The biggest challenge of his life, and only she can help...
Luke Calloway has spent his entire life steering clear of emotional entanglements, but when his sister and her husband are killed and he becomes sole guardian to his niece and nephew, he can no longer remain aloof.
Out of his depth, Luke turns to Brooke Galbraith to assist the badly injured and traumatised adolescents with their physical therapy. With the children's grandparents contesting custody, Luke persuades Brooke to move into his house on Whitby Downs to provide stability and support.
Brooke is fighting her own demons, scandals from her past that she can't leave behind. She needs the money, but she can't grow attached. Not to the children, and definitely not to their enigmatic uncle...
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Brooke took a slow, deep breath and stepped across the threshold into Cherry's. With a swift, surreptitious glance, she scanned the cafe, but could see no sign of the man she'd arranged to meet here. This early in the day there were few customers. Three women sat at a corner table, their heads almost touching as they talked. When she entered, as one they swivelled in her direction, watching her with eager, avid eyes.
'Would you look at that?'
'As I live and breathe, Brooke Galbraith.'
'And as bold as brass as ever. Has she no shame?'
'Shame?' This was accompanied by a snort of derisive laughter. 'She doesn't know the meaning of the word.'
The carrying whispers reached Brooke and for one paralysing moment, she paused on the brink of flight ... Should I stay or leave?
She spared the women a quick glance and her gaze locked with Pat Brewster's. Some things in Sweetwater never changed. Time did little to dim people's memories, gossip remained the life-blood of this small west Waikato town, and Pat Brewster could be relied upon to spread the latest scuttlebutt.
Brooke understood this particular dynamic.
Speculation and gossip were simply a necessary part of the town's backbone. This was fine — as long as she wasn't the subject. Squaring her shoulders, she lifted her chin and strode to the counter.
I will not let a few gossiping tabbies make me miss this meeting. It's too important.
A fresh-faced barista approached. 'Can I help you?'
'I'll have a latte, please.'
The server was a stranger to Brooke, not that this was surprising given the recent explosion of newcomers who'd moved here and made Sweetwater their home. It was no longer the sleepy backwater it had been during Brooke's growing-up years.
'Coming right up, ma'am.' The girl's cheery voice echoed in the sudden hush.
Ma'am? Brooke didn't wince, but it was a close-run thing. Looking thirty in the eye was bad enough; to be greeted with a respectful 'ma'am' ... I could go for a very long time and not miss hearing this.
She handed over a twenty to pay for the coffee and as she waited for the change, second-guessed her decision to meet Luke Calloway here. Was this a mistake? No. The man was a stranger, and the past had taught Brooke a hard, bitter lesson: meeting strangers was better done in a public space.
She sat at a table facing the cafe door so she could see who entered, and as far from the gossiping trio as possible, but this did little to blunt her awareness of their intense scrutiny. Brooke didn't recognise the two women with Pat, but a shiver goose-stepped its way across her skin just the same.
Were these women who Brad had separated from their hard-earned cash?
Will I ever be free of the taint of my association with that man?
Guilt laid its heavy hand on her. She was the person who had introduced Brad Thornton to Sweetwater, to people she'd known all her life. Too late, she learned that the man had few scruples, and little compunction about fleecing people who loved and trusted her.
Brooke dug deep and ignored the whispers.
You always knew returning home would be difficult. Suck it up, Buttercup.
Thanks a bunch, Dad.
Strung out with nerves, Brooke worried a ragged fingernail.
Her father had recommended her to Luke Calloway, but she knew precious little about the man, or the position he wanted her to fill. Her dad had merely informed her that Luke had recently become guardian to two adolescents. According to the medical file Luke had left with her dad, Otto was eleven and his sister Rose had just turned fourteen, and were injured in a car crash. After reading their notes, Brooke knew they both needed her skills as a physiotherapist.
When her dad, Frank Galbraith, had mentioned the position, he'd told her she'd do better to hear the details from the man himself.
Caught squarely between a rock and a very hard place, Brooke knew she needed this position if she was to remain in Sweetwater and continue to care for her father, but she also knew that her very public past could well count against her.
Her dad was her rock. He'd always been squarely in her corner, and now, it was her turn. Her dad needed her and her expertise as he recovered from the effects of a debilitating stroke. Nothing and no-one else could have induced her to return to Sweetwater, ever.
The server slid the latte in front of Brooke and as she looked up to thank the young woman, a man strode into the cafe, approached the counter and spoke to the barista.
The girl blushed and stammered.
Not that this surprised Brooke. The breath backed up in her throat as she, too, felt the pull of the man's charisma. If he turned that charm on her, she could well melt into a puddle of goo.
This was Luke Calloway?
The man was six-five if he was an inch, and built. Masses of dark, streaky blond hair waved around a lean, angular face and brushed the collar of his shirt. The only thing soft about him was the full, generous mouth. All that muscle and sinew was packed into faded form-fitting jeans and a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows. The boots he wore were scarred and ancient-looking, and planted firmly on the ground. This man held the look of a person comfortable with himself and his place in the universe.
He was one prime male specimen, and handsome in a rugged, gorgeous and totally down-to-earth way. Brooke had not imagined everyday work gear could look so sexy. He turned slightly, presenting her with his profile.
The long straight nose and well-shaped chin hinted at a stubborn, determined nature. She couldn't see his eyes, and shifted her gaze to the hand he laid on the counter as he counted out change. It was big, wide-palmed and blunt-fingered. He spoke to the server, his voice a deep rumble that hit Brooke fair and square in the gut and stirred some very inappropriate images.
A punch of sexual chemistry spiked in Brooke in an overpowering wave, and left her shaken. Have I taken leave of my senses?
He turned and she was impaled on the steely gaze of a pair of intense blue eyes, caught and held by that unwanted flare of sexual awareness. He crossed the space and put a hand on the chair back opposite. 'Ms Galbraith?'
As she looked up into his eyes, their gazes locked and she went stone-still. She'd never seen eyes so blue, so intense, so searching ... or so disturbing. Those eyes looked right through her.
No, not through her, she corrected the incoherent thought, he looked into her and, within the space of a few seconds, he'd seen everything she was, and she had no place to hide. Shock clawed at her with icy fingers.
The ingrained cynicism in them was unmistakable, as was the rigid set of his mouth and the uncompromising jut of his jaw. Everything about the man screamed The Force.
Dear God! Luke Calloway is a cop? Did you know this, Dad?
Brooke tore her gaze free. The hand on her lap clenched in a white-knuckled fist, and the air froze in her lungs. It took every ounce of self-control she possessed not to leap from her chair and bolt. Every impulse screamed for her to run, as far and as fast as she could, but her legs refused to budge.
Brooke nodded at him — speech was beyond her — and she eased out the breath shock had trapped in her lungs. Mesmerised with dread, she watched him draw out the chair and sit opposite.
'Luke Calloway.' The gravel in his voice deepened. 'Thank you for agreeing to meet with me. How's your father doing?'
Brooke swallowed hard, but the blockage in her throat didn't budge and it took a couple of tries to make her voice work. 'Better, stubborn about his exercise regime, often frustrated and dispirited by his slow progress, but he is doing better.'
How could she sound so normal when her heart was leaping like a wild thing in her breast?
As the server slid Luke's coffee onto the table in front of him, Brooke looked past the girl and saw Pat craning her neck to see.
Nosy bloody dame.
So what was new? Nothing happened in Sweetwater that the insufferable woman didn't give her own malicious spin. Pat Brewster really needed to get a life.
'That must be a relief.'
Luke's deep voice brought her gaze winging back to him. 'It is.'
He sipped his coffee. 'Did you look through the notes I left with your father?' 'I did.'
His obvious impatience had Brooke swallowing a tart response.
'It's not so straightforward.' She lifted her chin and looked him in the eye. 'I need to spend time with both Rose and Otto, one-on-one, so I can personally assess where they are at with their rehabilitation, before I can even begin to have any idea how they will progress.'
'Individually?' His dark brows lowered in a heavy frown.
'It's standard practice.'
'And totally impractical for me.' He drummed his fingers on the table top and his eyes narrowed as he scowled. 'I don't have time to bring Rose and Otto into Sweetwater for individual consultations.'
Brooke's misgivings about this job offer escalated. 'I don't do in-home consultations.'
About this, she was adamant. She would not be caught in a position where aspersions could be cast on her integrity a second time. Once in a lifetime was more than enough for that malarkey.
'Can you afford to be so inflexible? It's not as if you have an established practice here in Sweetwater.'
Brooke stiffened and glared at him. He knew, the same as she did, that Sweetwater didn't have a big enough population to support a fulltime physiotherapy practice.
'That isn't the issue. You can either bring Rose and Otto to my father's house for a consultation, or you can find another physiotherapist.'
He continued to drum his fingers, the sound stretching her nerves to breaking point. She held his intense gaze despite the panicky race of her pulse. She'd read the duo's medical notes and knew full well that they needed her expertise as much, if not more, than she needed the money Luke was offering.
'Do you think that if there was another physiotherapist within a bull's roar of Sweetwater I would be here asking you?' Brooke's eyes flared wide.
What the hell does he mean by that?
It took every ounce of self-control she possessed to bite her tongue and still the hot words hovering there. Much as she would love to be in a position to suggest that this insufferable jerk take a running leap, her precarious finances precluded this. The money he was offering meant the difference between staying here and caring for her father, or returning to Auckland to her well-paying job, and putting her father into care.
'I will work with your niece and nephew here in Sweetwater, or you can find another physiotherapist. The choice is yours.' She kept her voice low and without inflection. 'There are clinics in Pukekohe or Tuakau.'
'Some choice,' he muttered.
He drummed his fingers some more, his impatience obvious.
'I'm a busy man.' He was first to break the impasse. 'I hold down a demanding position out at Whitby Downs and can't be in two places at once.'
This is not my problem.
'If I bring Otto and Rose into Sweetwater for their therapy, could you bring them home? I will reimburse you for your time and fuel.'
This was a workable compromise. Brooke fiddled with the spoon on her saucer; she didn't want to appear too eager. 'That would work for me. I have bars and all the equipment I need already set up in Dad's garage.'
'I also have the necessary equipment for my wards' physical therapy at Whitby Downs.' He leaned across the table, his gaze pinning her to her seat. 'It's your expertise Otto and Rose need.'
She was well aware of this.
A cursory study of his wards' medical files made this very plain. It was the emphasis he placed on this that piqued her curiosity. 'How are your wards dealing with the loss of their parents?'
His swift, veiled glance disturbed her and the incessant drumming of his fingertips on the table did little to calm her edginess.
'It's hard to tell,' he said at last. 'It's a long time since I've been a child.'
Brooke squelched an involuntary grin. One glance at his very lived-in face was proof enough that this man was light-years removed from his childhood. She studied him, her head on one side. 'And you, how are you coping with the loss of your sister?'
Rage and grief flashed across his face in quick succession before he schooled his features into an unreadable mask. 'That's irrelevant.'
'No, it's a valid question.' She met his gaze fearlessly. This was a conversation she'd had many times before. 'Physical therapy will not cure emotional trauma. How those children deal with their loss and the upheaval in their lives depends on you. Like it or not, Mr Calloway, Rose and Otto will take their cue from you. How close were you to your sister?'
'Close enough. What has this to do with anything?'
Oh yeah, he was thoroughly ticked. Brooke took a slow breath as she sought the right words. 'Were Rose and Otto hurt in the same accident that killed their parents?'
'Poor little beggars.' She shook her head, looking directly at him. 'I'm not sure if you understand, Mr Calloway. Physical therapy is not a magic bullet. Your niece and nephew may need professional help to deal with their emotional trauma.'
'It's Luke, Brooke.' He leaned closer, radiating menace. 'Do you think I don't know this? Brooding and being unable to move freely isn't doing them any favours either.'
'I can imagine.' She continued toying with the teaspoon on her saucer.
Pinned by his hard stare, she swallowed, confused and dismayed. Was he really as hard, pragmatic and uncaring as he sounded? She was sure she'd seen a crack in this tough facade, a flash of fury and pain, when she'd asked about his sister; before he once again concealed his emotions behind that aloof mask.
The man by turns repelled and intrigued her. Luke had the air of a loner-sealed off from all and any spontaneity. He was a cop, for God's sake, and a man she'd do well to avoid. He was without a doubt one tough nut.
That instant flare of sexual awareness was an aberration, pure and simple.
'So will you work with my niece and nephew?'
The brusque challenge threaded anger through her consternation. 'I'm a professional, Luke. You know full well that, ethically, I can't refuse to help your wards.'
He leaned back in his chair, a cynical smile on his lips. 'And here's me thinking it was the money I was offering.'
The man was insufferable. Brooke wasn't quite sure if she wanted to hit him, or strangle him, but she itched to wipe that cynical smile off his face.
'All the money in the world won't help your wards with their physical therapy,' she said through her teeth. 'You know this, or you wouldn't be here.'
'Touché.' He held up a hand.
Brooke stifled an instinctive caustic response. Hands palm down on the table, she half rose out of her chair and leaned across the table and looked him square in the eyes.
'If those kids are to recover from such an horrific ordeal, you need to be there for them, Luke-emotionally as well as physically. Their recovery will depend on far more than physical therapy. You are a fool if you try and ignore this.'
Something dark and dangerous glittered in his eyes before he leaned back in his chair, and smiled. 'I'm sure they will appreciate your touching championship.'
She rose, signalling the end of the interview, before her temper got away from her. She had long ago learned that anger took far more energy than she was willing to expend, and seldom achieved anything positive.
'I work with my father in the afternoons,' she said, her voice clipped and professional. 'Bring Otto and Rose to me at eight-thirty tomorrow morning. That will allow me time to assess their mobility and what level of therapy they need.'
Luke stood and Brooke had to tilt her head to look up at him. Sexuality oozed from him and hit her with all the force of a solid roundhouse punch.
'You will bring them home afterwards?' He rocked back on his heels, his thumbs hooked in the front pockets of his jeans.
'I will.' Brooke hated to concede even this much, but professional ethics placed her in an impossible position.
Something Luke Calloway knew full well.
'I'll borrow Dad's hatchback. It will be easier to stow Otto's wheelchair. Before tomorrow, you will need to clear it with their doctors to allow me access to their full medical records. You will also need to give your permission to enable me to consult your wards' orthopaedic specialists about their recommendations and treatment plans.'
Excerpted from "Lies That Bind"
Copyright © 2018 Shirley Wine.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises (Australia) Pty Ltd..
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