Stacked Up: Worth the Fight Series

Stacked Up
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

A Loveswept Ebook Original

Copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Escudero

Excerpt from
Pull Me Close
by Sidney Halston copyright © 2016 by Jeanette Escudero

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Loveswept, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book
Pull Me Close
by Sidney Halston. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

ebook ISBN 9781101886311

Cover design: Georgia Morrissey

Cover photograph: Andreas Gradin/Shutterstock




Sarabelle would not stop crying.

“South, please,” Penny said to the greasy man behind the ticket booth, who had a toothpick in his mouth and a bored expression.

“There’s a lot of south, honey.” He pointed to a sign on the wall behind him, which listed all the available bus stops.

She looked at the sign while swaying lightly up and down and side to side. Thankfully, she had taken one of those BabyBjörn things before leaving.

“Best shut that baby up before you get on the bus or the passengers’ll be pissed.”

Penny ignored his comment and threw some money on the counter. “Tampa. That leaves now, right?” She hiked her big duffel bag higher on her shoulder and continued to rock her two-day-old daughter back and forth. “Shh. It’s okay, Belle. It’s okay.”

The man handed her a ticket and pointed to where the bus was loading.

“Any luggage?” asked the driver, who stood by the bus.

“No, sir.” Penny walked up the steps and awkwardly tried to hold her baby with one hand while stuffing the duffel bag into the luggage rack above her.

“Here, let me get that for you.”

“Oh, uh…thank you so much.”

The man smiled and put her bag in the overhead compartment.

Still wearing the baby sling, she sat down and maneuvered Sarabelle to a more comfortable position, cooing and patting her. Penny closed her eyes and prayed to God that leaving Oklahoma had been the right decision.

Several buses and a cab ride later, she pulled into an old run-down apartment complex in Tarpon Springs, Florida. She’d found the apartment online while at Fresh Start, the group home for unwed mothers she had been living in for the last four months.

She had seen an ad for Tarpon Springs’ famous sponge docks festival when she’d been searching the Web for places she could live. It turned out that the small town was famous for harvesting sponges and had a big yearly festival. She’d instantly fallen in love with the pictures and decided that if she was going to run away, she needed to run away to a town that was close to the ocean and where she wouldn’t know a soul. And Tarpon Springs felt right. She couldn’t explain why—it just did.

A few days ago, merely hours after the birth, a couple had visited her to talk about the adoption. She was supposed to meet with the adoption attorneys next, but she’d run away before the meeting.

All she’d brought was the money she’d taken from Lawrence, the BabyBjörn, whatever clothes fit into the big duffel bag, and a few trinkets she’d purchased for Belle before anyone else had known she was pregnant.

She’d even gone as far as answering an online ad for a bartender at what seemed like a small local bar called the Pier. It would be her first job ever. The owner, Patsy, had given her the job and agreed to wait a few days until Penny could get down to Florida. Patsy had also helped her find an apartment nearby.

When Penny asked the landlord for a recommendation for a babysitter, the kind woman had given her the name of Penny’s soon-to-be neighbor Ms. Hannigan. Chatting with Ms. Hannigan, Penny learned that she was a retired teacher and would happily watch Sarabelle while Penny worked.

Everyone had been so accommodating and helpful—she couldn’t believe her luck.

And now she was here.

Her new life.

New beginnings.

Far away from her controlling family and all the cameras.

Between the anxiety she felt at leaving her baby with a virtual stranger and making sure she did a good job, she was a wreck on her first day at the Pier. Plus, she felt uncomfortable in the tiny white shorts and tight T-shirt she had to wear for work. They weren’t trashy, but they were very different from her ultra-conservative wardrobe back home. Within an hour, she was sure Patsy would fire her. She had mixed up orders, dropped a few trays, and forgotten to ring up a few customers.

Right before her shift was about to end, a loud chortling laugh made her turn her head toward the door. A tall man, maybe six-three, walked in with a group of people. His gait was wide and he walked with determination and a confidence she’d never seen before. He wore a black button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled back, dark jeans that hugged his thick thighs, and a cowboy hat, which blocked her view of his eyes.

His laugh was infectious, and she couldn’t keep her eyes off him. There was something about a man who could laugh without any restraint. He was about to walk right by her when he stopped and turned, a smile still on his face. Now that he was closer, she could see two dimples.

“Watch it, darlin’, you’re about to drop—” he began, in a deep voice with a thick southern accent. Instantly her mind flashed to an image of him astride a horse, wrangling cattle. It reminded her of her life back in Oklahoma, on her parents’ ostentatious ranch.

“Oh, no,” Penny shrieked, and looked down at the mess she’d created when she dropped yet another tray. She was certain her newfound independence was going to be short-lived, because she didn’t see how Patsy wouldn’t fire her. And without a job, her days in Florida were numbered. “Darn it!” She began to pick up glass.

A tanned hand touched her wrist. “It’s all right. Patsy’ll understand.” She looked up, and the man tipped his hat and smiled.

Oh, my!

She’d never seen a smile like that before. It was the most genuine and sincere smile she’d ever seen. It was even better than his laugh. And those blue eyes—so clear they were almost translucent.

“Hey, sugar?” He squeezed her wrist. “You okay?”

She shook her head in order to clear her mind. “Yeah. Yes. Sorry. I, uh…oh, Patsy is going to fire me.” She dropped her gaze and resumed picking up the glass.

“Honey? You drop another tray?”

She looked up to see Patsy.

“I…” Her chin quivered, but she took a breath. She would not cry. All this time, she hadn’t cried; today wouldn’t be the day. A tray of broken glasses would not do her in.

The man stood and pulled her up with him.

“Hiya, Miz Patsy.” He released her hand and kissed Patsy’s cheek. “Sorry ’bout that. Crashed right into her. It was my fault.”

“W-what?” Penny said, surprised.

“You’re a hurricane, Travis Calhoun.” Patsy gave him a knowing smile. “Help the poor girl pick it up.” The bar owner chuckled and shoved a dustpan and a broom toward the man.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” Penny whispered after Patsy had left.

“No sweat, sugar. You new to town?”

She wiped her hands on her apron and held it out. “Yes. I’m Penny Richards.”

He took her hand in his, and it felt as though all her nerve endings had suddenly come alive. She reflexively tried to pull her hand away, but he just held it tighter.

“You look scared.”

“And you look like a cowboy.”

He laughed loudly. “Well, Penny, I’m Travis Calhoun. Grew up in Texas. Wouldn’t call myself a cowboy—never been on a horse before. But I do love my cowboy hat.”

“Thank you for what you did. You know, taking the blame.” He just continued to look at her, their hands still locked together. “I’d better get back to work. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Travis.”

He pulled her close, startling her. “Sweetness, I have a feelin’ the pleasure’s goin’ to be all mine.” He winked, tipped his hat, and walked away.

Right there and then Penny knew, without any doubt, that this man was trouble. And if there was one thing she did not need, that was any more trouble.

Chapter 1

Loneliness was a bitch.

But helplessness was the bitch’s bitchier best friend.

A melancholy country song played in the background as Penny finished wiping off the tables. Maybe it was the gloomy lyrics or the eeriness of the quiet bar, or maybe it was the fact that this was the first time in months that Penny could recall being able to just sit down and take a breath. But the loneliness hit her hard and fast, causing a physical ache in her chest.

Her father used to say that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. She acknowledged the truth of that statement as her mind began to reel. Since arriving in Tarpon Springs a year ago, Penny had done nothing but work and take care of her one-year-old daughter, Sarabelle. She was so exhausted she rarely took the time to stop and think about how her life had changed so drastically. But now she threw the rag on the countertop, sat on one of the bar stools, and began to second-guess her decisions.

Deciding to keep Belle and running as far away from Oklahoma as possible had been the best choice—the
choice. The fact that she didn’t know if she’d be able to come up with the rent money and had been eating ramen noodles for the last week was clouding her judgment. But in her heart, she knew this life was still better than being back at home.

Surprisingly, tears began to stream down her face. Despite everything she’d been through, she hadn’t yet shed a single tear—until now. She had been steadfast in her choices and hadn’t bothered to dwell on all the what-ifs or, even worse, all the what-nexts. But now the tears began to fall down her face, and they wouldn’t stop.

Just then she heard the little bell signaling that someone had walked through the door. Startled, she quickly stood, wiped her face, and began to scrub the bar with a rag.

“Hey, sugar.”

The all-too-familiar voice with a heavy southern accent belonged to the man she’d been secretly pining for ever since arriving in town. He was far too handsome and too forward for her, which made her nervous and excited all at the same time. And no matter how hard she tried to avoid him, he seemed to always be around.

“Hi, Travis,” she replied, not looking up. “We’re about to close.”

“I know. You close at the same time every night, and every night I’m here.” She heard the sound of the bar stool being pulled out. “Beer?”

She surreptitiously wiped her eyes one more time and took off her headband before turning around. With her head down and her hair partially covering her face, she filled the glass, set it on the bar, and turned back around, busying herself with the cash register.

“So? Any plans this weekend?” he asked, and she shook her head. “It’s killer outside this evening. Been raining all day.” It was obvious he was trying to engage her in conversation, and normally she’d be chatting with him, but tonight she just continued to fumble around behind the bar, hoping he’d leave. Another tear leaked out. She wiped it away quickly. She didn’t want to talk to anyone and
didn’t want to answer any questions.

A touch on her wrist startled her. She turned to look at the big callused hand that rested on her wrist. “Darlin’? You okay?” he asked. Then with his other hand, he lifted her chin so that she had no choice but to look up at him. “Jesus, you’re crying.” He let go of her hand as if he’d been electrocuted.

She cleared her throat and took a step back. “It’s uh…it’s nothing.” She suddenly realized he’d made his way to the other side of the bar. “You’re not supposed to be back here.”

“I ain’t good with crying women,” he admitted nervously.

“I said it’s fine.” She grabbed a napkin and patted her face. “Another beer?”

“No, I don’t want another beer. What I want is for you to tell me who made you cry so I can fix it.”

For a brief moment she thought it was a joke, but she quickly realized he was absolutely serious.

“Tell me,” he demanded.

“Fix it?” she sniffled.

“Kick someone’s ass. Yell at someone.”

“No one made me cry. You resolve everything with your fists, cowboy?” She winced as the nickname she secretly used whenever she thought of him—which was often—slipped out.

“I’m a professional MMA fighter; it’s instinctual. Plus, I don’t like to see my girls crying.”

She looked up, her brow furrowed. “

“Yeah. You know—my sister, the girlfriends and wives of my buddies, and you. My girls. My circle of people.”

It was dumb and slightly chauvinistic, but that touched her. She did see him almost every single day at the Pier, and she was very good friends with his twin sister. They were most definitely something to each other—friends, maybe? But “his girl”? Ever since her real father had died, no one had been protective of her.

“You wanna talk it out?”


He took a step closer, crowding her against the bar.

She looked up at him and, without thinking, adjusted his hat, her finger accidentally brushing along his cheek. It had been so long since she’d been this close to a man that her head spun. She pulled her hand quickly back, but he grabbed it just as swiftly. His eyes were darker than usual as he filled the small space between them with his larger-than-life presence. He smelled like rain, and it reminded her of why she thought of him as a cowboy.

“You always smell so good. Like vanilla,” he said.

She was startled by how closely his words echoed her thoughts.

“It’s just my shampoo,” she said, nervously playing with a napkin. After a pause she added, “You smell nice too.”

“It’s just me,” he teased, and she couldn’t help but chuckle. “Was that a laugh?” he asked, and she nodded. “Look at me, darlin’.” She peeked at him through her lashes. “Tell me what’s wrong. Let me help.”

“Nothing you can do, Travis. It’s just me being overly emotional about nothing.”

He was so close still, and she couldn’t help but picture what it could be like to let loose and have a fling with a man like Travis. Her life was way too complicated for that, but still, she couldn’t help but wonder. Her entire body was alive just being this close to him. And those damn lips—they could surely make her forget all her stupid problems.

“I have a sister, I know all about being emotional, but this right here? This is something else,” he said. “Tell me how to make it better.”

“Kiss me,” she blurted out. She couldn’t believe she’d just said that. She clamped her hand over her mouth and closed her eyes, wishing she could just disappear.

He seemed as surprised by her request as she was. “Not the best timing, sugar.”

“I can’t believe I just said that! You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“Open your eyes, darlin’,” he said gently, and she did. “Will a kiss put a smile on that beautiful but sad face of yours? It’ll definitely put one on mine, but I don’t want to take advantage of you. You look so sad.”

“No. I want it. You won’t be taking advantage.”

He swiped his thumb across her bottom lip. “Those lips.”

“Don’t you want to kiss me too?”

“More than my next breath,” he murmured, and without waiting for a response he leaned in and pressed his lips firmly against hers. He tasted of beer, and his full lips were surprisingly soft. When he gently swiped his tongue across her bottom lip, her entire body melded into his.
Maybe what she had needed all along was this kind of mind-numbing affection from a man. His grip around her waist tightened as she got lost in his kiss—seriously lost. Her fingers delved into his hair, and his cupped hand held the back of her neck. When she unintentionally pulled his hair, he groaned into her mouth. “Tell me to stop, sugar. This ain’t right,” he growled.

But she couldn’t. She wanted—needed—more.

“I should be consoling you, not kissing you like this,” he said between breaths.

She nibbled on his bottom lip, and he seemed to lose his control, backing her into the bar, one thick thigh pushing her legs open. Getting a little braver, she nibbled again and this time his grip tightened. He obviously liked it, and that, in turn, made her brave. So she bit his bottom lip and then sucked it into her mouth. He made a noise deep in his chest. “Like it a little rough, darlin’?” He wrapped his hand around her ponytail and pulled back, exposing her neck.

she like it rough? Being that her experience was almost nonexistent, she didn’t know the answer. Except when her scalp tingled and his tongue licked the pulse point on her neck, which he then followed with a bite, she felt her panties get wet.

“Oh…,” she gasped, just as the bell at the door dinged.

“Travis? Is that you?” It was a woman’s voice, but from where she stood, Penny couldn’t see her. Travis instinctively shuffled Penny behind him.

“Get out, Dakota,” Travis practically roared. “Bar’s closed. You want a picture, call my agent tomorrow. Hell, call me. But right now get the hell out.”

“Five minutes of fame and already a prima donna.” The woman laughed, and then Penny heard the door ding again as she left.

“Who was that?”

“Dakota Nelson. The producer of
Fight Night.
They’re supposed to stay inside the Academy. You do know about the MMA docu-series I’m in, right?” He brought her back to him and leaned down to kiss her again, but she sidestepped him.

“A producer. Like for television?”


Penny gently pushed him away, bent down, and grabbed the rag that had fallen. She had heard something about some filming happening nearby at the Academy, but she didn’t know much more than that. She couldn’t be filmed or photographed. Her family would find her. “Thank you for everything, Travis. I’m sorry for pushing myself on you. But I need you to go.”

“Wait. What?”

“That was a mistake.”

“Didn’t feel like a mistake.”

“I don’t date.”

“Me or anyone?”


“You can’t tell me that wasn’t great.”

“It was. It felt…” She took a deep breath and tried to rein in her emotions. “It was the best kiss of my life.”

“Ain’t that somethin’.” He grinned sexily.

“But it doesn’t matter. It can’t happen again. Please, I need you to go.”

“First tell me why you won’t go out with me. I’ve been asking you out for months, and now this kiss. There’s something here—you know it and I know it.”

“I can’t.” She stepped away, but he held her forearm.

“Talk to me. What could be so bad you’re crying in a bar by yourself? Why don’t you have friends? Why don’t you go out? What’s the mystery? What is it? Let me help.”

He was right. She didn’t have anything. She only had Sarabelle. The loneliness hit her again.

Her chin quivered. The strength she’d spent months trying to maintain crumbled suddenly and completely, leaving her feeling bare in front of this man she had such a visceral reaction to. “What do you want me to say, Travis? That you’re right? That I’m alone? That I don’t have anyone? That I have four hundred and thirty-two dollars in my bank account and that it’s not enough for rent? That I don’t have anywhere to go? That I feel guilty for even indulging in a kiss—for forgetting, even for a minute, my troubles?” She covered her face with her hands and let out a gut-wrenching sob. “That I’m scared?” She looked up at the ceiling and sobbed, “I’m so scared!” Covering her face, she hastily said, “I’m so sorry. This is so embarrassing.”

“Shit. Don’t cry, Penny.” Travis looked ill at ease. “What can I do? What do you need? Don’t cry, darlin’.”

There was only one thing she needed. Just one. “Can you…I just…I really need a hug.”

He snorted. “A hug? I can abso-fucking-lutely do that, sugar.” He opened his arms wide, and she walked into them. He wrapped his arms around her, pulled her close, and held her. Her body shook, and he rubbed her back soothingly. “Let it out. Maybe you’ll feel better.” And she did.

She cried for far too long, but he didn’t pry, just gave her what she needed: a release for all the sorrow. The words he whispered could’ve seemed like meaningless platitudes from anyone else, but from him, they actually made her feel better. When the sobs became hiccups and sighs, he said at last, “You feelin’ better?”

She nodded. “Thank you.”

“Ain’t even a thing, darlin’,” he said, wiping her cheeks with his thumbs. “Don’t know what it’ll take for you to let me in, but I want in, Penny.”

“I’m sorry, Travis.” She took a final breath. “I wish things were different, but you and I will never ever happen.”

“Say whatever you want. But you and I aren’t over, Penny. Not even fucking close.” Then he walked out of the Pier to tend to Dakota, who was still outside with a small camera crew.

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