Government contracted mercenary, James 'Priest' Evans, slides back into town after a mission gone very wrong. Haunted by his latest kill, Priest's job is weighing heavily on his mind for the first time in memory. In Cattle Valley to heal and re-evaluate his life, Priest didn't expect love but that's exactly where's he's headed.
After a devastating and very public breakup, Luke Hatcher has given up on love. He's more than happy to enjoy hot and heavy sex, but that's as far as he's willing to go. When he runs into Priest, Luke believes their mutual lack of trust is perfect for a short-term holiday affair.
Their steamy affair takes an unexpected turn when Priest makes a bedroom confession that will forever change the way he views life and love. Will the confession bring them closer together, or will it send Luke packing?
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Luke Hatcher's hands shook as he tightened the laces on his running shoes. When he tied the bow, his gaze went to the bloody uniform shirt wadded into a ball beside the front door. He'd worked hundreds of car accidents but none of them had been as horrific as the one hours earlier.
He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands in the hope that he could erase the images. When that didn't work, Luke did what he'd always done when thoughts of spilled blood filled his mind.
Throwing open the front door, Luke took off at a brisk pace. Despite the predawn hour and having gone without sleep after a long shift, he yearned for the mental release only running provided. His normal stretching routine didn't seem as important as the heart-pounding adrenaline he'd learned to use to replace the memories.
Clad only in a thin pair of jogging shorts, the cold October night felt good against Luke's bare skin as his feet hit the pavement. As he started his usual circuit around the streets of Cattle Valley, the mutilated body of the teenage girl resurfaced in the forefront of his mind.
It didn't take a psychiatrist to tell him why the girl's death had affected him more than all the others he'd witnessed in his line of work. Suddenly the girl's face morphed into the image of his mother. Luke shook his head, trying to rid himself of the disturbing memory before he lost what little food he'd eaten in the last twenty-four hours.
Although the temperature was below freezing, sweat poured from Luke's head and chest as he continued his five-point-six mile circuit around the older part of Cattle Valley. He preferred to bypass the new subdivisions that had begun to pop up on the outskirts. Although the homes were each unique and well-constructed, they just didn't hold the appeal the matured-treed neighbourhoods of the older section of town.
There was one house in particular that always welcomed him. As he neared the home at the end of the dark lane, Luke slowed to a stop like he did most days. He bent over and rested his hands on his knees as he tried to control his laboured breathing.
Luke stared at the structure, which was in a state of disrepair. The pillars on the front corners of the porch made the sagging roof appear to frown. If it was possible for a house to have a soul, he had no doubt the home at 226 Cherry Street would have been crying.
Luke had gone to City Hall to enquire as to who now owned the house, but received little information in return. The abandoned home belonged to no one Luke had ever heard of. The only information he got out of Carol was that the original owner was in a nursing home in Tulsa, Oklahoma and the taxes were paid yearly in cash by her estate. It was a pity the home had been allowed to fall into such disrepair.
It was hard for Luke to imagine he was looking at the same house that his mom had kept spotless with a profusion of colourful flowers decorating the front porch and walk. Of course he could have an idealised version of what it had once been, since before he'd been forced to move after the death of his mother.
When the porch light next door turned on, Luke knew it was time to go. He stretched his arms over his head before heading back down the street the way he'd come. The daily period of rest in front of the abandoned house always served to settle Luke's demons.
"Better than therapy," Luke said as he continued down the street at a brisk pace.
By the time he reached the alley behind the shops downtown, the fall sky was starting to brighten. Luke tilted his head back to smell the aromatic scent of cinnamon rolls that always permeated the morning air. God bless Kyle and his need to bake before the sun rose.
Lost in the smells wafting from the bakery, Luke wasn't paying attention to the road in front of him. When his right foot landed in an unexpected hole in the gravel path, Luke's knee hyper-extended, pitching him forward. He fell to the ground with a howl of pain as the sharp rocks dug into his hands and forearms. "Fuck!"
Luke rolled onto his back for a few moments before sitting up. One look at his knee had Luke shaking his head. The swelling had already begun. He supported the underside of his knee and slowly attempted to straighten his leg. It was painful, but he doubted he'd done serious damage.
After a quick scan of the surrounding area, Luke realised he was going to have to stand without anyone's help unless he wanted to half-crawl, half-drag himself across the gravel to the back of one of the buildings.
A noise from the shadowed dumpsters caught his attention. "Hello?" he called, hoping for help.
When no one answered and the alley was quiet once again, he decided it must've been a cat or some vermin he didn't want to dwell on. Clenching his teeth, Luke slowly got to his feet without having to use every dirty word in his repertoire although he did utter quite a few.
With the majority of his weight shifted to his left leg, Luke began the slow process of walking down the alley. Although there wasn't anything open at that time of morning, he knew Kyle was already hard at work in the bakery. If he could make it to the end of the alley and across the street without either collapsing or crying it would be a miracle.
Overhead a light turned on in one of the apartments that lined the upper floors of the downtown shopping area. Luke stared up at the welcoming light. "Hello?" he shouted towards the apartment window.
Several moments later, Deacon McConnell parted the white café curtains and stared down into the alley. Luke waved his arms over his head while trying to maintain his balance. He pointed towards his injured knee.
Deacon nodded before letting the curtains fall closed. It took close to five minutes, but eventually the back door of Falling Limbs Creations opened. "Something wrong?" he asked.
"A hole in the road got the better of my knee. Mind if I use your phone to call someone to come get me?" Luke asked.
With the aid of an intricately carved cane, Deacon made his way into the alley. As far as Luke knew, no one in town had dared ask Deacon how he'd damaged his leg. It wasn't that they were afraid of Deacon, but the man definitely didn't put out the kind of vibe that welcomed conversation.
Deacon gestured towards an older model Jeep. "Stay there and I'll pick you up."
With the sweat drying on his skin, Luke began to shiver in the cold morning air. He glanced towards the dumpster again. Why did he feel like someone was watching him? He narrowed his eyes and tried to see through the darkness to what was hidden in the shadows.
The Jeep pulling up beside him drew his attention away from the eerie feeling. He opened the door and carefully hoisted himself into the passenger seat. "You have a cat?"
"Yeah," Deacon answered. "Why?"
Luke nodded towards the dumpster. "I heard some noises. Just wondered what it could be."
"Tabby's inside sound asleep in my bed. Must've been someone else's cat."
"Yeah, you're probably right."
* * *
With his knee in a brace, Luke reported for work early Monday morning. He'd spent the remainder of Sunday in bed and stretched out on the couch, but despite the hours of rest, he was exhausted. For the first time since becoming an Emergency Medical Technician, Luke couldn't escape an accident scene.
His first stop was Leo Burkowski's office. With the assistant chief on the phone, Luke waited patiently just outside the open door.
"Yes, Ma'am, I completely agree," Leo replied into the phone. "I'll send a few of my men over around lunch-time so they can get a better feel for what you need."
Luke's spine stiffened. With his knee functioning at less than one hundred per cent, he had a bad feeling he'd be one of the guys sent to the school. The car accident that had resulted in the death of seventeen-year-old Kati Hargrove — and the life-threatening injuries of her eighteen-year-old best friend Clint Stowers — had cast a dark cloud over the entire town.
Leo hung up the phone before motioning Luke into his office. His gaze went to the heavy black Velcro brace around Luke's knee. "Something you need to tell me?" Luke took a seat, stretching his right leg out in front of him. "Hyperextension, but I'm okay to work."
Leo rubbed his jaw. It was only seven in the morning and already Leo seemed to have a five o'clock shadow. "You really think you can lift a backboard with a patient's dead weight on it in your condition?"
"I can do what needs to be done." Luke knew he should've called in sick, but he needed the concentration his job required. He still couldn't close his eyes without seeing what was left of Kati's youthful face.
"Principal Quigley needs help at the school. She's called in Dr Pritchard and Dr Singer, but with over four hundred students, she needs more understanding men and women to help the children through this recent tragedy," Leo explained.
"I'm not the best person for the job, sir." How could Luke help children deal with the death of their classmate when he couldn't get himself over the accident? Luke could tell by Leo's raised eyebrows that he was about to issue an order, one that Luke would be forced to obey if he wanted to keep his job. He'd never talked to anyone about his mother except Kenny.
"I lost my mother in a car accident almost twenty-three years ago, and I'm still not over it. Needless to say, I don't think I'm the best man to help those kids deal with their feelings at the moment."
"Or, maybe you're the perfect man to help them. There's nothing wrong with being sad as long as you can help them understand that life must go on."
"Respectfully, sir, I'd really rather not. How can I look into their crying eyes knowing first-hand how their friend died?"
Leo leaned further back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head. "Want me to make you an appointment with Dr Pritchard?"
"I don't need a shrink. I need a hypnotist." Luke got to his feet. "Can I go back to work or are you planning to fire me if I don't go to the school?"
Leo gestured to the brace on Luke's knee. "Take a sick day. I'll give Aaron a call and see if he's had enough sleep to come in."
Spending another day on the couch didn't appeal to Luke. "I really can work. I didn't do any damage. Dr Brown just thought it would be a good idea to wear the brace for a few days."
"You're a pain in my ass, you know that, Hatcher?"
"I've been told that a time or two, sir," Luke agreed.
"And stop calling me sir. It's irritating."
"That's why I do it," Luke said with a grin, before leaving Leo's office. He made his way into the station lounge and eased into his favourite recliner beside Jakob.
"Wild weekend?" Jakob asked, gesturing to Luke's knee.
Wild? Luke snorted. He hadn't had sex since his thwarted evening with Priest. "I wish. Nope, I stepped into a hole while running yesterday morning."
"Ouch. That sucks, man." Jakob tapped his fingertips on the arm of the chair. It was obvious he wanted to talk, but wasn't sure what to say. The two of them had worked the Saturday night shift, so Jakob had witnessed everything Luke had.
"You know there was nothing you could've done, right?" Jakob asked.
Luke nodded before clearing his throat. Kati had died by the time they arrived on scene, but it was obvious she had lived long enough to traumatise her best friend forever. "What does it say about me that I wish she'd have died on impact?"
Jakob bumped his fist against Luke's hand. "I've thought of nothing else since we cut that boy out of the car."
It was nice to know he wasn't the only one who couldn't get the images of that late night out of his mind. "Have you called the hospital to check on Clint?" Luke asked.
"Yeah, but they couldn't tell me much. Just that he spent most of yesterday on the operating table."
"What're his chances, did they say?"
Jakob shook his head. "Too early to say. I thought I might take a trip to Sheridan tomorrow to check on him if you want to go?"
Since taking the job in Cattle Valley, Luke had regularly checked up on victims he'd rescued. Unfortunately, visiting Clint in the ICU wasn't something he felt comfortable with. "Sorry, I've already got plans, but definitely call me and let me know how he's doing."
Luke was saved from further explanation by his ringing cell phone. One look at the display and his mood lightened. "Excuse me," he told Jakob as he got to his feet. He walked across the room towards the kitchen before answering. "Hey."
"Hey, buddy," Kenny greeted. "Just heard you were on duty Saturday night. Thought I'd call to see how you're doing?"
"Not good," he admitted. The truth said a lot about his friendship with Kenny. The two of them had been through a lot together, and Kenny had never let him down. "I can't stop thinking about my mom."
"I was afraid of that. Are you working today?"
"Yeah. Beats sitting home feeling sorry for myself. How're things at the school?" Luke opened the junk cabinet and withdrew a package of cookies.
"Pretty bad, but I can get away if you need to talk," Kenny offered.
"I can't, but I'm off tomorrow. Maybe Eli would let you out of his clutches long enough to have a beer." Luke took a bite of the generic oatmeal cookie. He liked them best once they'd gone soft from being opened too long.
"Or you could come over for dinner," Kenny offered.
"Thanks, but I'd rather you came over for a beer. No offence, but I'd rather not break down in front of your guy."
"And is that what you feel like doing?"
Luke shook his head. "What are you some kind of psychiatrist now?" He tossed the half-eaten cookie into the trash.
"Nope, just a friend."
"Yeah." Luke took a deep calming breath. "Why can't I get over this? I deal with this kind of shit every damn day."
"I can't answer that because although bits and pieces have gotten out about how Kati died, I wasn't there."
From the kitchen, Luke wandered into the dorm room lined with twin beds. He sat on his usual bed and tried to push the memories away. "It's all too fresh to try and analyse it."
After several moments, Kenny finally spoke. "I'm worried about you."
"Don't be. I've dealt with this shit for years. It'll slide to the back burner again in a day or two."
"Maybe the problem is that you've left it on the back burner for too long. It's time you deal with this shit once and for all," Kenny tried to argue.
How was he supposed to deal with the face of his dying mother begging him to save her? "You don't know what you're talking about. Look, I gotta go. A call just came in."
"With no warning buzzer? You're a damn liar, but I love you anyway. Meet me at O'Brien's tomorrow at six."
"Sure," Luke mumbled. The best thing about his bond with Kenny was that his friend never took his temper to heart.
"If you need to talk before then I'm only a phone call away," Kenny added.
"I know." Luke took a deep breath. "I love you, too. You know that right?"
"Goes without saying, buddy," Kenny said before hanging up.
Luke stared at his phone for several moments before slipping it back into his breast pocket. Although he loved Kenny like a brother, there were times when he needed more than a friendly hug. Stretch McGee came immediately to mind. Damn he'd loved that traitor. He didn't doubt that part of his current mood had something to do with the media reports that Stretch was finally separating from his wife.
How much of a doormat was he that he secretly hoped Stretch would suddenly show up in town to whisk him away? I'm such a loser.CHAPTER 2
James 'Priest' Evans stared at the ringing phone. For three days, headquarters had called him continually, but Priest wasn't ready to answer.
Everywhere he looked, on TV and in the papers, the details of his greatest sin continued to haunt him. Why hadn't he taken the vacation he'd promised himself instead of accepting the assignment? The answer came to him in a flash. The million dollar payday.
"Dammit!" Priest slammed his fist against the dashboard. He should've known something wasn't right from the beginning. His usual fee to do a job was half as much, and Priest was considered to be the highest paid enforcer at the agency. Vanity and greed had prompted him to postpone his vacation the moment the job had come in.
When headlights appeared in his rear-view mirror, Priest's chest tightened. He was on a country road with nowhere to go but forward. With one hand on the wheel, he leaned over and removed his Smith and Wesson semiautomatic pistol from the glove box and set it beside him on the seat.
When the car behind him turned off the county road and into one of the long driveways, Priest exhaled. "Pull yourself together," he grumbled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Confessions"
Copyright © 2011 Carol Lynne.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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