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Ely Berringer walked out of the shower into the room he rented over a restaurant in Clear River, Montana. A chill worked over his damp skin, and he eyed the thickening frost on the windows. A strand of Christmas lights attached to the outside of the building fell loose and now hung down in the center of the glass, still merry as they danced in the wind.
This was a long way from Antigua, that was for sure. He'd come home thinking that his sister-in-law, Tessa, had called him about some family trouble, but her concern had been about Lydia Hamilton, her best friend. That had given Ely a moment of pause; he and Lydia had some history he wasn't sure he wanted to reopen. But he was a Marine, and he was a Berringerhelping was what he was trained to do.
Lydia had left suddenly, according to Tessa, canceling her appointments and closing her shop until further notice. She'd been acting strangely, being distant and uncommunicative. Like she was so warm and cuddly the rest of the time, Ely thought with a snort as he dried off and got dressed. The petite Goth hottie who ran the tattoo shop, Body Inc., next to Tessa's soap shop was tough as nails. Though she could be soft as a kitten in bed, something he knew from personal experience.
Lydia told Tessa she'd be gone for a while, but had not answered her phone or responded to her email since. Tessa thought she could be in some kind of trouble, and she could be right.
Ely hadn't known Lydia for long, but even he knew how she was all over the internetshe was constantly accessing her email and social media pages, and none of them showed any recent activity. She was also serious about her business. Closing up shop at one of the busiest retail times of the year was enough to trigger his concern, as well.
He got to work and used the resources available to him through Berringer Bodyguardsthe family businessand through Tessa's father, a U.S. Senator. It didn't take long to track Lydia down. She'd left a trail of credit card purchases, including a rental car that she'd returned in Billings, Montana. That likely was her final destination, so now, here he was, freezing his ass off in Montana, three weeks before Christmas.
Ice and snow obscured any view out of the windows of his small room. Born in Philadelphia, he wasn't any stranger to winter, but cold seemed to take on a new meaning out here. His flights had been delayed due to several strong weather systems crossing the U.S. At least he'd landed in Billings the day before, beating the worst of the weather. The Antiguan beach he had been standing on only a few days ago seemed a million miles away now.
As soon as he'd gotten into town, he'd asked around for Lydia and found people knew heror her family.
She wasn't just a visitor, she'd grown up here. He'd found more in the public records at the local town hall.
He was still trying to get his head around the fact that Clear River, population 1,738, was her hometown. That wouldn't be such a surprise if Lydia hadn't told all of them that she didn't have any family. Everyone thought she'd grown up in the east as a foster kid and then ran away, out on her own at seventeen.
Not according to what he'd found.
He'd looked up her birth records in the local government office. Only child, both parents gone. He found her yearbook at the local school library, and her parents' obituaries in the newspaper. Her mother, Faye, had died less than a month ago. Obviously, that had been the trigger for the unusual behavior Tessa had noticed.
For some reason, Lydia didn't want anyone knowing what she was doing here, or that her mother had died. Or that she had a family and a past at all. What could be so awful that Lydia would want to hide it from the people who were closest to her?
Her name wasn't listed with that of her graduating class, and there were no pictures in the yearbook after her sophomore year. So maybe part of her story was true, that she had run away when she was sixteen or seventeen. Was there some horrible family secret that had caused her to flee? Ely frowned. He hated thinking she might have suffered like that in her past, but in the end, it was no one's business but hers.
Ely had secrets, too, and he didn't feel right prying into Lydia's. Still, he planned to find out a little more before he left, just to make sure she really was okay. Dealing with the death of a parent was no small thing, and Ely suspected handling it all alone was not a great idea. Still, he could easily imagine Lydia running away to lick her wounds in private, not asking for help, and not wanting anyone to know.
She wasn't one for getting too close, at least, not emotionally. They'd ended up in her bed only a few hours after they'd met. A classic one-night stand, but Lydia rocked his world and made him reconsider what he wanted in lifehence his own escape to Antigua. He'd lived there, solo on a beach for several weeks, clearing his head, thinking about his priorities, until Tessa had called.
Lydia had to be here now to settle her mother's affairs. That morning, he'd waited down the road outside her family's ranch and had watched her leave. He followed her on her errands for most of the afternoon. Lawyers, real estate, some other stores and offices.
It confirmed what he'd found so far. She didn't seem to be in any trouble, and she looked fine. Better than fine, really. He'd call Tessa in the morning and let her know her friend was okay, and leave it at that. If the storms passed, he'd head home for Christmas, or maybe he'd go back to the beach. Ely had taken a new lease on life, and Lydia had been the cause of that.
He'd become more spontaneous and wanted to enjoy life more. Having spent more than a decade of his life surrendering to his sense of duty, joining the Marines when he was eighteen and doing nine years there before coming home three years ago, when he immediately took up work with his brothers. His focus for all of his adult life had been work, family, country.
But where was he in all of that? He'd never stopped to ask. He thought he knew what he wantedwork and a family of his ownto find someone, settle down, live a traditional kind of life. The things he was supposed to want, right?
But everything had been turned upside down when the woman he thought he could have that life with betrayed him and then he ended up in bed with the last woman he could imagine sleeping with. Lydia wasn't someone he would have normally been attracted to, and she had expanded his sexual horizons far past his previous experience.
And he enjoyed it.
It was enough to make a guy seriously rethink his wants, needs and desires. For now, he was living day to day and trying to be more open. Experimenting. Not tying himself down. Why on earth had he been so anxious to marry after being tied to the military, then to his job? He fought for the freedom of others, but hadn't experienced much of his own. Maybe he'd still settle down someday, but he had a lot of living to do first.
As soon as he finished this job.
He left the room and walked downstairs to get a beer and some dinner. Crossing the restaurant to find a seat at the bar, he took note of the other patrons conversing and enjoying an end-of-the-day brew.
Lydia was a city girlpolished and street-wise. If anyone had asked, he would have assumed the closest she'd ever been to a cow would have been pouring milk for her cereal in the morning. That was about as close as Ely had ever been to one, himself. Guns, he knew. Strategy, war, protection.
Cows, not so much.
Looking at the rough, hardworking men who sat at the bar, Ely took in the Christmas tree that stood in the corner, cheerfully decorated, giving a little sparkle to the soft light off the well-worn but comfortable tavern. He caught the eye of the bartender, who walked over.
"I'll have a beer, a burger and some fries, if you're still serving," he said, with a glance at the clock.
"We are. Serve til nine," the guy said. "Some of the best local beef you'll ever taste. Visit a good one so far?"
"Yeah, it's a beautiful place."
"Business in town?"
"Not really. Just passing through to see a friend, then heading back home," Ely said casually.
"Who's your friend?"
"Lydia Hamilton. You know her?"
The bartender shook his head. "Nope. I knew Faye Hamilton, everyone did, but never met Lydia. She must be the daughter?"
"Heard she took off years ago, before I bought this place, and I've had it for a while. You back from the war?"
"How could you tell?"
"I served, my father served in World War II, and my son is in Iraq. Marine?" Ely nodded.
"Ooh-rah," the older man said with a smile, and Ely shook the hand he offered. "My name's Tom. You?"
They talked for a while about their service, and Ely was glad for the diversion away from the topic of Lydia.
Ideally, she would never know he was here; he had a feeling she wouldn't take kindly to the knowledge. He didn't intend to tell Tessa anything other than that Lydia was fine. Lydia had a right to her privacy, and he didn't want to mess up Tessa's friendship with Lydia. If Lydia wanted to tell Tessa about her past, that was up to her.
He didn't like lying to them, but it wasn't really lying; it was keeping Lydia's confidence. Ely had a lot of things he couldn't tell anyone after his military years.
Tessa was a new bride, and she saw romance and happily-ever-after in everything these days. He figured she'd seen that with him and Lydia as well, and he didn't want to encourage her. She'd pressed them both for details about what had happened that night, but she was bound for disappointment on that score. What had happened between Lydia and Ely hadn't had anything to do with romance.
It had been raw, basic lust. And Lydia wasn't the romantic type.
I don't do relationships, she'd told him that night as she had undressed him. But I do a lot of other things.
Being with Lydia had been liberating.
Unfortunately, they'd parted on somewhat awkward terms, and he had gone out of his way to avoid contact with her so that no onenamely Tessagot any ideas. Also because he was messed uphe'd jumped from one woman's bed to another, and had been pretty well turned around. Not his most shining hour.
They should have cleared the air sooner, agreed to be friends, at least, since there was no doubt they would see each other from time to time. Jonas was very fond of her, too, and Ely knew Lydia would be included in whatever family functions came along. He figured time would let it fade, and they'd be friends.
Ely's attention snapped to as he realized he had completely zoned out on what the bartender was saying. He covered by nodding to the weather report playing on the TV above the bar.
"Looks like a big storm coming in."
"We get a lot of those. Hope you're not in a hurry to get out. Will be a few days before roads are clear and planes are on time again, most likely."
"I'm in no hurry," he fibbed with a smile. He'd hoped to be there no more than one more day, but the weather appeared to have something to say about that.
His dinner arrived and Ely dug into his burgerwhich really was excellentand then froze midbite.
She stood inside the door, scanning for a place to sit. Ely turned away, hoping she didn't see him. There'd be no way to explain his presence here other than the truth, and that wasn't an option. When he looked back, she was finding her way to one of the faded orange vinyl booths that lined the far wall. She looked small and cold in a leather jacket that wouldn't protect her well enough against this kind of weather. City girl, indeed.
She sure stood out among the locals. A few men followed her progress as she walked; the way her beautiful little backside was encased in tight jeans drew more than one appreciative gaze, the sexy piercing and her half-moon tat at the corner of her lip. It made Ely remember far too much.
He remembered biting her there, and that she'd liked it.
She'd nipped him back, and he'd liked that, too.
Lydia didn't mind a little rough play and could hold her own on that score. He was suddenly, unexpectedly hard, and shifted in his seat, cursing under his breath. Obviously seeing her up close packed more of a punch than when he was following her around in the truck all day.
Damn, she was hot. He guessed they would need a lot more time to let the effects of that one night fade. Her black hair was a little longer, flaxen, slightly curled at the edges as it danced around her pale skin, accentuating dark eyes and full lips. He knew that her skin, under the coat and sweater, was covered in ink something he'd never found sexy on a woman before, but when he'd been with her, he hadn't been able to get enough of looking at the sexy designs that covered most of her body. Running his hands over them, tracing them, tasting them.
Ely had one tattoo, the symbol penned on his shoulder that he shared with the guys in his squad. Other than that, there had never been anything meaningful enough to him that he would want to inscribe it permanently on his body.
He finished his food, but barely tasted anything as he peeked at her in between bites. Taking her coffee from the server with a smile, Lydia pulled a book from her bag, sitting there, alone, reading. Her apartment had been filled with books.
Ely suspected there was far more behind the ink than anyone knew. Maybe that's why she covered herself in it, as well as the piercings that accented various points on her bodylip, ear, belly button, and one even lower that had totally surprised and turned him on.
But maybe, in some way, it was her armor. A way of hiding her secrets? Who she was, why she was here, and what was in her past that she was so intent on hiding. He knew, since he had his own. It had been necessary to survive in the war, and even when he'd come home. He ordered another beer, intending to call it a night and go back to his room before she spotted him. If he was going to be stuck here for a few days, he'd have to lay low.
Then a guy sauntered up to the booth and slid in on the opposite side from Lydia. She didn't put her book down, but the cowboy didn't take the hint. He smiled, leaning back and picked up a sugar packet from the bin on the table, playing with it between his fingers, appearing casual. Ely knew his look; the guy was obviously hoping to score that evening. Lydia peered over top of her reading and said something that made the guy's smile widen.
Ely's back stiffened, his body tightening as if for a fight. She'd probably been with others since himwhy not? It was none of his business.