I have papers for you to sign, Nick. And you must be Izzy. I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you.”

The man reached for her hand and shook it. His fingers were nearly as soft and smooth as Skye’s or Lexi’s.

“This is going to fun. You’re staying here in the house. You know that, right? Upstairs. I picked out your room myself. It has great light. Is Nick taking you on the tour? Don’t you love the kitchen? I swear Norma, our cook-slash-housekeeper is going to kill me with her biscuits. I can’t resist them but I refuse to let my jeans get any tighter. I love your hair. Are those curls natural? They’re beautiful. Don’t you think they’re beautiful, Nick?”

“Stunning.” Nick sounded more resigned than impatient as he spoke.

Izzy turned toward the enthusiastic new guy. “Who are you?”

The man laughed. “Oh, silly me. Introductions are important. I’m Aaron. Aaron Levine. Two a’s. I tried three for a while, but it just looked funny. I work for Nick.” He linked arms with her and led her into the kitchen.

“I’m his manager. I take care of all the bookings for the corporate retreats and oversee the retreats from start to finish. I make sure everything runs smoothly here at the Hollister Institute. Nick takes care of the kids on his own. The man is rabid about helping those poor children. It’s really very sweet.”

Aaron patted her hand. “Okay—refrigerator on your right, but I wouldn’t go in there if I were you. Norma’s a little possessive about her supplies. There’s a second refrigerator with drinks and snacks in the mudroom. I’ll show you that. Table in the corner. Can you see it? There’s lots of light. Norma rings a bell when it’s time to eat and we all come running like dogs.” He chuckled. “Don’t you just love Texas? Where else can a man get away with wearing snake skin boots and a giant belt buckle? And you know what they say about the size of a man’s belt buckle.”

Izzy felt more than confused. She felt lost and unsure. With the light pouring in the windows, she could actually see the outline of the tables and shapes she assumed were chairs. But who was Aaron? How had macho Nick gotten involved with charming, funny and obviously gay Aaron? Unless Nick was also...

She glanced in the direction he’d last been.

“No,” came a low voice in her ear.

“No, what?” she asked.

“I know what you’re thinking and no.”

Aaron bumped her shoulder with his. “You mean is Nick gay? I should be so lucky. He has his lady friends he visits in town. It’s all very John Wayne-esque. He rides into town, seduces the school teacher then rides off to fight another day.”

Izzy rubbed her forehead. “I don’t remember that movie.”

“You know what I mean. Here’s the mud room.” Aaron pressed her hand against what felt like a refrigerator. “Plenty of water, soda, that sort of thing. Don’t track in dirt or Norma will skin you alive. And I’m not kidding. I think she collects knives.”

“Aaron?”

“Yes, Nick?”

“I’ll finish Izzy’s tour.”

Aaron stiffened. “I don’t mind.”

“I know, but I’ll do it.”

“Izzy’s new. She’s nervous.”

“She’s also standing right here,” Izzy grumbled, appreciating that Aaron was trying to help, but hating the fact that they were talking about her as if she were a fern.

Nick didn’t say anything. Maybe he was making violent hand gestures or maybe he was just staring. She had no way of knowing. Second later, Aaron let go of her arm and stepped back.

“Fine,” he said with a sigh. “Izzy, whatever Nick says, he means that he’s really happy to have you here and that he thinks you’re pretty.” He leaned toward her and dropped his voice to a whisper. “We’ll talk later.”

Then he was gone.

“Follow me,” Nick said and started walking.

Izzy started to point out, yet again, that she was blind, only to realize she could hear his boots on the hardwood floor. She took off after him, clipped her hip on the corner of a counter and stumbled over the threshold of a door.

They went outside. She saw the brighter light and felt the intense heat.

“You’ll be working in the barn,” Nick said, his dark shape moving in front of her. “Rita’s in charge. Do what she says. We have twelve horses that need to be cleaned up after, fed and groomed. That should keep you busy. When you’re more comfortable with your surroundings, you can start exercising them in the corrals. There’s a corporate retreat in a couple of weeks. When that happens, we all pitch in, including you.”

She waited until they passed into shade, then stopped and folded her arms over her chest. “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, but you’re not going to tell me what to do. The only thing you’re going to do is take me back to my sister’s house, right now.”

“Too bad you’re blind, because if you weren’t you could take one look at my face and know that’s not going to happen. Obviously I need to convince you with my words.” He took a step toward her. “No. Clear enough?”

She curled her hands into fists and started hitting the dark shape in front of her. “It’s not clear. Nothing’s clear,” she yelled. “Don’t you get that? Nothing is right. I can’t make it go away. It sucks. My life is ruined and you want to talk to me about horses? About your stupid ranch? I want to go home. I want to be left alone.”

She hit and hit until her arms got tired. Nick didn’t bother defending himself, probably because she wasn’t hurting him. Eventually, she dropped her hands to her sides.

“You about done?” he asked. “Is there more? You want to cry now?”

She hated him, then. Hated him more than she’d hated any human being ever.

“I’ll find a way to crush you,” she vowed.

“You’ll have to find me, first. But that’s the trick, isn’t it? You can’t find anything. If you had the surgery, you could.”

“Get off me about the surgery,” she yelled. “Did they tell you it wasn’t a sure thing? Did they tell you I could end up totally blind?”

“Yes, but the odds are you’ll be fine. Those are odds worth taking.”

“Easy for you to say. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“Fair enough. The barn is this way.”

He just started walking. As if he expected her to follow him. As if her pain and suffering didn’t matter.

“I’m not even a person to you, am I?” she asked, defeated and exhausted.

“You’re a person. You’re just not much of one right now. Rita will show you everything in the morning. For today, you can groom one of the horses. Skye said you’ve been around horses your whole life so you know what you’re doing.”

They were near the barn. Izzy saw the yawning darkness and didn’t want to go inside. It was too black, there. Too frightening.

“I don’t want this,” she murmured.

“Too bad.”

Maybe this was all designed to break her so she could be built up again. Maybe there was a master plan. Or maybe Nick was just a sick bastard who liked torturing people. Either way, she didn’t much care.

She turned slowly, until she felt the sun in her face. It had to be late afternoon, so the sun was in the west. She thought about sitting in the back of the SUV during the drive and feeling the sun moving across her lap, warming her hands and her thighs. Then she closed her eyes and pictured a map.

They’d driven north for a while, then turned into the sun. So she had to go east to retrace the route. If she started walking, maybe she would find her way back. Or maybe just die. Right now that seemed okay, too.

She spun on her heel and took the first step. She half expected Nick to say something, but he didn’t. She kept moving forward, straining to see anything that could trip her, like a fence or a bush.

“Where are you going?” he called after a couple of minutes.

“Home.”

“Good luck with that.”

She raised her hand and gave him the finger. The sun was hot on her back, but the heat was reassuring. It reminded her she was going the right way. That if she didn’t give up, eventually she would make it.

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