Slash & Burn

Passion tore John Stark and Sara Keegan apart. Murder reunites them. Tomorrow might be their second chance —if they can stay alive that long.


Ex-con John Stark knows all about crime and punishment. As far as the State’s concerned, he’s paid his debt to society, but John’s still paying for the night he broke all his rules. The night he gave in to his desire for Sara Keegan.

© Julie Harrington. Cover Design by StormCloud

Now the only mother he’s ever known is dead. Murdered. The cops are useless. The case closed. If John wants Justice, he’ll have to get it on his own, and there’s only one person he trusts enough to have his back.

Sara Keegan’s always known what she wanted and never apologized for it. That includes her one night with the only man she’s ever loved. When tragedy brings her home and face-to-face with John again, neither can deny their attraction burns hotter than ever.

Together, John and Sara must tackle the past while taking on the most dangerous man in the city—a deadly foe who’ll stop at nothing to bury the truth…and them right along with it.

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John withdrew but didn’t want to not touch her, so he settled his hand at the dip of her waist. The rise and fall of her diaphragm beneath his palm as she breathed was oddly soothing.

He traced the curve of her hipbone with his thumb. “Jake knew.”

She flinched. Her hand covered his. She squeezed. “I never said anything to her.”

“You didn’t have to. Jake always knew what went on under her roof.” Plus Jake caught him watching Sara walk in and out of rooms. The older woman would snag his eye and they’d stand there, staring at each other, until John looked away. He was never sure what Jake’s looks were supposed to mean. Warning? Disappointment? Simple recognition that she knew what was in his head? John frowned in the dark. “It probably doesn’t help that the walls up here are paper thin.”

“Well then.” Sara coaxed his hand away from her hip to her belly. The tiny satin ribbon on the front of her panties rasped his fingertips as she brought his palm to her breast. She captured it there with her own. “I guess we’ll have to be quiet this time.”




Grief made men stupid. Pills. Booze. Women. Fights. All four if a guy really wanted to fuck up his life. The drive to block out pain always came with a price. That, John Stark figured, was his only excuse for being such a fucking hot-headed, short-sighted idiot.

He should have expected a double-cross instead of information when he followed Marcelo Karbowski–childhood friend and street-level snitch–into the alley behind Jake’s Bar.

He should have considered that an old friend might not be a current friend.

He definitely should have considered that said ex-friend might have made some newer, more profitable friends. Friends who took exception to John’s questions about who murdered Jake, the woman who’d raised him like a son.

Those people might not like his not-so-subtle interrogation methods. They might also object to the string of broken fingers, missing teeth, and fractured skulls he left in his wake as he made his way across New York, from the airport to the waterfront, over the last few days.

The bar door banged shut behind him. Garbage steamed in the shadows of the frigid December midnight. John jammed gloved hands into the pockets of his black leather coat. “Well?”

Karbowski sniffled. Shuffled his feet. Glanced around.

Then Tommy ‘The Fist’ Granger and Eddie ‘Gallagher’ Jackson emerged from behind the dumpster, the hiding spot of most rats, and stepped forward.

It didn’t take much imagination to figure out how Tommy got his nickname. Eddie, on the other hand, earned his at the altar of the local carnival’s strongman game the summer of their sophomore year. He spent every night trying to prove he was the bigger man by swinging that damned sledgehammer to win a jumbo stuffed panda for his girlfriend.

By the time he’d collected enough tickets for the bear, the girl had wandered into the Tunnel of Love with Eddie’s best friend, Rick. Two nights later, the carnival cops found Rick, his head caved in, facedown in that canal. Nobody ever found out what happened to the girl. Rumors had her knocked up and run away, but whenever he got drunk enough, Eddie would laugh and say they got the knocked part right.

Since then, Eddie’s fondness for the sledgehammer was both legendary and feared.

John dropped his chin to his chest. He gave his head a small shake as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah hell, Karbs. You, too?”

Karbowski retreated. “It’s nothing personal, Johnny. You shoulda stayed away, man. You shoulda known better.”

Eddie whistled. The sharp note bounced off the brick walls. He wagged a thick envelope at Karbowski, who hurried over to take it. Eddie slapped the money into the other man’s hand and then shoved his shoulder, making Karbs stumble. “Now get lost.”

Karbs never looked back.

Eddie and Tommy moved closer.

John sighed. He straightened. A smart man would have lunged for the door or made a break for the street. Maybe even screamed. After all, fear wasn’t a bad thing. Fear kept a man alive in moments like these. Unfortunately, John never considered himself smart. Or a screamer. Or a lunger. In fact, if his years in prison taught him anything, they taught him that a man needed to stand his ground during such confrontations. In the end, he either successfully defended his turf…or he got buried in it.

Ten minutes later, John lay on the pavement–beaten and bloodied–his cheek grinding into the ice-roughened asphalt under the weight of Tommy’s boot against his skull. As Eddie retrieved the sledgehammer from where he’d leaned it against the alley wall, John contemplated epitaphs for his headstone. “Stupid Fucker” had risen up the ranks to tie with “Total Asshole” when Eddie rested the hammer on his shoulder and crouched next to him.

Eddie looked John over, lingered on his battered face. He gave John’s cheek a couple of sharp pats. “Been a long time, Stark. The stretch did ya good. All those hours in the yard took some of the flab off your bones. Me? I went sugar-free a couple of months back. Not nearly as good. And I miss those damned corndogs.”

Tommy chuckled, leaned his weight harder against John’s skull. “You know the appetite Eddie works up when he starts swinging.”

Icy sludge burned through John’s temple and into his eye socket. He winced. His hands spasmed before his gloved fingers curled into the snow. “Have Tommy step off, Eddie,” he said. “I’ll help you lose some weight real fast.”

Eddie laughed, slapped the back of John’s head. “Always with the mouth, huh, Stark. I remember that about you. Used to get you busted up pretty good around the neighborhood. You still haven’t learned.”

“I learned I could break your fucking nose.” John should have broken his freaking neck. Christ. He’d always assumed someone would have killed this little prick by now. Leave a boy to do a man’s work. Look what happens.

“Yeah. You did, didn’t you.” Eddie cocked his head, rubbed the bridge of his nose as he seemed to contemplate the memories. “I don’t think I ever paid you back for that, did I.”

John glared. “Didn’t you?”

“I’ve always believed in an eye for an eye, Stark.”

“Or maybe for a life.”

Eddie’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?” When John didn’t answer, Eddie hit him, a hard, backward slap to his nose that rang his ears and blurred his vision. “I said, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“You tell me.”

“Christ. You should have stayed the fuck out of town, Stark. But then, you’ve never been a smart guy, have you?” Eddie drilled his index finger against John’s skull. “I guess prison didn’t teach you not to have more fucking guts than brains. You always survived on luck. That’s what they always said. Luck and Cascella’s protection.” He tapped John’s temple hard enough to bruise. “Well, you’ve run out of luck, haven’t you, Stark? Cascella’s not in control around here anymore, and you’re asking questions you shouldn’t be asking. Poking your nose in where it doesn’t belong. You should’ve come back, buried Jake, and left like a good boy. Now?” He stood. His hands clenched tight around the wooden handle of the massive hammer. “Now you’re gonna leave in a garbage bag.”

The hammer went up. The muscles in Eddie’s shoulders and arms bunched to deliver the killing blow. Tommy lifted his foot to avoid getting it broken.

The instant the pressure eased off his skull, John flipped onto his back. He grabbed Tommy’s foot, twisted sharp enough to snap something in the guy’s ankle, and shoved. Yowling, Tommy floundered, off balance, into the dumpster next to him. His feet shot out from under him on the ice and he dropped to the ground on his ass. John drove his booted foot straight into Eddie’s kneecap and kept rolling.

The hammer nicked his ear as it fell, slammed into the pavement where his head had been, and punched a hole the size of a large tuna can in the pavement.

“Son of a bitch!” Eddie swore as his leg buckled under him, making his pivot sloppy as he brought the hammer around.

John scrambled to his feet and ducked. The mallet whistled by and then clanged, metal against metal, into the side of the dumpster. The swing left Eddie open, his ribs vulnerable to attack, and John launched himself at the other man. He carried Eddie–and his hammer–into the brick wall behind them. The hammer dropped to the pavement. John popped two punches into Eddie’s liver before Tommy grabbed him from behind and dragged him away.

John slammed his head back. His skull connected hard with Tommy’s nose. Bone crunched. Warm liquid spattered the back of John’s neck. Tommy screamed.

John jabbed his elbow back into the man’s gut. Tommy’s hold broke, and John whirled around, delivered a sharp jab to his mouth, drew his fist back to do it again, but Tommy recovered first and slugged him in the stomach. The blow dropped John forward, allowing Tommy to grab his head and step into him, his knee rising to slam into John’s face as Eddie hoisted the hammer behind him.

The blessed, angelic sound of a shotgun pump made them all freeze.

“Am I interrupting something, boys?”

Ah, crap. John shut his eyes when the woman’s voice floated from the darkness. Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck! Not her. Not now.

Shoes scuffed over concrete as she strode forward, a sawn-off shotgun held low and steady at her side. Her long, burgundy leather coat had been swept aside to make way for the stock against her hip. The black finish of the weapon matched her snug-fitting jeans and turtleneck. Her hair, almost as dark, was slicked straight back in a style that sharpened her cheekbones and chin and gathered in a no-frills ponytail at her nape. The only other color on her was her eyes. Bold. Blue. Sharp and bright, they snapped from Tommy to Eddie and back.

Her slender fingers flexed around the shotgun. She crossed one thick-soled booted foot behind the other on the slick ground as she sidled sideways to keep them all in her sites. She jerked the muzzle of the gun in Tommy’s direction. “Let him go.”

Tommy looked to Eddie.

Her eyes narrowed. The shotgun barrel leveled. “Let. Him. Go.”

Cursing, Tommy released him. John straightened. The muscles in his abdomen seized. Fire knitted along his ribs, making him wince. He cradled his bruised side since it made it easier to breathe that way and shuffled backward, leaving the field open to the range of the shotgun.

She never took her eyes off her targets. “You wanna call the cops?”

Like the cops would do any good. Even if they managed to get ones that weren’t dirty, both these mooks would make bail in no time. Some fancy lawyer would spring their asses and they’d be back on the street, more pissed off and cautious than ever. But he couldn’t just let them go either. Not when they had the information he needed. Maybe the local pigs could sweat it out of them. John snorted as he dragged the sleeve of his jacket across his bloodied nose. Yeah. Right. The cops in this neighborhood couldn’t seem to wring sweat from a sock.

She seemed to take his silence for agreement. She angled her ass toward him, cocked a hip in his direction. “Cell phone. Back pocket.”

He nodded, took a step toward her, and that’s when the grease cook decided to take the trash out. The door to Jake’s burst open, neatly inserting its thick metal panel between Eddie and Tommy and the muzzle of her shotgun.

Eddie grabbed a fistful of Tommy’s jacket. “Move! Run!” he shouted as he dragged Eddie with him.

“Fuck!” She swung the barrel of her gun toward the sky as she flattened her back against the brick to skirt through the narrow gap between the edge of the door and the opposite wall.

The cook took one look at the gun and vanished back inside. The door slammed shut behind him.

John caught the back of her long jacket and pulled. Pain chewed through his side at the movement, but he ignored it. When she glared over her shoulder at him, he shook his head. “Let them go.”

She glowered after Eddie and Tommy as the men fled into the night. As she lowered her weapon, John noticed someone had bored a hole through the butt, allowing her to literally tie the shotgun to her belt with a chain.

Swearing under her breath, she rounded on him. She swept her hand toward the mouth of the alley after his assailants. “What the hell did you do that for? I could have had them.”

“Forget it. It’s not worth getting your head caved in for.” He rubbed his mouth, grimaced at the blood that smeared his hand. He spat before he gave his teeth an exploratory sweep with his tongue. Nothing missing. Nothing cracked. He stood up straighter, groaned when his ribs creaked. Nothing punctured. All in all, not a bad night.

“I see you still suck at math,” she said as she abandoned the weapon completely. She tugged her coat closed and buttoned it, once, at her navel, secreting the weapon from view. When he arched a brow, she scowled at him and stepped closer. She wiped blood from the cut above his eye with her thumb, then dropped her hand to her side and fisted it. “You still haven’t learned that one dumbass divided by two Neanderthal hulks equals one epic ass-kicking, huh?”

He let out a snort of laughter, had to tip his head a little to see her properly because his left eye was starting to swell shut. “Nice to see you too, Sara.”

Sara Keegan echoed his snort as she dragged his arm around her shoulders. “Christ, you’re a mess. Hospital or alcohol?”


“That’s what I figured.”

She maneuvered him through the door, into the bar, and halfway down the hall. Moving eased some of the pain and stiffness from his body. That was a good sign. He’d live. Tomorrow he’d feel like hell, but he’d survive.

By the time they reached the bar’s main room, John refused to lean on her anymore, not because it would draw attention, but because he weighed twice what she did. She walked and talked tough but, even in her heeled boots, the top of her head barely reached his chin. He wouldn’t risk hurting her.

John held his ribs and hobbled over to a table in the back of the room. He didn’t miss the way Sara rolled her eyes but pretended he had. As he eased himself into the chair facing the door, she went to the counter. She came back with three glasses and a full bottle of 151.

John opened his mouth, but Sara shot him a dark look. She rapped the bottle down on the tabletop. “Shut up.”

He did, then cleared his throat, scratched the side of his face. Bits of dried blood flaked off. “You and rum—”

“Shut up.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“No. I’m sure it’s a great idea.” She swung her leg over an empty chair and sat. She pushed two glasses across the table to him–one empty, one full of ice. She kept the other empty one for herself. When he made no move to take it, she said, “Don’t drink if you don’t want it, Stark. Get a beer. Get nothing. Choke on it. I don’t give a shit. But put some ice on that raw hamburger you call your face because it’s making me sick.”

He grumbled and fished a chunk of ice from the glass. He pressed the cube against his battered lip where it burned a cold fire. “What the hell were you thinking stepping up like that out there? Those two could have killed you.”

Her mouth tightened as she poured. “Gee. You’re welcome. Your appreciation makes my heart glow.”

He looked away.

She leaned back in her chair and fished a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her coat.

His brows knotted. “I thought you gave that shit up.”

“I did.” She tucked the filter between her lips and used the candle from the middle of the table to light the tip. She inhaled deep, held it, and then released her breath along with a long stream of smoke like some meditative technique. Cigarette clasped between two fingers, she tipped her head to the side. Her ponytail slithered over her shoulder to curl around one of her small, round breasts. Her steady gaze held his. “You weren’t at the funeral.”

He tensed.

“Everybody asked about you.”

He doubted it, but it was nice of her to say. He tossed the ice back in the glass, gave his lip a poke with his tongue and found it suitably numb. “So you managed to get into town in time for Jake’s service. I’d hoped you did.”

“Barely.” She lifted her shot glass, tossed the rum back, then hissed as the alcohol burned its way to her gut. She went back to drawing on the cigarette as she refilled her glass.

They sat in silence, both contemplating the other as the cloud of smoke between them grew. Both subconsciously assumed the posture of the other–both leaned back, hands resting casually on the arms of their chairs, feet braced apart, only Sara had one boot propped up on the rail of the chair next to hers.

She flicked cigarette ash to the floor. “You look like shit. Is this what you’ve been doing since the cops called and told you about Jake? Drinking? Feeling sorry for yourself? Getting into fights?”

Her derision pissed him off. John stretched his neck, cracked something in it, and rotated his shoulder to ease the sudden knot there. “No.”

“Uh-huh.” Eyes narrowed, she regarded him through the haze and took another drag. The tip smoldered orange in the dimly lit room. She blew a stream of smoke out, careful to slant it sideways, away from him. “Isn’t that what you always do? Find something that hurts worse so you can forget?”

She remembered that? “You don’t forget a thing, do you.”

The corners of her mouth curved upward into the closest thing he’d seen to a smile in years. “Nope. It’s my curse.” She fiddled with her glass. Candlelight highlighted her short, unpainted nails. “So what have you been doing?” She jerked her head toward the rear door of the bar. “What’d those guys want?”


“They know something about Jake.”

He stilled, forced himself to relax. Christ, he wasn’t used to this anymore. Wasn’t used to having someone around who could look at him, see through him, and read his fucking mind. It had always been like this for them. Even in the beginning. Even when she was just a kid Jake took in off the street. Barely fifteen. Eyes already years too old for her own good. Exposed to too much in this town but clearly a survivor.

“Never underestimate a survivor,” Jake told him as they stood at the bottom of the steps and watched the scrawny girl drag everything she owned up the stairs in one small, tattered backpack. Sara was dirty, hungry, covered in bruises from God knew what, and haunted by things John knew a girl faced every night in the back alleys of New York. When Jake put her to work in the bar’s kitchen, Sara wouldn’t even look at him. It took her weeks to even say his name.

He’d been eighteen then, and no fool when it came to Jake’s expectations, but she told him point blank anyway. “You watch over her,” she said. “You make sure nobody messes with her. Not in the bar. Not upstairs. Not out there on the streets. You got it? We might not be blood, but we’re damn well family. We got nothing else in this world except each other. It’ll take Sara time to understand that. To believe in it. She’s just like you. Just another kicked dog braced for the next kick. She’ll need time. We give her that, she’ll trust us and give us reason to trust her.”

And Sara had. It had taken more months than John could count, but she had.

They’d never spoken about their pasts back then. Not much. Just enough to tell John that Sara’s parents were assholes. Her father at least. He’d always got the impression her mother was dead, killed in some kind of fire. They didn’t need to talk about that either though. Some wounds simply cut too deep. They were best left alone to scar over and be forgotten.

The past wasn’t what mattered. It was what they did from that day forward that counted. What they did with the future Jake gave them. She never coddled them. He and Sara worked damned hard for what they had. But Jake gave them everything–food on the table, a safe bed to sleep in, and a roof over their heads. More than that, she gave them love. Real, unconditional love.

Then, almost three years later, John fucked it up for everybody.

Sara ground her cigarette out and reached for the pack on the table. Before he realized what he was doing, John leaned forward and covered her hand, stopping her. She sighed as she drew back and let him confiscate the smokes.

“I only smoke—”

“When you’re stressed. I know.”

“Last year I only had one.”

“Yeah? How many since you heard Jake died?”

That tiny smile returned, lopsided this time. “Seven. It would have been more if it wasn’t for those stupid no smoking in public places laws. That’s such shit.”

John slipped the cellophane packet into his jacket, absently fingered it. “How’s Chicago?”

Her lips pinched. Her eyes dimmed. She retreated, not physically, but definitely emotionally. “How was prison?”

He winced. “Sara.”

“You got what you wanted, John. How I felt? What I wanted? It never mattered. So let’s leave it at that.”

He didn’t want to, but he did. For now. He’d tried to talk to her about it a couple of times over the last eight years. The last time was Christmas a few years ago when she’d showed up at Jake’s. She hadn’t wanted any part of his apology or explanations. After that, she stopped coming around at all unless she knew he wasn’t going to be there. He’d heard she visited a lot when he was in prison. Part of him wondered if Jake blamed him for Sara’s absence. The other part wanted to believe Jake knew that people made their own choices. Now Jake was dead and he’d never know.

Life was a goddamned bitch that way.

Time to steer toward safer territory. He took a deep breath. “Jake left us the bar.”

Sara paused, her glass halfway to her mouth. “What?”

“Fifty-fifty split. There’s also some life insurance money. The lawyer called me this morning.”

She nodded and then tossed back the drink.

“I think Jake was murdered.”

Sara nearly dropped her glass.

“I mean.” John glanced around the bar before he leaned toward her. He lowered his voice. “I don’t think this was a random thing. I don’t think it was a mugging. I think. Sara. I think someone killed her.”

“Who would want to…” She sat up a little straighter. Those blue eyes of hers sparked. “Those guys outside?”

He ticked his head from side to side. “Maybe.”

“And you made me let them go?” Her voice carried through the bar, making several people turn and stare. “Are you crazy?”

John shushed her with a look. He lowered his voice even more. “If they did, it’s because someone paid them to do it. They’re not thinkers. They’re drones. Someone else wanted Jake gone. That’s who I want.”

“Why would anyone want Jake dead? She never hurt anybody. She threw out some drunks on occasion, but murdered? Why?”

This was the tricky part. He shifted.

Sara stilled. “What? Oh, God. What? Just say it.”

“There’s a new player in town. Someone’s trying to muscle in on Giovanni Cascella’s territory.”

Disgust flash through her eyes. Her upper lip curled. He couldn’t blame her. Giovanni Cascella, as gentlemanly and respectable as he tried to appear using his imported food empire as a front, was still a gangster at heart. He was also the reason John caught a felony conviction and a nickel stretch in prison. And because John refused to turn evidence against the man he worked for, the district attorney made sure he served every day of it, too. Five full years. He’d been on the outside for almost two now.

She folded her arms on the edge of the table and shifted closer. “So you think Gianni…”

John shook his head. “The up and comer.”

“Why? What did Jake ever do—”

“She was getting squeezed. She called me a month ago. Said she was having some trouble. I called in a couple of favors.”

“With Gianni.”

“He owed me.”

“He fucking owes you more than a favor.”

“He did some pushing. Let people know Jake was under his protection. This new guy? He pushed back. He started pressuring Jake to launder money through the bar. To agree to let his people sell their product here.”

She grunted. “Jake would never agree to that. Everybody knew how she felt about selling that poison.”

He met her eye. “Exactly.”

“You think that’s why they killed her? Because she wouldn’t launder their damn money or let them peddle drugs under her tables?”

“And to make an example of her. You know Jake. She never did anything quietly. When his guys came in, I heard she took a baseball bat to one of them. They had to carry him out on a stretcher. She broke both his knees.”

“So you think they…” She swallowed, looked like she might be sick, then whispered, “John? They said Jake was beaten to death. They said—”

“I know.” He clenched his jaw, looked down at the table because he couldn’t look at her. “I checked under the counter this morning. The bat’s gone.”

Her eyes closed. Her mouth trembled. “I bought her that damned bat.”

And then, like that, she shook it off. She poured another drink, downed it in one quick gulp, and rapped the glass down. She rocked forward in the chair, stabbed her index finger into the tabletop. “What’s his name?”

“It’s not that easy. This could get very, very ugly.”

“I want,” she said again, enunciating every syllable with dripping venom, “his name.”


A shadow streaked through her eyes. “I thought they were a Miami family?”

“Apparently they felt the need to expand.”

“So this is Tomas.”

John shook his head. “The son.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Franco?”

“The other one. Manuel.” Manny Ramos. That tattooed freak. Of all the Ramos clan, Manny was the worst with just enough psycho mixed into his genes to make his intelligence truly frightening.

“That’s why you wanted me to meet you here, isn’t it,” Sara said. “Because you want to prove Manny Ramos killed Jake.”

John shook his head. “I’ve already proven it.” He leaned closer. “What I want is for you to help me make them pay.”