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Authors: Cara McKenna

Hard Time

BOOK: Hard Time
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Praise for Cara McKenna’s
After Hours

“The sweet, smoking hot, standout erotic romance you’ve been craving.”


New York Times
bestselling author Beth Kery

“Intense, funny, and perfectly dirty.”


USA Today
bestselling author Victoria Dahl

“Cara McKenna brings the steam.”


New York Times
and
USA Today
bestselling author Ann Aguirre

Also Available from Cara McKenna

After Hours

Unbound

Hard Time

Cara McKenna

INTERMIX BOOKS, NEW YORK

INTERMIX BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

Penguin Group (USA) LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

USA • Canada • UK • Ireland • Australia • New Zealand • India • South Africa • China

penguin.com

A Penguin Random House Company

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

HARD TIME

An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author

PUBLISHING HISTORY

InterMix eBook edition / April 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Cara McKenna.

Excerpt from
Lay It Down
copyright © 2014 by Cara McKenna.

Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62201-8

INTERMIX

InterMix Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group

and New American Library, divisions of Penguin Group (USA) LLC,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

INTERMIX® and the “IM” design are registered trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

Version_1

Contents

Cover

Praise

Also Available from Cara McKenna

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Excerpt for
Lay It Down

About the Author

With thanks to my editor, Jesse, who allowed herself to be convinced that a book about a felon could be romantic.

And with thanks also to Claire, who did the convincing.

And to my agent, Laura, for loving the work.

And with extra big thanks to this book’s first reader, Shelley—a librarian so adorable, I hereby invite her

to come and live with me in my blanket nest for all eternity. Go on, get cozy. I’ll make cocoa.

Chapter One

The rules were forwarded to me in an email.

No makeup. No perfume. No jewelry.

That brought a frown to my lips. Having been raised in the South, the request felt about as civilized as being asked if I could please shave my head bald. Where I’m from, a woman won’t flee a burning building in the dead of night before at least putting on some mascara and a pair of pearl studs.

Furthermore, said the email,
No tight or revealing clothing.

I cheated on rule one, dabbing concealer on a zit and under each eye. I only had to
look
like I wasn’t wearing any makeup. I may have fudged the second rule as well—my deodorant was clover-scented but I wasn’t about to go without, not with the kind of anxious sweating I planned on doing.

The third and fourth rules I aced—plain top with a crew neck, in gender-neutral forest green. Black straight-legged pants, silver flats that revealed not a hint of toe cleavage.
My ears look naked,
I thought, scrutinizing them in the bathroom mirror. Obscene, with their little puncture wounds showing. Vulnerable like those unfortunate, shivering hairless cats.

Speaking of hair, the email didn’t mention a policy regarding that, but I twisted mine up and secured it with a wide barrette.

Wait.
Am I allowed to wear a barrette?
Could an enterprising inmate turn that into a stabbing weapon?

Not caring to find out, I ditched it, opting for a ponytail. Until I imagined it wrapped around a scarred, beefy hand as I was taken hostage in a riot, dragged squeaking across a linoleum floor toward certain trauma.
No thanks.
I settled on a bun and studied the overall look in the full-length on the back of the door.

That’ll do.
I looked nice, but not perilously nice. Presentable. Professional. I could guess what my grandma might say.
You look like a runner-up in the Little Miss Frumpy Pageant. For God’s sake, at least put some lipstick on. You might meet the right boy.

Not today I wouldn’t. Frumpy would do me just fine, given that the male attention up for grabs belonged to several hundred convicted felons.

Back home, the last man who’d touched me had boxed my right ear so bad, the drum perforated. With my left, I heard him say he loved me not an hour later
. I’m sorry. I won’t ever hit you again.
He said that a lot in the two months I let myself believe it.

I’d been dumb at twenty-two, but I’d gotten smarter since then. And I probably held some record for having achieved spinsterhood by twenty-seven, but I’d rather sport that badge than another bruise. Not ever again.

Romantic idealism? No, no worries there. Dead and buried. But the professional kind . . .

It was August, and I’d graduated in May. I was five weeks into my first full-time job, and still determined to Make a Difference in the lives of the people I encountered through my work as a librarian. Both the library I and resided in Darren, Michigan—the epitome of postindustrial decline and a far cry from where I grew up, a thousand miles to the south in a suburb of Charleston. I didn’t like Darren, but a job was a job, and my apartment was dirt cheap, situated two floors above a depressing bar on the main drag.

I did a lot of outreach work through the library, traveling most days to neighboring towns, none of which were prospering. There was a lot of difference begging to be made.

Mondays kept me in the actual library. Tuesdays and Wednesdays I was at Larkhaven, a psychiatric hospital campus fifteen miles outside the city, tucked in a pretty pocket of woods—a welcome change from Darren’s boarded buildings and abandoned factory lots. Tuesdays I ran sessions in the kids’ wards, from reading to the youngest ones to test prep with the teenagers. Wednesday was a half day, my morning spent with the seniors in the dementia and Alzheimer’s ward. Reading, delivering books, penning letters or typing emails for the residents with arthritis or waning eyesight. The previous week I’d helped a man write a letter to his sweetheart, a vivacious redhead of nineteen, he’d informed me. He was going to marry her when he got out of this Godforsaken Korean labor camp.

His white-haired wife had sat across from us, hands clasped, smiling tightly with tears slipping down her cheeks. I wondered if she cried for the loss of this bygone romance . . . or because she’d never in fact been a redhead, nor known of her husband’s affection for one.

Thursdays were passed in the bookmobile, piloted by my colleague Karen. A divorced mother of two teens, she was crotchety and terse in spite of the cheerful floral-print tops that dominated her wardrobe, but she made me laugh. I liked Thursdays a lot—out on the open road, lots of coffee breaks. It reminded me of bygone summers with my father. He was a state trooper and I was a daddy’s girl, and he’d let me ride along now and then on what he called The Hunt. Sometimes he’d let me hold the radar gun. I watched a lot of cops drink a lot of coffee back when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen. I watched a lot of people get arrested, too. Felt them kick the panel behind my seat. Terrified and thrilled, like I was in a shark tank.

Though at Cousins Correctional Facility, there’d be no shatterproof partition separating me and the criminals. A table, perhaps. Not even that, if I were to sit beside them, showing them how to fill out online applications or use a word processor or the digital card catalog. Nothing between me and them but the proximity of a guard. And that might keep their hands away, but their looks? Whispers?

I shivered, wondering what kind of punishment-glutton dingbat would need to be told not to dress sexy when she visited a medium-security prison.

Play with fire,
I thought.
Enjoy your third-degree burns.
Bad men didn’t take much baiting.

To underline the warning, I shifted my jaw around until I heard that pop. It didn’t used to do that. Not until that night I’d shown up at my ex-boyfriend’s place with the wrong kind of rum. I’d paid for it in cash at the liquor store, and I paid for it again with that slap—so hard the room turned white for a half minute, my eardrum bursting like a shotgun blast and ringing rusty with feedback.

I won’t ever hit you again.

How many times had he promised me that, before I left him? A dozen, maybe. But that shot to my head, that woke me up for good.

I won’t ever hit you again.

And I’d thought,
No you fucking will not.
He’d passed out after the usual drunken laments, and I took a twenty from his wallet for the rum, and wrote a rather succinct Dear John letter in Sharpie on the back of the hand he’d struck me with.

FUCK. YOU.

My hearing had returned by the time I moved to Ann Arbor that fall. I’d needed a change of scenery. A place with snowy winters, where the men spoke in honest, sharp-edged Northern accents, incapable of glazing their empty promises in sweet Southern honey.

I never told my daddy why I transferred, because sometimes parents need protecting. I didn’t tell my mama, either, didn’t spell it out. But a woman can tell. When she hugged me good-bye beside my dad’s car, all loaded with my stuff, she’d whispered, “I never liked that boy. You pick with your head next time.”

Fine by me, so long as next time was a long ways off.

* * *

The car that had moved me to Ann Arbor was mine now—a stodgy maroon station wagon. I climbed behind the wheel at seven twenty with the lazy Northern sun just peeking from behind the buildings to the east, and sat there hugging the tote bag full of books and worksheets I’d packed, timing my breaths. There were more books in the back, donations for the prison’s collection. Karen had done her time as the Cousins outreach person—a four-year sentence, she named it—and she’d explained that their so-called library was literally a closet full of books. No shelves, no order, just tall stacks of random castoffs.

“I always told myself I’d find a spare hour a week to fix that,” she’d said as we rode around the county in the bookmobile the day before. “Get a collection of the kinds of things they actually like—thrillers and spy novels, war memoirs. Bully somebody in custodial into giving me a cart, go up and down the cellblocks, handing them out. But I also tell myself I’m going to lose thirty pounds, yet here we are.”

“What are they like? The inmates?”

She’d shrugged. “They’re a bunch of men who made dumb-shit, violent mistakes. Stripped of their dignity, crowded into kennels to cross-infect each other with their anger. And to fester. And to wish they hadn’t made such dumb-shit mistakes.”

“Did anyone ever touch you?”

“No. But I’m a fat, used-up old grouch. Probably remind them of their mothers, or some teacher who told them they’d never amount to anything. I got my share of taunts, of course. And come-ons. One proposal. They’re desperate, after all. But you . . . Well, you just watch yourself, with those legs and freckles. Make yourself some friends with Tasers on their belts.”

“Did anyone ever try to extort you?” I’d read too many cautionary tales recently about female guards and prisoners’ girlfriends who got sweet-talked by charismatic cons into smuggling drugs, drawn in too gradually, too deep, until their families were being threatened by the criminals’ buddies on the outside. I’d also been staying up far too late, watching far too much
Dateline
.

Karen had said no one ever tried to extort her. And I wasn’t some lonely woman using the prison pen-pal system as a dating service. The nicest, most upstanding, most handsome man you ever saw probably couldn’t seduce me, so no worries there. The only action I might care to get went down between me and my right hand, and even we’d grown estranged. There just hadn’t been anyone I cared to fantasize about, not in ages. Or else there was no fuel left inside me to catch, sparked by the right attraction. Sometimes I worried my ex had hit me so hard he broke the desire center of my brain.

Nope,
I thought, sliding my key into the ignition.
He just knocked the trust right out of you.

I wanted a family someday, so I knew I needed to fix whatever my ex had broken, but I could kick that can down the road. Today of all days, I was almost grateful for how distrustful I’d become.

Before I started my car, I took out my phone. Dialed my mom.

“Hi, Mama, it’s Annie.”

“Hey, baby!” It warmed me to hear a voice from home. I wished I was back at her and Daddy’s house, curled up on our old padded porch swing. “Is today the day?”

“Yeah. My first session starts at nine.”

“How long, all together?”

“Full day, done at five. With an hour lunch.”

She exhaled a long breath, and I did the same.

“You’re gonna do fine, baby. You just do what the guards say, and don’t let anything those men say upset you.”

“Easier said than done.”

“You can do it. You’re way stronger than you give yourself credit for.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Well I do,” she said, and I heard the tinkling of a spoon in a mug. I could just about smell her tea. “And if you catch yourself thinking you’re not up to this, you put my voice in your ear saying that’s bull. All right?”

“Okay. Thanks, Mama. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“Good. And good luck, baby. I love you so much.”

“Love you too. And Daddy. Talk to you tonight.”

“Bye-bye, now.”

I turned my phone off. Turned my key in the ignition. Turned my old Escort onto the road and aimed for the highway.

The drive took about thirty minutes, and my stomach balled tighter with every mile. By the time I reached the Cousins front gate, my throat stung with heartburn.

I stopped before the metal arm of the lot attendant’s booth.

“Business?” he asked.

I flashed the ID I’d been mailed.
Anne Goodhouse, Secondary Staff.
“I’m from the Darren Public Library. The new outreach—”

“G’on through,” he said, gate rising. “Employee lot’s marked. So’s the personnel entrance.”

“Thanks.”

I found a space and gathered my things. My nerves had me strung taut between fear of the unknown and fear of running late—I’d been told to allow a full hour for orientation and “security protocol” before this first visit.

I was greeted just inside the entrance by a short tank of a female officer.

“Welcome to Cousins,” Shonda said after an introduction, sounding like a mother whose children were testing her patience—an aura of displaced, weary annoyance, directed at nothing in particular. Her uniform was khaki and snug, her bun even tighter.

“I’ll show you around, but first I gotta search you.”

“Sure.” I’d snapped into some calm, obedient mode—sounded nearly chipper, like she’d offered me a cup of coffee and not a frisking.

Shonda took me into a nearby tiled room labeled Reception. It had no door, but a short jog around a wall opposite the entrance, like in an airport restroom. Inside it was home to very little aside from a long metal table, a set of lockers, and two security cameras.

“Gonna ask you to hand me your bag and shoes, empty your pockets, then strip. Please.”

Damn.
I handed her my bag, keys, and phone, kicked off my flats and surrendered those as well. I undressed, stuck standing awkwardly as she took her time examining everything in my tote. She went through my clothes next, eyeballing them closely, feeling every seam.

“I know this seems real invasive,” she said casually, “but it has to be, when we’re letting you inside the general population.”

“Sure.” Whatever. Fine by me. God forbid I find out the hard way that something on my person could be turned into a shank on some desperate man’s whim.

“Crouch and cough for me please.”

I did, face blazing. Karen had warned me about this, but dreading it and living it just didn’t compare. I wondered how often the inmates had to do this. Daily? Every time they left the yard or the visitation area? Could you even call that a life?

I survived this first taste of degradation and dressed quickly.

“We’ll hang on to these,” Shonda said, pulling a small plastic bin from on top of the lockers and tossing my keys and phone into it. “They’ll be kept behind the reception desk for you, but you may access them any time you’re in the secure zone.” She explained this with a robotic passion, clearly a speech she gave many times a week. She locked her eyes on mine, hooking her thumbs under her thick black belt. She spoke crisply, slowly.

BOOK: Hard Time
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