Excerpt: THE DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES

Perfect, Indiana: Book Two   Coming April 23rd, 2013/Montlake Romance

~THE DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKE~

Chapter One

“Hi, honey. I’m home.” Ryan’s voice reverberated through the stillness, bounced off the bare walls and came back to mock him. He set his lunchbox on the kitchen counter and leaned over to retrieve his supper from under the sink—a brand new bottle of Johnny Walker Red.

Gripping the bottle by the neck, he moved to the living room and set it on the coffee table next to his vintage .357 revolver, the letter he’d written to his folks, and the picture of his platoon, Task Force Iron, 1st Armored Division, 4th Brigade. One more item, and he could begin his nightly ritual. He retrieved the snapshot of Theresa from his billfold, laid it down and took his place on the couch.

Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.

Theresa. Reaching out, he traced the laminated photo with his finger. His throat tightened. God, he missed her. How different his life would be if he hadn’t insisted they go riding that morning five years ago. He’d be coming home every evening from some swank advertising agency job. They’d have a couple of kids by now. A family. His family. He’d be surrounded by love instead of this soul-sucking loneliness.

Ah, but he wasn’t entirely alone, not if the hollow-eyed ghosts plaguing him counted. He closed his eyes, and images from the suicide bombing near Mosul played across his shattered mind.

           “Jackson, radio ahead and have Staff Sergeant Reilly pick up the pace,” Lieutenant Langford ordered. “If the civilian truck gets too close, we’ll fire a few rounds into the ground to warn them off.

            “You hear that, Gunny?” the lieutenant called to him over his shoulder.

            “Yes, sir,” Ryan shouted from his place in the artillery turret.

            Yeah, he’d heard all right. He should’ve aimed the M240B machine gun straight into the payload before the truck got anywhere near their platoon. If he had, the IEDs would’ve detonated in the desert instead of in the middle of their convoy. Five soldiers died. Soldiers whose backs he’d sworn to protect.

Familiar sensations gripped him. Sweat beaded his brow, and dread banded his chest until he couldn’t draw breath. Powerless to stop it, he rode the wave of internal chaos, helpless to keep from being pulled under.

“Blow the suckers out of the sand! Shoot to kill. Shoot to kill,” Lieutenant Langford shouted.

            Ryan opened fire, sending a flurry of metal casings raining down on their Humvee. Too damned little too damned late. The truck detonated, plunging them into the fires of hell, turning the insurgents into pink mist.

            Their Humvee lifted and flipped. Jettisoned out of the turret, Ryan flew through the air amidst the flaming debris and super-heated particles of sand. Bones snapped and cracked on impact. Fire burned through his uniform. He rolled in the sand to put it out and tried to curl in on himself to protect his head. Unimaginable pain assaulted every inch of his broken body.

            Seconds passed. Pain-filled, life-altering seconds of mayhem followed by the moans and screams of the injured and dying. Choking on the smell of burning plastic and the acrid stench of singed hair and flesh—was it his?—he opened his eyes to survey the damage.

            Bad decision.

            His best buddy lay in pieces not three feet from him. The back of his skull had been blown away, along with most of his left side. Jackson’s eyes were open, empty and lifeless—an expression of shock permanently etched on what remained of his face.

            Ryan forced himself onto his side to vomit into. Another mistake. Grit thrown by the desert wind peppered his raw, exposed burns. The edges of his vision darkened. The blackness spread, and the nightmare around him faded.

            Pressing his fists into his eye sockets, he tried to dislodge the memories eroding his psyche. Jackson had a wife and kid to get home to. His best friend had not deserved to die like that. No one deserved to die like that. The familiar vise-like guilt squeezed the air from his lungs, and rage roiled through him. Why did I survive?

He glanced at the table, drawn by the picture of his platoon. There he was, wearing his desert fatigues, all his gear and a stupid grin. Jackson stood beside him, his arm slung around Ryan’s shoulders. He should’ve lived, not me.

Sweaty and shaking, Ryan sucked in a breath through his clenched teeth, lifted the pistol and checked to see that it still held a single bullet. He undid the safety and spun the chamber. Carefully, he set the gun back in its proper place and hoisted the bottle. Up till now he hadn’t had the balls to end his miserable non-existence. Not once had he even come close to pulling the trigger.

“Cheers.” He unscrewed the cap, lifted the bottle in a toast to the fallen, to Theresa, and took a long pull. Leaning back on the couch, he stared at the ceiling. A few more drinks, and he’d do it. Tonight he’d end the pain once and for all. He took another drink and lifted the gun. The cold metallic weight promised instant, irrevocable relief.

The handle resting in his palm warmed. Taking another swig, Ryan savored the heat going down his throat and waited for J.W. to do his part. It didn’t take long before the alcohol dulled the screaming in his brain to a manageable decibel. He brought the gun to his mouth—so close he could smell the tang of gun oil on steel. It took several long seconds before he managed to get his lips apart to place the barrel against his palate. It needed to be positioned just right, or with his luck, he’d live. Not acceptable.

Ryan took a deep, slow breath and held it. Ever so slowly he cocked the hammer with his thumb and curled his finger around the trigger. He blinked against the tears running down his face. When had he started crying? Hell, this was a new twist. It had to mean something, right?             Yes. An uncharacteristic calm and determination steadied his trembling hand. It meant tonight was the night he’d find peace at last. He put pressure on the trigger.

The wall mounted phone next to the kitchenette started to ring.

Pulling the gun out of his mouth, he closed his eyes and willed the interruption away. His heart pounded, and his breathing came in short gasps that did little to fill his lungs. The phone kept ringing and ringing. He took another drink.

If it was his mom, he didn’t want to talk to her, or his dad, brothers or sister for that matter. He hadn’t had much contact with his family since Theresa’s accident. The ringing stopped. Finally. But his momentum had been disturbed, and he had to start over. He reached for liquid courage. One, two, three swallows.

Once again he brought the gun up to the roof of his mouth and wrapped his finger around the trigger. Closing his eyes, he tried to picture Theresa and started the slow pull toward oblivion.

The phone rang again.

“Son-of-a-bitch!” Ryan slammed the gun down on the table and leapt up from the couch on unsteady legs. He was tempted to rip the thing off the wall, but when he reached for it, something inside, some spark of morbid curiosity, had him lifting the receiver instead. He never got calls. Bringing the hand piece to his ear, Ryan struggled to get his breathing under control. “Hello.”

“Gunny Malloy? Is that you?”

Adrenaline surged through his bloodstream. The room began to spin, and he had to lean against the wall to stay upright. “Lieutenant Langford?” Ryan’s eyes shot to the photo on his coffee table. No fucking way.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me. You were a hard man to track down, buddy. I thought you moved back home to Oklahoma once we got out of the VA hospital.”

“Naw, nothing for me there.” He had to swallow hard a few times before trusting his voice to sound normal. “I…I need to…” His eyes darted around his apartment in a frantic search for something that would buy him time to pull himself together.“Can you hold on for just a minute? I have something on the stove.”

“Sure, I’ll hold.”

Ryan placed the receiver on the counter and made some noise with his lunchbox. Why not? It was metal. He gripped the edge of the counter, closed his eyes tight and leaned over. You can do this, soldier. Front. Come across like everything is all right. Isn’t that what he did every day of his miserable life? He fronted at work and while shopping at the grocery store. He even pretended he wasn’t really checking out all the rooftops in town for insurgents. Pretending had becomehis normal.

Ryan gritted his teeth, straightened and picked up the phone. “Hey, Lieutenant, it’s good to hear your voice.” He ran a shaky hand through his too long hair. “Where’d you end up, anyway? Last I heard you were on a mission to find your stepbrother’s kid. How’d that work out?” Laughter filled Ryan’s ear, and an unidentifiable emotion ricocheted through him. Jealousy? Hope?

No. Not hope.

“It worked out really well.” Noah chuckled again. “I adopted my stepbrother’s daughter and married her mother. We have a little boy now, too, but I want to hear about you. What are you up to?”

“I’m back at the same place in Texas I worked before I enlisted.”

“Cabinetmaking?”

“Yep, pre-fab.” Dead-end boring. “I go by Ryan now. Gunny is…it reminds me of…”

“I understand. Listen, are you happy working for that cabinet place?”

“No, but I’m not happy in general.” He swallowed hard. “Man, it’s been a while, hasn’t it Lieutenant?” He had a white-knuckled grip on the phone, as if holding on that hard might save him somehow.

“Yeah…yeah it has…I don’t go by Lieutenant anymore either. How about we start all over as a couple of civilians? Ryan for you. Noah for me.”

“Deal.” Ryan had to blink hard against the emotions swirling through him. Hearing the lieutenant’s voice brought it all back—the good times, the bad—the worst. “Where’re you living now? What are you up to? I know you never went back to Philly, because I tried to find you a year or so back.”

“That’s why I called. I live in Perfect, Indiana, not too far from Evansville. A couple of years ago, my wife’s cousin and I started a custom furniture company. We sell mostly over the Internet. The business has been growing faster than we anticipated.”

“OK. That’s good, right?” Where was Noah going with this, and what did it have to do with him?

“We recently took over a building in town. It used to be a general store or something. There are two stories above the storefront. We have a showroom, production space and offices.”

“Sounds like you’re doing great.”

“We are, and we need help.”

Ryan frowned. “Shouldn’t be hard to come by in this economy.”

“Probably not, but I have a new mission.”

“Well of course you do. You haven’t changed much.” Rusty laughter grated its way out of Ryan’s throat. He remembered every time he’d heard those same words come from his commanding officer’s mouth. Sometimes his missions involved getting his hands on some kind of hooch so they could all get plowed. “I’ll bite. What’s your new mission?”

“I’m only going to hire veterans.”

“To do what?”

“Right now I need someone with a graphic arts and design background, and preferably someone who has experience working with wood. I need help with the website, advertising, processing orders—that kind of stuff. Someone who can jump into production when needed would be nice. Naturally, you came to mind. I remember you saying you have a B.F.A. or something to do with graphic design. I also remembered you worked as a cabinetmaker.”

“M.F.A. I have a masters.” Ryan rubbed his forehead and tried hard to wrap his head around where the conversation had taken them. “So…let me get this straight. Are you offering me a job?”

“I am. We can’t pay you a huge amount of money right now, but there’s room to expand. You can make something out of this, Ryan. It’s an opportunity to grow with Langford & Lovejoy Heritage Furniture.”

Ryan’s heart thundered so hard his ears rang, and his legs gave out. He slid down the wall until his ass hit the floor, and the phone cord stretched to its limit. “No shit?”

“No shit. You interested?”

“Hell, yes.” He hadn’t done anything creative since Theresa died, hadn’t even wanted to. Back then, he’d just wanted to blow things up, aim a gun at something and shoot away the pain eating away at him from the inside out. Did he even have it in him to be creative anymore? He didn’t know.

“Like I said, we can’t pay much. We’ve put most of our profit into this recent expansion. But my wife and I have a carriage house on our property. I can offer it to you for dirt cheap. It’s completely furnished.”

“I don’t care about the money. As long as I have a roof over my head, I’ll be fine.” Ryan ran his free hand over his beard. “It’s been…It’s been hell. At least working with you I’ll be with someone who gets it…someone who was there.” He harbored no illusions. It would be great to work with the lieutenant again, but it wouldn’t make a difference. He’d strayed way too far into unfixable territory to expect miracles.

“Exactly. You get the mission. If we hire only vets, we can help each other through the tight spots. How soon can you start?”

“Give me a couple of weeks to settle things here.”

“Great. You have an e-mail address? I’ll send you the details and directions to Perfect.”

He rattled off his information, and the lieutenant hung up. Still sitting on the floor, Ryan stretched his legs out and leaned his head back against the wall. He started to laugh, cry and shake all at once. One minute he’d been pulling the trigger, and the next he’d accepted a new job in a different state. The emotional shift left him weak and wobbly as a newborn foal.

It took about twenty minutes before any semblance of control returned to his limbs. Ryan pushed himself up to standing, put the phone’s receiver back and turned to face the coffee table.

Letter. Pictures. Gun. Bottle.

Curious, he moved toward the table and hefted the gun. What would’ve happened? Would he have hit an empty chamber, or…? He aimed the pistol at his couch and pulled the trigger. The single bullet exploded through the barrel, burning a black hole through the cushion. A tidal-wave of shock slammed into his gut. The gun fell from his hand, thudding to the carpet a full two seconds before he lost his legs again and landed on his knees right next to the discharged .357.

“Damn.”

***

Paige hit the lock button on her Mini Cooper, lifted her briefcase strap over her shoulder and headed into work with a wide smile on her face. Life was good. Her mind drifted back to the fantastic sex she’d had with Anthony the night before.

She really shouldn’t be dating a co-worker, and it was wise of Anthony to insist they keep it a secret. That way they could avoid any awkwardness at the office. Once she proved to her father that she could make it in a male-dominated industry, she’d leave Ramsey & Weil Construction Equipment and take over the family empire—Langford Plumbing Supplies. Then she and Anthony could go public with their relationship. A thrill tingled its way through her at the thought. Maybe he’s the one.

Pulling her black wool coat tighter against the chilly March wind, she crossed the parking lot to the steps leading inside. The glass entry doors opened with a quiet rush of warm air, and the tap of her high-heeled leather boots echoed pleasantly through the granite-floored foyer.

“Good morning, George,” she called out to the security officer manning the desk in front of the elevators. She slid her ID card across the sensor on the turnstile and walked through.

“Hey, Miss Langford. You’re looking lovely today.”

“Why, thank you.” She beamed. Of course she looked lovely. How could she not, with the best of everything at her disposal? She’d been born lucky—born with her dad’s brains and her mom’s good looks.

Shifting her briefcase, Paige hit the up button and waited for the sleek, stainless-steel elevator to come back to the first floor. Maybe she’d surprise Anthony today and have lunch delivered for the both of them.

The elevator opened, and she pressed the button for the fifth floor while mentally going over the calls she’d have to make right away. The metal doors parted to a carpeted reception area with a wall length desk paneled in mahogany. Paige headed to her mailbox to the right of the desk.

“Miss Langford, Mr. Weil wants to see you right away this morning,” the receptionist informed her. “I’m to send you right up.”

“OK. I’m on my way.” Paige smiled at the young woman. Her boss probably wanted to congratulate her on the way she’d handled Meyer Construction’s latest deal. She’d been pleased and gratified to be assigned one of Ramsey & Weil’s largest accounts, especially considering she’d only been with the company a little over two months.

She checked her watch. Ten minutes early. Good. Better drop her things off in her office before heading to the boss’s suite on the seventh floor. Sliding her coat off as she went, Paige walked down the hall to her tiny office. Tiny, yes, but she had a window.

Anthony’s office at the end of the hall was windowless. It bothered him, but at least he had an office, unlike the assistant account reps who worked in cheerless little cubicles. She hung her coat on the hook behind the door, dropped her briefcase under the desk and locked her purse in the bottom drawer. Straightening her burgundy gabardine skirt and brushing off a few specs of lint from the jacket, she headed back out for her meeting with Mr. Weil.

His secretary glanced at her over the rims of her reading glasses. “Miss Langford, Mr. Weil is waiting for you.”

“Thank you.” Mrs. Hadley’s expression was as dour as ever. Paige had heard she’d worked for Ramsey & Weil from the beginning. She had to be close to seventy. Throwing her shoulders back, Paige knocked on Mr. Weil’s door.

“Come in,” he barked from inside.

Smoothing her face into a professional mien, she opened the door and strode in. One look at his expression, and she faltered. He looked serious. Seriously unhappy. What the hell?

“Have a seat, Langford.” He moved a pile of folders aside.

She took one of the chairs in front of his huge, imposing desk. “You wanted to see me?”

“Hmmm.” He scowled her way. “Meyer Construction needed our bid five business days ago. They never got it. They’ve gone with another supplier.”

An adrenaline shock hit her system, and her heart leapt to her throat. She gripped the arms of the chair. “That’s impossible! I sent that bid with a same-day courier two days before it was due.”

“Like I said—they never got it.” He leaned back in his expensive leather chair and fixed her with a baleful scowl. “I’ve also had two other accounts you handled complain that their bids were late, holding them up and delaying their contractors. If it weren’t for Anthony Rutger’s intervention, we would’ve lost those accounts as well.”

“Anthony’s…intervention?” Her mind spun with the implications. Anthony?

Her mind flew back to the day the courier had come to the lobby for the Meyer bid. She’d been in the middle of a phone call, and Anthony had offered to take the envelope down to the lobby for her. At the time, she’d thought it was sweet. Come to think of it, he’d also offered to put a few of her bids into the office’s outgoing mail bin for her. No, he wouldn’t purposefully sabotage her. Would he? They were a couple.

            Heat filled her face. “I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”

“Damn straight it won’t. You’re fired.”

“Oh, no. There’s been a mistake. I had somebody else put the bids in the mail for me. They must’ve forgotten, or…” Shit. Shit. Shit. She glanced around the office as the reality of Anthony’s betrayal sank in. “I won’t let it happen again, Mr. Weil. I’ll get the Meyer account back somehow.” She sucked in a breath. “From now on, I will personally put things in the out bin myself, and—”

“Miss Langford, you’re done here.”

The expression in his eyes was pitying, and she got it. Mr. Weil knew exactly what had happened, and ultimately, she was responsible. She’d been so naïve, so trusting…Oh, my God! I’ve been sleeping with the enemy. No wonder Anthony insisted they keep their relationship a secret. Who would believe her if she claimed he was responsible for losing the Meyer account? Paige couldn’t get enough air into her lungs. Black dots danced in front of her eyes. This couldn’t be happening, not to her.

“Paige,” Mr. Weil’s tone softened, “learn from this, and you’ll know better next time.”

She tried to swallow, but her mouth felt like the wool her expensive, designer coat had been cut from. “Give me another chance. I can’t be fired,” she croaked out. Harvard graduates don’t get fired.

“It’s already done. Security is here to escort you to your office. Take only your personal belongings.” Mr. Weil stood up and moved to the door. He swung it open, and George the security guard waited for her in the hall. He wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Humiliation. Shame. Mortification. A maelstrom of ugly emotions leapt up to overtake her, and white-hot anger followed. Anthony. He’d done this to her. Why? She blinked away the sudden sting of tears. No time to deal with that now. She rose on shaky legs, lifted her chin and walked out of the office without looking at Mr. Weil or George. Aware of the security guard’s presence behind her, she made her way back to the elevator with as much dignity as possible. Was that a smug look on Mrs. Hadley’s prune-like face? Paige lifted her chin a bit higher.

“I’m sorry about this, Miss Langford,” George murmured once they were alone on the elevator.

“Thank you, George.” She swiped at the single tear escaping down her cheek. “Do me a favor, would you?”

“Sure.”

“If you ever get the chance, hauk a loogie into Anthony Rutger’s coffee for me.”

“What?” He gave her a confused look for a moment, and then laughed. “That’s the spirit. You’ll come out of this all right.”

Harvard grad fired from her first real job. She doubted she’d come out of it all right. With this on her record, who would hire her now? Shit. Shit. Shit. She wanted to stomp her feet and scream like a two-year-old. Her father had just been proved right. How had he put it? Oh, yeah. “Plumbing and construction are still predominantly male. Paige is brilliant, but she’s also naïve and mostly fluff. She’s led a sheltered, pampered life…”

At the time she’d overheard those words, she’d tossed it off as another example of what a sexist he was, but now?Maybe she was nothing but fluff. Fluff with a very expensive, impressive degree. A degree that meant her daddy had deep pockets. Nothing more.

Somehow they’d reached her office without running into anyone who mattered. George stood in the doorway while she emptied her briefcase of anything having to do with Ramsey & Weil. She tossed her things, including her purse, into her brand new, butter-soft leather briefcase. It had been a present from her mom to celebrate her new job. She choked back the sob rising in her throat. How could she face her parents?

They’d spent a ton of money on her education, had supported and nurtured her all along. How could she tell them what a failure and a fool she’d turned out to be? She grabbed her coat from behind the door and followed George down the hall and onto the elevator to the front lobby. He took her ID card from her and stood by as the glass doors whooshed open once more.

“Bye, George. Thanks for being decent about this.”

“You take care, Miss Langford. Something better is going to come along. Give it some time, and you’ll see.”

“Sure.” Not eff-ing likely.

The worst part? Anthony’s betrayal and the cold, cruel way he’d used her. It was all so calculated, so detestable and deceitful. What had she done to deserve that kind of abuse? What had she ever done to him? She’d been so flattered by his attention from the first day she started working with him. He’d literally swept her off her feet, and now she knew why. Oh, my God, what an idiot! Not only had she handed him the means, she’d invited him into her bed while he destroyed her career.

Shame stole her breath. A short half hour ago she’d been thinking he was the one. Nausea roiled through her, and a cold, clammy sheen of perspiration dampened her forehead. She covered her mouth with one hand, and hurried to the sanctuary of her car. Once inside, she gripped the steering wheel and rested her forehead against the backs of her hands. Sucking air in through her nose, she let it out through her mouth until the nausea receded. She had to get out of here. She fished her keys out of her pocket, started her car and sat up.

That’s when she saw him. Anthony stood watching her from the top step of the front entrance with a nasty smirk on his face. He lifted a hand, saluted her, and turned to walk inside. She gave him the finger, not that it did any good. He didn’t even see it. Paige pulled out of her parking spot and headed for her condo.

Once she was behind closed doors, safely inside her own space, the tears came. She dropped her things on the floor, including her coat, and moved to the living room to collapse on the sectional in a defeated heap. What was she going to do now? Unlike her step-brother Noah, whose maternal grandparents had set up a trust fund for him, the deal she’d had with her parents was that they’d pay for her education, give her a great start debt-free, and the rest was up to her. A few months out of the chute, and she’d already screwed up royally.

Thank God the condo she lived in belonged to her mom. She paid rent, but not a lot, and she’d already paid for March. That gave her almost the entire month to figure something out. She’d have to keep paying, or her folks would know something was up. Good thing she had a little bit tucked away in savings. She also had credit cards. Those she’d use only for emergencies. Maybe she could ask one of her uncles for a loan—or a job. No.

Word would get back to her dad, and she didn’t want that to happen. She had to find her own way out of this mess if she still wanted to convince him she was worthy of his trust when it came to LPS. Was that even a remote possibility anymore?

A fresh spate of tears tracked down her cheeks as another insidious thought wormed its way into her consciousness. How could she face her friends? All the brilliant people she knew were already climbing their chosen corporate ladders—leaving her in the dust—more like in the mud. The urge to run away and hole-up somewhere overwhelmed her.

Noah. She could visit her brother. “Yes!” Her mind raced, and she sat up straight. She’d have a safe place to hide out until she could figure out the rest of her life, and nobody would have to know what had happened until she got back on her feet.

She swiped the tears off her cheeks. No use calling now, not like this, all weepy and stuffed up. Better get a grip first, or he’d hear the misery in her voice. She unzipped her boots, kicked them off and rose from the couch. Act like everything is normal. She slipped out of her suit coat and let it drop to the couch before heading to the kitchen.

She leaned against the counter and stared out the balcony doors at the Philadelphia skyline. Could she manage to sneak away before news of her demise hit the grapevine? Anthony might put the word out himself to crow about the deed to his buddies. Her face grew hot, and anger stiffened her spine. She headed for her cell phone and hit speed dial. Noah answered on the third ring. “Hey, big brother. How’re things in Perfect?”

“Good. Things are good. What’s up, Paige?”

“I was wondering if I could come down for a visit. I have some time on my hands, and I want to see my favorite niece and nephew.”

“Of course. You know you’re always welcome, and we’d love to see you.” He paused. “Are you sure you can take the time off? Didn’t you just start that new job a couple of months ago?”

Her chest tightened, and she had to swallow a few times before she could speak. “I have the time, Noah.” She bit her lip to keep from bursting into tears. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t.”

“OK. Come on down. We’d love to have you.”

“I’m going to drive. I have a few things to wrap up here, and I’ll leave tomorrow sometime. I’ll see you when I get there. Don’t wait up for me.”

“Great. Looking forward to it.” Someone in the background said something, and she heard Noah cover his cell to answer. “I gotta go. We’ll talk when you get here.”

“See you soon. Love you.” Paige hit end call, and sank back down to the couch. At least she had somewhere to go while she licked her wounds and figured out the rest of her life. Funny. She was more pissed than heartbroken about Anthony. Proof that she knew nothing about life, love, or the pursuit of happiness.

***

Paige glanced at her dashboard clock as she turned into Ceejay and Noah’s driveway. It was almost midnight, and she didn’t want to wake them or their children. They’d given her a key to the carriage house when she’d come down for Toby’s baptism, and she still had it. Noah wouldn’t mind if she crashed there tonight. It would be far better than waking up the entire household at this hour.

She parked next to an old Chevy pickup—could it belong to Ceejay’s cousin?—grabbed her stuff and headed out back toward the carriage house. Praying their dog Sweet Pea wouldn’t sense her presence and start barking, she tiptoed along the path from the gate to the door. All she had to go by was the scant light of the new moon.

So far, so good. Sweet Pea remained blissfully quiet. She dropped her bag on the concrete and rifled through the pockets of her purse for the key she’d stashed there. “Ah-hah. Got you.” She fumbled a few times in the darkness, trying to insert it into the lock. Finally she got the key in the right way, turned it, reached for the knob and pushed, just as light flooded the interior. The door was yanked from her grasp so suddenly she fell inside, right into a naked man—a naked man wielding a gun.

“Aaah!” She squealed and scrambled back to regain her footing, staring in shock at the wild man before her. Shaggy blond hair hung down to his shoulders, and an untrimmed, tangled mess of a beard hid most of his face. Panic-filled brilliant blue eyes were riveted on her with a haunted look that stole her breath.

“What the hell?” he stammered, dropping the hand holding the gun to his side. He snatched something from the inside wall and covered his interesting bits.

A cowboy hat? She blinked. He stood five or six inches taller than her 5’ 5” frame, and there was nothing to him but wiry muscle and bone. He had a nasty scar that extended from his right hip all the way down the front of his leg almost to his knee. Plus, he was bare-assed-like-the-day-he-was-born-naked. Her brother wouldn’t allow anyone dangerous near his family, but still… She lifted her chin and looked down her nose at him, going for imperious. “Put that thing away.”

“If you insist.” He tossed the cowboy hat to the recliner.

“The GUN!” She slapped a hand over her eyes. “I meant the gun.”

“Well, that’s not where you were looking.”

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