Home > Hard and Fast (Italian Stallions #2)

Hard and Fast (Italian Stallions #2)
Author: Mari Carr


Chapter One



Penny dragged herself into her small apartment and dropped down on the couch wearily. Of course, she didn’t get to stay there for longer than a few seconds before she was besieged by a chorus of meows. Her cats—all four of them—were hungry.

She pushed herself up and trudged to the kitchen, nearly tripping over Harry, who was attempting to herd her toward the cabinet with the cat food.

“Dammit, Harry,” she chided. “I’m not that late. Besides, look at you. You could afford to miss a few meals, buddy.” Harry, a large Maine Coon, was way too fond of dinnertime, breakfast time, snack time, and the cat most likely to finish off whatever the other three had left behind.

She reached into the cabinet to pull out a can of cat food. Then she dipped out four portions into the personalized cat bowls under the kitchen window. Being a single woman with a good-paying job and zero social life meant she had too much money to blow on frivolous shit like the cute cat bowls. Of course, that wasn’t her fault. Facebook had her number, constantly tempting her with ads for cat stuff, hilarious gamer shirts, and techie gadgets.

She rinsed off the spoon but left it in the sink then considered the box of Fruit Loops sitting on top of her fridge. She’d already had dinner, a bowl of macaroni and cheese—the orange stuff—at Jess’s new apartment. Maybe she could call the Fruit Loops dessert.

“Nah,” she said to no one. “I’m not hungry.” She directed that comment to the cats so she wouldn’t feel like an idiot talking to no one. Forrest briefly lifted his head from the bowl to give her one of his typical vacant-eyed expressions. Poor cat. The lights were on, but nobody was home.

At least he acknowledged she was speaking.

“I’d only eat it because I’m bored.”

Forrest seemed to accept that reason and returned to his bowl, bumping heads with Harry, who had already scarfed his down and was now looking for more.

“Harry!” she chastised. “For shame.”

Harry had none, but he was familiar enough with this routine to know he had to wait for the other cats to finish before he claimed the leftovers. He walked over to her, rubbing around her ankles, as if that would soften her up. She sat at the kitchen table then reached down absent-mindedly to pet him.

It had been quite an afternoon. She’d left work early at her new friend Jess’s request. Jess had moved out of the apartment she’d been sharing with Penny’s brother, Rhys, and his roommate, Tony, into a place of her own. She’d asked Penny to pick up her young son, Jasper, from elementary school, and she’d been more than happy to blow off early because Jasper was quickly becoming one of her favorite people on the planet. The kid was smart, sweet, and super adorable.

She’d been looking forward to helping Jess decorate her new place, but she had a feeling that wasn’t going to be necessary now.

Penny had just finished her macaroni and cheese when Rhys and Tony showed up, with Tony’s aunt Berta in tow. Aunt Berta had announced she was taking Jasper for the night because Rhys and Tony wanted to talk to Jess—alone.

Penny had left with Aunt Berta, who’d confided in a low voice, so Jasper didn’t overhear, that the two men were in love with Jess and they were hoping to talk her into moving back in with them. For good.

“I think I’m going to be an aunt,” she confided to Harry, who’d rolled over on his back, mooching for stomach rubs.

She silently hoped Tony and Rhys would win their bid for Jess’s heart. Not that she believed they’d have to try too hard. Jess was obviously in love with them—both of them—and they felt the same. It was perfect and wonderful…and damn if it didn’t make Penny feel even more alone.

Before she could sit too long with that heavy feeling, her phone pinged and she read the text.

dead by daylight

If she was a normal person, maybe a text like that would scare the shit out of her. As it was, she bounced up from her chair and headed down the hall to her office.

Waking up her PC, she fired a text back to her colleague and gaming buddy, Toby.

logging in

As she waited for the game, Dead by Daylight, to load, she slipped off her shoes, cleaned her glasses, then ran back to the kitchen for a sugar-free Red Bull. Toby was a huge fan of the game’s premise, where famous movie serial killers chased them around, trying to kill them in spectacularly gory fashion. They had to outrun and escape Pinhead, Michael Myers, Leatherface, or Freddy Krueger to win. She and Rich, the other member of their gaming group, humored him every now and then by playing.

By the time she returned, Toby had added her to the game and set up a Discord channel. She frowned at the avatars.

“Where’s Rich?” she asked. “And who the hell is Daddy_Morebutt$$?”

Toby chuckled. “Rich had to work late, so I invited Gage.”

“Gage who?” Penny asked.

“It’s me, Beaumont.”

Penny recognized the voice in an instant, but even if she hadn’t, she would have known who it was. Only one person in the world called her Beaumont.

She tried to figure out if she’d somehow fallen into a parallel universe, a place where it might be plausible for her to be playing video games with Gage Russo, her too-hot-for-words playboy billionaire boss.

“Uh,” she said, super lamely. Because talking wasn’t something she did so well whenever her sexy boss was around.

“Wow. I think I heard something there, Beaumont. Did you just try to talk or are you choking?” Gage teased. The man typically said hello whenever he stopped by IT to talk to Toby or Rich, grinning when all she managed was a flimsy wave. He never tried to engage her in anything more because in the world of gods like Gage Russo, her mere mortal status rendered her virtually invisible.

Goddammit. She was going to read Toby the riot act tomorrow. Their gaming group was her safe space. A place where she could kick back and be herself. Toby knew she became a mute idiot whenever Gage was around, so how could he invite the boss and not ask her first?

Not that it was particularly shocking he had. Toby suffered from a serious case of hero worship where Gage was concerned, always trying too hard to relate and laughing too loud at Gage’s jokes.

She cleared her throat and tried again. “Uh. Hi.”

Okay. That was a little bit better.

“Thought I’d check out life inside the nerd circle,” Gage said.

Penny rolled her eyes, wishing she could be annoyed by the nickname. Unfortunately, Toby—taking a page from Fat Amy and Pitch Perfect—had given their department that stupid moniker, deciding if they called themselves nerds first, it somehow made them cool.

Sadly, she suspected Samuel L. Jackson barking orders at them drill-sergeant style about how to dress and behave wouldn’t even manage to make their Island of Misfit Toys cool.

“I figured you’d have a date,” Toby said to Gage—because God knew he wouldn’t think that about her. “Lucky that I asked on a night you were available.”

Gage chuckled—why did he have to have such a sexy laugh?—and said, “Scored at lunch, so it freed up my evening.”

Toby laughed as if that was the funniest thing he’d ever heard in his life. Then asked Gage about his “lunch date.” Apparently, Gage was currently dating some former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, which sent Toby into orbit, firing off a million questions. To his credit, Gage answered them all, seemingly unannoyed by Toby’s endless fawning.

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