In New York Times bestselling author Rachel Lee's newest Conard County romance, a killer stalks a wounded warrior and the woman he's vowed to protect
I found you. The game begins. The note wasn't a threat exactly. But Jess McGregor senses danger. The wounded ex-soldier offers Lacy Devane a place to feel safe after her stint in witness protection. But someone is after her Or is Jess the intended target?
Jess and Lacy are practically strangers. And the powerful attraction stirring between them may feel like a betrayal to Jess's late wifeLacy's closest friend. But as a big freeze envelops Conard County, the warmth and healing they find in their growing friendship will be put to the ultimate test by a deranged killer.
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Jess McGregor waited just down the block from Maude's diner at the Conard City bus station. Despite the chill of the late autumn day, he stood outside. His artificial leg was made largely of carbon composite and silicone, but the cold seemed to creep through it, making him ache.
But then, he was getting used to a missing leg that sometimes ached or screamed at him, even though it was gone. Phantom pain didn't feel very much like a phantom.
He waited for his late wife's best friend to arrive. They hadn't seen each other since the funeral five years ago, but they'd talked frequently on the phone since Sara's death, and when he learned that Lacy was afraid for her life, he wanted to make sure she didn't get off the bus in a strange town and not see someone she recognized.
At last, with a heavy chug of a diesel motor and brakes that squealed a little more than they should have, the bus pulled up. The doors opened and he waited with increasing impatience for the woman he was surprisingly eager to see again.
Then there she was, stepping down sideways and holding on to the bar to steady herself.
For an instant, a shaft of old grief speared him, nearly freezing him to the spot. He'd never seen Lacy without Sara, and part of him expected Sara to descend the steps right behind her. Impossible, stupid and the wrong way to feel. With effort, he subdued the pain. Sara was gone forever.
Five years didn't seem to have changed Lacy at all, except her heart-shaped face looked weary. Her long, flaxen hair was exactly as he remembered, gently curling, and her blue eyes, as bright as lasers, found him instantly. The weariness vanished from her face as she smiled and waved.
Even through her coat, he could tell she had lost weight. Not good. She'd been more worried than she had let on. The past couple of years had been hard on her.
Most of the people who climbed off the bus were either met by family or headed straight toward the diner to get some food before continuing their journey.
Lacy Devane strode right toward him. He tried not to limp as he walked toward her, but even after more than three years he had a bit of a hitch in his step. He tried not to do it because it wasn't good for his muscles and joints, but it still appeared from time to time. Especially when it was cold, like today.
"Jess!" She said his name warmly with a big smile and threw her arms around him in a hug. He reciprocated, wrapping her close and catching a whiff of her shampoo. Not since the funeral had he held a woman this close, and it struck him with a hard, unexpected and unwanted shaft of desire. This would not do.
He stepped back quickly. "Bags?" he asked.
She nodded. "Two suitcases. I can't thank you enough for this invitation, Jess. Probably more than anything, I need to get away from it all and just relax. They keep telling me I'm not at risk anymore."
He snorted quietly. "That's probably hard to believe after all the time you spent under federal protection."
Her eyes danced up to his face, and a smile curved her lips. "That's likely the entire problem. I've been conditioned."
"Well, let's hope so, shall we? Because time will cure that. Do you want to go straight home with me or stop at the diner first? I can feed you at home, if you'd prefer that."
"Home," she said without a moment's hesitation. "I'd prefer the quiet."
And the invisibility, he suspected.
The driver pulled two more bags out of the luggage bins beneath the bus. Lacy headed toward them and he followed. "I'll get them."
He caught her biting her lip and knew she was concerned about his leg. But an artificial leg, while it might not be as good as the original in some ways, was no weaker. Nor was the rest of him. Without difficulty, he lifted both cases.
"Car's up the street a bit. We need to get you out of this cold."
She laughed. "I'm not freezing, but the wind definitely has a bite."
"Beginnings of winter," he responded. Casual, easy.
Except it was beginning to dawn on him that this was going to be neither. He'd met Lacy because he'd married her best friend. Lacy had visited Sara a number of times during their marriage, sometimes when Jess was overseas, sometimes when he was home. He liked her, he was glad Sara had her, and now since Sara's death she'd become a friend to him, too.
Just a friend, he reminded himself as he swung the two suitcases into the back of his SUV. He'd offered to give her a bolt-hole, a place to unwind after the terror she'd lived with for so long now and still couldn't shake even though it was over.
That's all he was doing: what Sara would have wanted him to do. Looking after her best friend.
So why did he keep noticing the way the wind caught her hair and bared the smooth nape of a lovely neck?
Get a grip, Jess. Just get a grip.
Lacy hoped her face hadn't revealed shock when she first saw Jess. The intervening five years hadn't been kind. He definitely looked older than the young man she had last seen at the funeral. Then his face had been muddied with grief, but now it had gained lines and maturity. But then the years hadn't been good to him, first taking Sara from him, then costing him his leg in Afghanistan. She had called often, especially at first, and he'd always tried to sound upbeat. It had been hard for him to do after Sara's passing, but sometimes she wondered how he had managed it at all after he came home from the war with a shattered body.
The lines in his face were attractive, but they spoke of a lot of pain and loss. All the youthful softness had vanished, leaving him with a chiseled face, dark hair and unusual green eyes. He was still tallthat hadn't changedbut she saw the hitch in his step and she suddenly had the worst urge to get him out of that parka and make sure the rest of him was okay.
Had he been a stranger, she might have allowed his sexiness to preoccupy her, but this man had been her best friend's husband. It seemed so out of place to notice such things that she stepped down firmly on her feminine response to his masculinity as he helped her into the car.
As he pulled out of the parking space, she wondered if she might have made a mistake coming here. Oddly, after all the hours they had talked on the phone over the years, now she felt unexpectedly awkward. She had to search for something to say as they drove down narrow streets lined by leafless trees. She seized on the first thing that came to mind.
"It's kind of you to do this," she offered.
"It's what Sara would have wanted."
Well, that was a firm reminder. What Sara would have wanted. She'd at least cherished a small hope that he wasn't doing this entirely out of a sense of obligation. She'd have turned him down. She didn't want to be anyone's duty.
But he seemed to have heard his own words because he qualified them. "I didn't mean to sound like I'm doing this only because of Sara. I've been worried about you. You've been through hell, and you need a break."
The words that emerged from her then shocked them both into silence for the rest of the drive. "Do you ever get a break from hell?"
She wished she could snatch them back, but it was too late. They lay there, poisonous and possibly hurtful. He didn't make a sound in response.
Oh, this was going to go well, she thought. Her visit was openendedshe had been asked to stay as long as she likedbut at this rate she might be on the road again in a matter of days.
His two-story house was just outside town. It looked like an old farmhouse that had once stood as a solitary sentinel in wide-open spaces framed by distant mountains, but she guessed the town had been steadily, if slowly, reaching out toward it. Now it was less than a mile from the last cluster of dwellings they passed.
Her first impression was that he must have taken good care of it. While maintaining the impression of age, it still looked as fresh as yesterday, with its coat of white paint on the clapboards and straight lines. Against the brown and bare autumn grasses and trees, it stood out like a bright spot. Behind it, the mountains stood guard.
"This is lovely," she said as they pulled up the drive to the wide front porch. A peace offering.
"It keeps me busy." His tone was mild, pleasant. "There's always something that needs attention."
When they stopped, she opened her own door and climbed out. Jess immediately went to get her bags and carried them easily up onto the porch. He seemed to be doing very well with his artificial leg. Amazing man.
As he was unlocking the front door, however, he paused to look down at her gravely. "I get a few breaks from hell. As time passes, I get more of them."
"I shouldn't have said that," she offered quickly. "I'm tired and it just popped out."
One corner of his mouth lifted in a faint smile. "Relax, Lacy. We've walked through the valleys together more than once. Just be you, okay?"
Interesting way of phrasing it, she thought as she stepped into a foyer that greeted her with polished wood floors and an impressive oak staircase. Walking through the valleys. They'd certainly been through a couple of them on the phone. "This is gorgeous, Jess!"
"This house is a great hobby. Do you want to go straight to your room, or would you rather have a hot drink first? I have tea, coffee and hot chocolate to offer."
"A hot drink sounds wonderful." Reaching for the buttons of her gray wool coat as the house's warmth washed over her, she shrugged it off, revealing a blue mohair sweater and black slacks, and hung it on the coat tree near the door. "From the looks of it, you've been really busy."
"A lot of free time when I'm not working. Kitchen is this way. I'd guess you're not exactly ready to sit yet."
"You've got that right." She traipsed after him, the heels of her boots clattering on the wood. She paused.
"Will my boots hurt the floor?"
He glanced over his shoulder, this time really smiling. "That floor has been around a hundred years and it's not meant for basketball. Don't worry about it. Just do whatever feels comfortable."
The kitchen was big, country-style, probably once used to cook for a dozen or more. New appliances had replaced whatever had come before, and a partially finished counter and cabinet construction lined one wall. A round table sat in the center of the space. He hooked his parka over the back of one of the chairs, and she saw his green flannel shirt for the first time. He looked good in it, and the jeans he wore looked like a second skin. The years had changed his face, but evidently he'd maintained his fitness in every respect. His belly was flat, and his shoulders appeared powerful.
"What would you like to drink?" he asked.
She eyed the gleaming espresso machine on the counter. "Espresso? Lots and lots of espresso?"
That drew a laugh from him. "Straight up or latte?"
"Latte, please. Four shots."
"You are serious," he joked.
"I've been suffering from a drought ever since I got on that bus. So you're remodeling in here?"
He nodded and turned on the espresso maker. While it heated, he ground coffee beans. "Cabinets and counters weren't so important in the old days, I guess. Not as many cooking gadgets, maybe. I like gadgets."
"High-powered ones, to judge by the espresso maker."
He was putting coffee in the portable filter, but paused long enough to wink at her over his shoulder. "You should see the shed. Tools galore."
Darn, she'd forgotten how charming he could be. Yes, they'd spent countless hours chatting on the phone over the last five years, helping each other through rough times, but it wasn't the same as seeing him in person for the first time since the funeral. She'd never wondered why Sara had fallen for him, but she'd forgotten some of it evidently.
At last, feeling at loose ends, she sat at the table. Then another blunt question burst out of her. "Why wouldn't you let me come visit you in the hospital?"
"Ah, hell," he said quietly. "Hang on for a minute. That answer is going to take my full attention."
He had tall thermal cups for the lattes and soon they were seated at the table together. She waited for him to speak, wondering if she had pressed too far. They were friends, but not in the same way she and Sara had been. In fact, sitting in his house like this, she became acutely aware of all the gaps they had never closed. Places they had never ventured during their conversations.
"I guess," he said finally, "that I didn't want you to see me like that. I didn't even want my parents to see me like that, but they flew in from France and they saw. I'll never forget the expression on my mother's face. If what she saw nearly killed her, her expression nearly killed me. For a while there, I was honestly glad that Sara was gone and didn't have to endure it."
"I'm so sorry, Jess."
"Maybe in a way I was being selfish. I don't know. I just knew I was having enough trouble myself dealing with it all and I didn't want to be worrying about anyone else. So yeah, I guess it was selfishness. I was doped up, I felt like hell, everything hurt, and I just didn't want to deal with anyone else. I needed all my energy for me."
She nodded, feeling her heart squeeze with sympathy. "I get it. I wouldn't call it selfish as much as necessary. You had a lot to cope with, and probably didn't have much left over for trying to put a good face on it for others."
"Well, I suppose I left you wondering why the hell I didn't want a friendly visit. From your perspective it must have seemed cruel."
She lifted her head and gave him a wan smile. "I never thought of you as cruel, but it's nice to know it wasn't something about me. I can't begin to imagine what you were going through."
"It was never about you, Lacy. I just didn't want any friendly or cheerful visits from anyone. I got all the perkiness I could handle from my nurses. All of them excellent by the way, but they were determined not to let me sink into self-pity for even a moment." He paused, his face growing more serious. "Sometimes a self-pity party is useful. I had a few and I always wound up feeling stupid for it, but they helped. Sometimes I was just so damn angry, and I didn't have a thing to take it out on. Safe to say, I was miserable company for a while, and I didn't want to be dumping on the wrong people."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good story. Jess and Lacy have known each other for a long time, through Jess's late wife. After Sara died, Lacy stayed in touch with Jess. He's the one she thought of when she needed a safe place to stay. So Jess invited her to stay as long as she needed, not expecting their friendship to grow into something more. I really liked both Jess and Lacy. Jess has had it rough the last few years. Sara died while he was on deployment as a combat medic and he is still dealing with some guilty feelings because he wasn't there when she died. When he returned to the war he ended up badly injured and losing part of one leg. After his recovery he left the military and became a physician's assistant. Lacy had a good life and career in Dallas until she discovered her boss was laundering drug money. After going to the FBI about it, she ended up spending a year in witness protection until it was all over. Now she's dealing with the fallout and feeling like she's being watched. There's a little awkwardness between Jess and Lacy when she first arrives. They soon realize that their friendship, up to now, has been fairly superficial, and that they want more. Because of what each has been through, opening up isn't something that is easy to do. Long conversations and a few outbursts of frustration deepen what is building between them. I liked seeing Lacy deal with Jess's insecurities about his injuries and how he worries about her reaction. Also, always present in their thoughts is Jess's wife Sara. He feels a bit odd at first, having feelings for his wife's friend, but seems to come to terms with them pretty quickly. Lacy has a rougher time, guilty about her feelings, but also worried that Jess only sees her as an extension of Sara. I loved seeing them confront their issues and deal with them together as they realized they wanted to move forward with each other. The suspense of the story was really good. There's a little question at the beginning who the "hunter" is after, but that is revealed pretty quickly. There is tension throughout the story as Jess and Lacy feel the stalker's presence and experience his attacks. Glimpses of his viewpoint show his motivation and determination, as Jess and Lacy work to figure out who he is. The final confrontation was pretty intense with a very satisfying end. I loved Lacy's part in it.
I liked the chemistry and connection, the long time friendship Jess and Lacey have. The years of phone calls after Sara's death have formed a new type of friendship, that took them facing each other again, to realize. And now, face to face again after five years, the friendship is slowly blooming into something more, something either of the didn't expect, but are willing to explore. The story is mostly about the new kind of relationship forming between Jess and Lacey. They have long conversations, getting to know each other in a new level, going through the drama of their past, the relationship with Sara, and the possibilities of the future. The danger is constant in the background, the fear of the unknown threat. Lots of theories of conspiracy, but no actual action until right at the end. I liked the story, there are many amazing points to the relationship developing, while stuck in the house because of the weather. I usually like when the story has a lot of conversation, it makes its move on faster. But since this story is mostly memories of the past, conversations about them, and what could have been, what could happen and why, I felt at times the story could have used more action, or building up the danger and fear. The lack of the intensity and action, is the reason why the score is ~ Four Spoons