Callen Hanover has led a tough life. But after years of roaming, he’s finally settled back home in Sweetwater to reunite with his brothers, and rebuild Shadow Hill, his grandmother’s crumbling home. The last person he expected to see at his door was Grace Pruitt—ex-girlfriend and partner to the FBI agent who’s determined to put Callen away.
Grace Pruitt is in town to save the two men she cares about the most—her former partner who seems to be on a downward spiral, and Callen, the man who ran before she could explain who she really was…or tell him some shocking news. Can the secrets of the Hanover family’s past be just the thing to save them all? Or is it already too late?
Praise for HelenKay Dimon:
“She’s a delight.”—New York Times bestselling author Christine Dodd
“Sharp writing and sexy romance sizzle.”—Chicago Tribune
“HelenKay Dimon is a genius.”—Joyfully Reviewed
“So smart, sexy, and fast-paced, I devour her stories.”—New York Times bestselling author Lori Foster
“Sexy, emotional, funny.”—New York Times bestselling author Jill Shalvis
HelenKay Dimon is a bestselling, award-winning author whose books have been featured at E! Online and in the Chicago Tribune, and been named “Red-Hot Reads” in Cosmopolitan magazine. When not writing, she teaches fiction and romance writing at MiraCosta College and UCSD.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Callen Hanover slowed down as he turned into the long driveway leading to Shadow Hill, the three-story rambling mess of a falling-down house he and his two brothers inherited from their grandmother about three months ago. It came complete with acres of overgrown land, an unpaid mortgage, skunk-infested outbuildings and a location in Sweetwater, Oregon, the small town with a big dislike of all things Hanover. Not that Callen could blame anyone for that way of thinking.
But he could make his brother Declan shut up. Maybe one well-placed shoulder punch would do it. Because much more off-key singing and Callen might just slam on the brakes and try to jerk Declan into silence.
Callen settled for a quick but lethal glare. “Any chance you’re almost done?”
“That ain’t singing.”
“You’re just jealous.” Declan smiled as he rolled down the window and let the cool early fall breeze blow through the car.
“Of your ability to scare the hell out of innocent stray cats? Thanks, but I’ll stick with the skills I’ve got.” The rough unpaved lane had them bumping along as gravel crunched under the tires.
“I am better-looking and I can carry a tune. Fucking deal with it.” This time Declan turned up the radio to screeching levels that almost drowned out whatever awful tune he was in the process of torturing.
Callen reached over and turned it off before the hammering in his head put him in the hospital. “Wrong on both counts.”
“Leah loves to hear me sing.”
Leah Baron—the tall, slim strawberry blonde who had Declan wrapped around her . . . well, some body part a lot more interesting than her little finger. She was five-foot-seven-inches of attitude and smarts wrapped in a package that made Declan’s brain misfire and his common sense scatter.
He’d had it bad for the woman from the first time they met. The same woman many viewed as the town’s personal welcoming committee, which she technically was, since she was in charge of public relations for Sweetwater. Kind of a funny position, since the least hospitable man in town had to be her hypocrite of a father, Marc Baron. He hated Declan and anyone else in the Hanover gene pool.
“Except for her piss-poor taste in men, she’s otherwise a catch,” Callen joked, but he got them as a couple. Declan happened to be the best man Callen knew. Not that he’d admit that out loud. Between the hot girlfriend and the win-everyone-over personality, his brother had enough good news for a while. “Why she wants you—now, that’s a mystery.”
Declan hummed. “Says the guy who hasn’t gotten laid in, what, a decade?”
Shit, it was starting to feel like that. The idea of sex led Callen’s mind away from Sweetwater and back to her . . . that her. The sameher he blocked and refused to think about, pushing out every memory before it could take hold. Every memory except the nasty one relating to her deception.
And just like that, all sexual thoughts left his head. Amazing how concentrating on a woman’s lies could make him forget the parts of her he really did like.
Still, he didn’t need to be reminded of his dry spell, which at this point seemed like it would never end. “Why don’t you get out of the car so I can run you over?”
“Fine, but then you’d get to fix up Shadow Hill by yourself.” Declan held a hand out in from of him, gesturing toward the top half of the house they could see. “All of this grunt work will be yours.”
“Congratulations. You’ve finally hit on a winning argument for keeping you around.” Not that Callen wanted his brothers going anywhere. He’d moved money and emptied his savings to take care of the overdue mortgage payments for Shadow Hill, saving the place from foreclosure. How to handle the monthly bills going forward still qualified as a great big question mark.
But the rehab wasn’t. Working with his hands soothed Callen. He appreciated the mix of cool air and warm sunshine in this part of Oregon, midway between the towering trees of the forests on one side and the ocean a few miles away on the other.
But that didn’t mean he could handle the rehab on his own. He needed Declan’s considerable skills and work ethic, honed by his years in the Army. Add in the handyman they took on, Tom Erikson, and the three of them almost counteracted their baby brother Beck’s ability to maneuver out of any hands-on, actually-doing-something situation.
The guy was pure lawyer: a fast talker when dealing with contracts and strategies. A slow mover when it came to actually picking up a piece of wood and hauling it somewhere. Even now, with the yard all dug up and bad weather moving in, he left town to check on a legal aid district office for his job with the Legal Services Corporation. Whatever that was. All Callen knew was Beck’s new girlfriend, Sophie, had tagged along so they could swing through and deliver some missing jewelry to her aunt.
Yeah, good luck with that. The one thing Callen didn’t need right now was more family shit. He’d had a heap of unwanted crap shoveled on him over the last few weeks and relished the idea of picking up a hammer and pounding on things to smash it all out.
“Uh-oh.” Declan sat up straighter in his seat.
As they rounded the last corner, the front of the house came into view. Four thousand square feet of needing-to-be-repaired space with a chimney on each end and a turret in the middle. A turret . . . Callen still couldn’t get over that part. The house had a name and a damn turret. It was a sharp turn from the life he knew living in seedy motels and taking any job that would pay for dinner.
His grandmother sure did have a flair for the dramatic. Probably explained why, after her husband died and she was living alone, she picked a place tucked into the woods and spread over all that space. Might also provide some insight into what went so drastically wrong with her son, their father, Charlie. She made some questionable decisions, and all of Charlie’s choices turned out to be bad. Most of them illegal.
Today, instead of focusing on the work to be done, Callen saw something else. A woman sitting on the porch steps. She stood up as they approached and lowered the scarf she had wrapped around her shoulders and head. Long dark auburn hair slipped out and . . . shit.
After a humming sound and a huh, Declan blurted out a question. “Who’s that?”
Not that Callen was in any position to answer. Not with his fingers frozen on the steering wheel and a blankness filling his mind.
His hiccupping brain finally sent a message to the rest of his body to move. To do something to wipe the wide-eyed, stunned expression off Declan’s face. Callen pulled into the space closest to the house and shifted the car into park. Cutting off the engine took another few seconds. Then he sat. Just sat.
“I’ll be damned.” That’s pretty much all he could muster.
“Most likely, but that really doesn’t answer the question of her identity.” Declan glanced at Callen, then did a double take. “Hey, you okay?”
Callen fought the urge to rub away the sudden tightness in his chest or shake his hands to clear away the numbness. He’d weathered a series of emotional body blows lately, and it looked like he was in for one more round of near-death pummeling.
At thirty feet away he could see her carefully composed expression, but his eyes refused to believe. He shook his head. “It can’t be her.”
His gaze locked on her body as she took one slow step after another to get to the bottom stair. Bulky sweater or not, he recognized the sexy walk, all long legs and determined strut.
Yeah, this was the same woman—tall, with wavy hair that cascaded around her face and over her shoulders. Slim jeans tucked into boots. She loved boots.
He could call up her husky voice without trouble. The deceit proved tougher to forget.
“Another member of the Sweetwater Hanovers-Get-Out Club? I thought we’d weeded most of them out.” Declan opened his car door. “Though I have to admit this one is prettier than most of the folks who find their way to the door to tell us to leave town or demand money as reimbursement for some fucked-up Charlie scam.”
Charlie Hanover, their con artist father who brought a shitstorm of trouble with him wherever he went. And that didn’t stop with his death. No, Callen continued to unbury one secret after another, each worse than the one before it.
But he couldn’t deal with his old man’s memory now. He had a walking, talking nightmare right in front of him he had to survive first. “This visit isn’t about Charlie. It’s about me.”
“Well, now. That’s interesting.” Declan tore his gaze away from their guest to stare at Callen. “Do tell.”
“Any chance you could get lost for ten minutes?” If Callen were lucky—and life had proven over and over that he was not that—she would disappear in a big poof of smoke as well.
“Absolutely none, big brother.”
Interesting how it took only a second for Declan to confirm Callen’s title of Unluckiest Man Alive. That left Callen with one choice. Scoop her up and off his property. Out of there to anywhere else. Preferably somewhere off the West Coast, somewhere at least two thousand miles and hopefully an ocean away. He’d settle for out of Oregon, but feared he’d need a greater distance.
“I’ll get rid of her.” He opened the car door and slammed it behind him, only then noticing the compact car with the rental company sticker on the opposite side of the wide driveway.
“About that.” Declan tapped his hand against the roof. “You sure you want to?”
Callen almost hated to turn around again, to take his eyes off her for a second, but he did, and shot his best let’s-get-this-done gaze in Declan’s direction. “I’ve done it before.”
“Damn, I’m happy I caught a ride back here with you instead of waiting for Leah to get off of work.” Declan didn’t rub his hands together with glee, but looked one step away from doing just that.
“Shut up.” Callen mumbled the warning under his breath but knew it landed wrong when Declan chuckled.
The brothers walked around from opposite sides and met at the front of the car. With Declan by his side, wanted or not, Callen stalked through the loose gravel and over the grass to the porch steps. Being one stair below her put them at almost the same height. Not that he checked. Not that he let his gaze wander over her or the memories of her smokin’ body and hot mouth seep into his head.
She did a good bit of looking of her own. Up and down, face to torso then back again, all with a small smile on the corner of her lips. “If it isn’t Callen Hanover.”
There it was. The same deep voice that scratched at his common sense and kept his temperature spiking.
Not this time. “Grace Pruitt.”
Declan shook his head. May even have slipped in an eye roll. “I’m guessing you two know each other.”
Callen ignored Declan and focused on her. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.” Typical of Grace—she dropped a bit of information certain to cause a whirlwind, then stood there and waited for the dust to kick up.
“Nice,” Declan said as he nodded.
“Yeah, this could have been a happy reunion if Callen hadn’t run off and hidden from me on the Oregon coast.” She glanced around the front yard. “Interesting residential choice, by the way.”
The nod turned to a frown as Declan shot Callen the side eye. “Hiding? That’s not really your style, is it?”
No way was Callen playing along with this annoying game. Not after everything that happened and how hard he worked to forget her, failing almost daily at the latter.
“I didn’t do either of those things.” Okay, technically, he did exactly what she described, but he liked to think he managed to pull it off in a manly way.
“I’m Callen’s brother, Declan.” He reached over and shook her hand as he made the introduction.
She treated him to a warm smile. “I figured.”
Her smile faltered. “What?”
Declan didn’t drop her hand. Didn’t show any sign of letting go and walking away. “How do you know who I am?”
The wind caught her hair and she had to use her free hand to tuck the wild strands behind her ear again. “Callen talks about you a lot.”
Declan leaned in. “Talks, as in you guys are in touch currently?”
And that was more than enough of that. Another minute of mindless chitchat and Callen knew the grinding sensation in his head would turn into full-on brain trauma.
“Go do something else.” He eyed their joint hands until Declan finally let go. That was only part of what Callen wanted. “Anything else.”
Declan shook his head. “No way that’s happening.”
“Really, Callen?” Grace added in a sigh. One of those long-winded ones women let fly when they wanted to let a man know he’d misstepped. Then she turned to Declan. “Your brother didn’t tell you about me, did he?”
This was not how Callen wanted this information to roll out. “Grace—”
“No.” Declan cut Callen off with a flick of his hand before turning back to Grace. “But you can fill me in.”
“I’m the woman your brother lived with before he dropped everything and took off for, well”—she looked over their heads and across the wide expanse of open land to one side and the cluster of trees on the other—“here.”
“Lived with as in—”
“Come on.” Frustration swamped Callen, knocking out the last of his patience. “What the hell do you think she means?”
Declan shrugged. “You could have been platonic roommates. I don’t know. Hell, you could have worked for her for all I know.”
“No.” She laughed, rich and deep. “We shared a condo. My condo. My bed. Our lives. For four months.”
This time Callen verbally swooped in before Declan could pepper her with more questions. “I’m guessing you used your work contacts to find me.”
“Former.” She dropped the word and let it sit there.
Declan swore under his breath. “I’m lost again.”
So was Callen. Last he checked—and he did check on her now and then, damn her—she had continued in the job that helped to drive them apart. “Since when is it former?”
“I planned to explain it all to you the Thursday night you walked out.” For the first time since she walked down the steps, she fidgeted. Shifting her weight from one foot to another, she moved around, and her eye contact bounced to his face, then away. “And other things.”
She rarely gave away physical cues, which helped to explain how she’d fooled him for so long. That and the sex . . . Jesus, the sex. Hot and holding nothing back. He’d bought every touch and every moan. Dumbass that he was.
He knew better than to believe anything about her or from her mouth now. With her training, she stayed in control, and he’d already been burned. He had no interest in traveling down that road again.
But seeing her had his good intentions crumbling. Being this close and smelling that fresh citrus scent he now associated with her sucked. Hell, because of her he couldn’t eat oranges without having a weird reaction between his brain and his dick.
So he had to focus on the hard truth and shut everything else out. “She’s FBI.”
Grace stopped shifting around. “Again, former.”
“What the hell?” The information seemed to knock some of the amusement out of Declan. He even took a step away from her. Likely an unconscious move, but still obvious.
“You’re anti-FBI, too?” She blew out a long breath as she shook her head. “I guess the skepticism runs in the family.”
“Damn right.” And that was not an understatement. Callen knew from personal experience when you had a notorious con artist for a father, a man on the run in numerous jurisdictions who died with law enforcement closing in and the lawsuits piling up, you got stuck dealing with a ton of questions and accusations—never mind whether you did anything or not.
“You dated an FBI agent?” Sounded like Declan wasn’t ready to move from one topic to another.
And just like that, Callen felt the control shift back in his favor. “Grace, want to answer that one?”
Without a second of hesitation, she did. “Back then, Callen didn’t know what I did for a living.”
Declan took another step back, dragging his sneaker over loose stones before crunching them under his heel. “Oh, shit.”
“Yeah, your brother didn’t take finding out the news about my career choice all that well either.”
That sounded like she blamed him. The thought of that was enough to send a wave of angry heat crashing over Callen. “I don’t like being lied to. Didn’t then, and don’t now.”
She didn’t back down. Hell, she never backed down. “You should have stayed around for the explanation.”
That spirit, the strength, was one of the things he found so fucking hot about her. The face, the body, the smarts, the personality . . . the way she made him feel. Man, he’d been in for all of it.
For the first time in his life he’d let down his guard and gone stupid for a woman. Which had made her betrayal all the worse.
When Callen realized he’d crowded in and blocked her path to the car, he forced the knot between his shoulders to ease. Taking a step away took another few seconds. “There isn’t one. Not one that could make up for what happened.”
“There is, but I see you’re still not ready to hear it.” She tapped the heel of her boot against the stair before stepping down onto the same level as Callen. “Lucky for you, I’m not going anywhere.”
Oh, holy shit no. “Meaning?”
“I’m staying in town, at the Severn Motel.”
The historic place in the center of town, right next to the fire station and far too close to Shadow Hill. He could get in his car and be there with her . . . yeah, he needed more distance. “For how long?”
“However long it takes.”
Callen blocked Declan out. Pretended he wasn’t there, or at least couldn’t hear. “I’m serious here. Are we talking a day, more than one? What the hell does your cryptic comment mean?”
But Callen feared he knew. Grace Pruitt was not a woman to be ignored. From the way she looked to the confident way she carried her body, she demanded attention. Just seeing her on that bar stool that day nine months ago had him plunging under and scrambling to find air. They talked and flirted, and when he’d left three hours later he had her number. By the next night he didn’t need it, because he had her right beside him, most nights under him.
Or so he had thought. Apparently it had all been a part of a plan to collect information.
“Really, Grace, what do you want?”
“I don’t think you’re ready for that answer, so I’ll just say your running days are over.”
There it was again. She shifted all the blame to him, as if he were the problem, rather than her convenient memory loss. “I have no idea what you’re getting at. Do you have a plan?”
“To make you see reason.”
Declan snorted. “Little chance of that.”
“You, I like.” She shot Declan another smile as she stepped between the brothers and headed for her car. “Room two-eighteen.”
“I won’t be visiting.” For some reason Callen felt the need to say it. Maybe if he shouted it loud enough and often enough he could make it true.
She waved a hand in the air but didn’t turn around or say anything. Just kept going, those impressive hips swishing from side to side, until she got to the car. A chirp of the alarm and she opened the door and hopped in.
A minute later Callen watched her vehicle back down the driveway, inching away as that familiar sense of dread clogged his throat. He wanted not to give a shit, to write her off as a liar and not care. More than three months away and he hadn’t mastered that skill yet.
“A redhead.” Declan slapped Callen on the back as he stepped up next to him and watched Grace’s car disappear from sight. “Leah is going to love that.”
“She’s very pretty.”
Now that qualified as a massive understatement. “She does this thing where she wears skirts with boots, like motorcycle boots, or sometimes spiky ones. She has this pair of cowboy boots she wears with this long skirt with a slit up the center . . . damn.”
Declan whistled. “So fucking hot.”
“I know, right? Why does that look make me stupid?”
Callen never gave a shit about women’s clothes until he started living with Grace—then he noticed everything. The smell of her hair. The way she lined up multiple shampoo bottles in the shower but tended to use the same one over and over. How she curled into him when they sat on the couch and watched a movie. The softness of her skin when she lay under him.
“Any chance you’re going to tell me what’s going on with her, the FBI, why you left?” Declan moved in front of Callen and stared him down. “Feel free to answer any question.”
“She was Walker Reeves’ partner.” The FBI agent who’d been on Callen’s ass for what felt like forever and even now skulked around town, waiting to strike.
Reeves insisted Charlie’s con artist abilities ran in the blood and put a target on Callen’s back with the promise of one day arresting him and dragging him in. So far, Callen had avoided that big day, but he had a sense Reeves hadn’t given up. Grace showing up only supported the theory.
“Oh, sweet hell. She’s with Reeves?” Declan ran a hand through his hair as he continued with his list of impressive profanity. “I mean, really. What the fuck?”
It took another minute for Declan to wind down. “Well, I’ll say this. Grace seems pretty determined.”
Callen didn’t scare easily, and that scared the crap out of him. “Determined to do what, is the question.”
“Good news, big brother. It looks like she plans on sticking around long enough for you to find out.” With what sounded like a “pfft,” Declan turned and jogged up the steps.
Callen spun around. “Where are you going?”
“To call everyone we know and tell them you have a secret girlfriend named Grace.”
That was just fucking great. So much for privacy in this house . . . in this town. “Former girlfriend.”
“After seeing the way you looked at her, that won’t be how I tell the story.”
Callen refused to believe anyone could see the need burning inside him that refused to go away. “Damn women.”
“Yeah, this is going to be good.”
The meeting with Callen just about sucked the life out of her. The guy had the ability to make her hot and tense and ticked off all at the same time. It had been that way from the beginning. He’d sauntered over to her as she sat in that bar all those months ago like he was the poster child for tall, dark and panty-dropping handsome. Six-two with deep brown hair and intense green eyes, he knocked her off her game, and she had been running to catch up ever since—and tripping with every other step.
Even now, Grace sat at a corner booth in Rosie’s Diner and tried to keep her hands from shaking. Picking at the peeling green fake leather upholstery next to her thigh didn’t work, so she tried wrapping her hands around her mug of tea. The warmth seeped into her skin, but the free fall of trembling refused to stop.
That’s what happened when the man you loved dumped your sorry ass and traveled miles away just to escape you.
She had only herself to blame. Well, she owned most of the responsibility, but his stubbornness also played a role. The man could make a nun scream for reinforcements.
Grace didn’t realize she’d been staring into a space until a hand waved in front of her. When the person snapped their fingers, Grace nearly jumped out of the booth.
“Sorry, but you looked pretty out of it. You okay?” The woman slid into the seat across from Grace as she asked.
The big brown eyes and welcoming smile had Grace relaxing back in her seat. She didn’t recognize the woman, which wasn’t exactly a surprise, since she didn’t know anyone in town. No one in Oregon, actually.
“I will be.” Sure, that was a lie, and Grace had vowed to stop doing that, justified or not, but babbling about her relationship implosion to a complete stranger seemed a tad overboard in the needy department.
“The town is just small enough that a new face sticks out.”
Since there was a lot of truth in that and she wasn’t looking to make more enemies, she held out her hand. “Grace Pruitt.”
The stranger shook it, sending her bangle bracelets jingling. “Mallory Able.”
Another woman walked over. This one was older but of the could-be-anywhere-from-late-thirties-to-early-fifties type. The brunette bob and blue eyes gave her a younger appearance but something about the road-weary strain around her mouth made Grace think older.
“Everything okay over here?” The older woman possessed one of those gentle voices that soothed.
“This is Kim Hanover,” Mallory said.
The story Grace had started spinning in her head about the woman screeched to a halt. That name she knew all too well. “Did you say Hanover?”
Grace did a mental calculation on the chances of this Hanover being part of those Hanovers. In a town this size, the chances of a relationship had to be pretty good.
The older woman didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
“Is that a problem?” Mallory’s tone, now defensive, increased in volume. More than one person glanced over, and the waitress who was on the way to the booth took a sharp left turn and circled back toward the kitchen.
For the first time, Grace noticed the patrons scattered throughout the diner. The buzz of conversation had died down, along with the clank of silverware. It was as if the entire room were held in suspended animation, each person waiting to hear what came next.
She wasn’t in the mood to feed the rumor mill. Lowering her voice, she hoped to block out most of the not-so-subtle crowd. “Are you related to Callen?”
Mallory rolled her eyes. “Lord, what did he do now?”
“I’m his mother,” Kim said at the same time. “My boys are grown men now, but if one of them, even Callen, did something to offend you, I’m happy to drag him in here and make him apologize.”
“Let me do it.” Mallory practically bounced up and down at the idea of going head to head with Callen.
The last thing Grace wanted was to be at the center of more turmoil in Callen’s life. She’d played an unwitting role in making his life difficult once . . . and there was more to come. She didn’t need to add another sin to her already teetering pile. “It’s fine. We’re good.”
Kim’s eyes narrowed as her gaze searched Grace’s face. “You sure you’re okay?”
“It’s been a long day . . . a long month, actually.” Grace waved off the concern and the strange rush of tears that pressed against her eyes at hearing the motherly tone. She’d cried something like five times in her entire life, and now she wept at fast-food commercials. One more change she couldn’t control or understand.
Kim hesitated for a few more seconds before touching Mallory’s arm and stepping back. “I’ll go take care of the bill.”
The nodding and smiling continued until Kim got to the cash register at the counter across the room. Then Mallory reached over with her dark nails tapping against the chipped tabletop. “Okay, now spill.”
“Is this about Charlie?” Mallory leaned in even closer.
Grace got the distinct impression Mallory was not accustomed to whispering, since she did it in a gruff, but still loud, tone. Not that Mallory was one who blended in anyway. Her perfect pale skin contrasted with her dark hair. Between the ribbed tights, short skirt and curvy frame, she’d stun the crowd in any city, and in a small town she drew stares, both appreciative and not.
Grace was a fan of the look and a little envious of the confidence with which Mallory carried it off. Not really one to engage in long bouts of wallowing in low self-esteem—just the normal bouts—the whole package made Grace a little self-conscious of the extra pounds she’d put on and the oversized sweater hiding her usually trim form.
“But you know who Charlie Hanover is.” Mallory kept pressing, showing no signs of backing down.
Grace liked that about her, too. “Doesn’t everyone? His name was all over the news a while back.”
Four months with Callen and he had barely spoken about his dad. References in passing and an expression of clear distaste, but that was about all. The communication blackout was one of the things that finally ended them. One of the many things.
So, yeah, Grace got that Charlie did a number on Callen. She could only imagine the other Hanover brothers suffered from the same thing.
“I only know Callen.” Grace traced her finger over the edge of the paper place mat in front of her.
Her palm flattened against the table. “That’s not quite the response I expected.”
“Look, Callen can be a complete ass, all talky and judgy and annoying until you want to punch him in the head, but underneath all that”—Mallory’s hands moved as she talked—“well, there’s another layer of annoying crud, but go a bit deeper and you find a pretty good guy.”
In many ways, Mallory’s description wasn’t far off. Grace knew the rough and tumble side of Callen. She’d also experienced the furious part. But under it all loomed a good man. Solid and dependable, loving and loyal. And totally clueless about how much he had to offer those around him.
Sleeping with him, loving him, taught her everything she needed to know about the man behind the gruff exterior. But they had been apart, and Callen wasn’t exactly a guy who went days without sex. When they were together they spent pretty much every evening wrapped up in each other. It wasn’t hard to see how Callen would land in town and find someone as striking as Mallory to keep him company every night.
Part of her dreaded the answer, but Grace he asked anyway. “How do you know him?”
“My best friend Leah dates his brother, Declan. She lives with the whole Hanover brood, so I end up spending some time there. It’s a kissing cousin sort of thing.” Mallory dug into the small purse strapped diagonally across her body. “Look, what I’m saying is, if you need to talk, you can find me here.”
Mallory slid a card across the table. Intrigued, Grace grabbed it. But that didn’t mean she knew what she was looking at.
She ran her finger over the raised lettering. Read and memorized the address across the bottom. The one she recognized as being downtown. “Gossamer?”
“It’s my store. An art store. A place to gather.” Mallory glanced at Kim and watched her talk with a man in a police uniform. “It’s in the middle of town.”
Grace really wasn’t sure what to say since Mallory’s mood had changed. Grace went with the least offensive option. “Okay.”
Without really moving, Mallory had become more guarded. If the looks she kept shooting in Kim’s direction were any indication, Mallory didn’t like seeing her with the policeman. Coming from a family of law-enforcement types, Grace found the shift and sudden wall of tension interesting.
Mallory’s attention zipped right back to Grace. “I know that tone. It means you have no intention of contacting me.”
The intensity shocked Grace. The only other person who could put her on edge and feel the heat of the spotlight like that was Callen. “I didn’t say that.”
“Didn’t have to.” Mallory looked down to where Grace kept picking at the edge of the place mat. “Are you heading out or sticking around?”
With a rip, Grace tore the paper. That got her to stop fidgeting. “Definitely sticking around.”
“This is a small place, and rumors fly fast. Knowing at least one person around here might help you not feel so . . .”
“On display.” Grace shot a quick glance at a nearby table of two older women, who stared and made no attempt to hide their interest. “Yeah, I usually blend in, but not so much here.”
“I can only assume you don’t own a mirror.” Before Grace could ask about that, Mallory raced on. “Look, come into the store for lunch the day after tomorrow. You can meet Leah, and we’ll gripe about Callen, or not. It’s your choice.”
Grace picked not. He was angry enough without her adding “invading his privacy” to the list of things he suddenly hated about her. “I bet he’d love to know he’s the topic of lunch conversation.”
“I’ve made it clear I can say whatever I want about him, whenever I want.”
Now that was interesting. “Made it clear to?”
“Callen.” Mallory shrugged. “We have an understanding.”
Actually, now that Grace thought about it, the word “interesting” didn’t even cover it. She fought off a little bit of awe for her new friend. “Which is?”
“When he acts like a dick, I call him on it.”
What little movement seemed to be happening in the diner stopped. It was as if someone had turned the sound the whole way down. Even Grace held her breath. She stopped once she realized she was doing it. “You might need to teach me that skill.”
“You’re on.” Mallory slid the card closer to Grace. “Friday at noon.”
After years of living in military housing, of dodging bullets and IEDs on deployments, Declan loved living at Shadow Hill. Even with the dusty rooms filled with stacks of paper and peeling wallpaper, it was the closest to a stable home he’d ever had.
His mom had tried. Charlie walked out, screwing over clients and dumping a heap of liability on his wife and sons. He didn’t pay support. Instead, he saddled them with his criminal reputation until people whispered so much that Declan’s mom couldn’t find a job. A few years later, Charlie came back and grabbed Callen to travel along on the nationwide scams, leaving their mother in a puddle on the floor.
Declan remembered it all. The crying, the days without food. Hating his father and blaming Callen for not breaking away and coming home.
But everything changed. More than twenty years had passed, and Charlie died on the eve of his trial. His mother, Declan’s grandmother, died soon after, leaving behind her house and all the questions about how she bought it and where Charlie hid the money and property he stole from his victims.
With the years of estrangement behind them, the house allowed the brothers to come back together. Declan refused to lose Callen again. If that meant escorting Grace out of town or holding back his mom from telling whatever other secrets she hid about their upbringing, Declan would do it. Callen needed a break, and Declan vowed to make sure that happened.
They all had to survive the next ten minutes first.
Mom busied herself at the farm sink under the window in the kitchen. She had her back to Callen and Declan where they sat at the kitchen table as she stirred a wooden spoon in a glass pitcher of what he guessed was iced tea.
When she turned around, she held the container in front of her like a shield as she stared at Callen. “I met a friend of yours a little while ago.”
Callen didn’t look up from the newspaper in front of him. “Didn’t realize I had any of those in this town.”
Her hands tightened on the glass. “Grace . . . something.”
He closed his eyes. “Damn it.”
This topic Declan could handle. “I met her, too.”
Declan looked from his mother’s painfully hopeful expression to the top of Callen’s head. “Very.”
“Let’s change the topic, preferably now.” He flipped a page and went back to reading. Looked like he found something pretty damn interesting in the want ads section.
Mom put the pitcher down on the wooden kitchen island with a loud clank. Even Callen glanced up as she wiped her hands on a towel, then threw it on the counter.
Crossing in front of them, she walked out of the kitchen and through the open doorway into the family room, closer to the front of the house. Without a word, she scanned the built-in bookshelves and picked out a few books, loading down her arms with them.
The chair creaked as Callen turned around to watch her. “Okay, I give up. What are you doing?”
She studied the spines. “Getting some things together.”
Declan wanted to let this play out, to give them a chance to work through the hundreds of things they needed to say to each other. And he would have if a thought hadn’t jumped into his head. “Are you leaving town?”
She faced them with her head tilted slightly to the side. “No, Callen is not that lucky.”
The legs of the chair screeched against the hardwood floor as Callen angled his chair to face her. “I didn’t tell you to leave.”
“This is the most you’ve spoken to me in the last five days.”
Callen stood up so fast the chair almost toppled to the floor. “Is that really a surprise, under the circumstances?”
There it was. The topic that lingered and tainted everything even though Callen refused to talk about it. He took shots at her and she grimaced through them, but nothing got settled.
Usually at this point Callen’s anger battled with his still all-consuming love for the woman who raised him for as long as their father allowed. Then he’d storm off. Declan decided to short-cut that scene. “Okay, enough.”
Callen shrugged as he opened the refrigerator and grabbed a water bottle. “Fine.”
“Unless you actually want to have this out, which would be pretty damn fantastic for those of us who get stuck watching from the sidelines.” Declan glanced at his mom. “You can explain to Callen why you hid the truth about his birth mother for all these years.” When Callen took a step toward the doorway to the hall, Declan turned his attention there. “And you can listen and maybe respect the woman who is your mother in every sense of the world except blood.”
The rip of plastic against plastic rang through the quiet room as Callen tore off the cap to the bottle. “Don’t do this, Declan.”
“It would be a favor to the rest of the people in this household. To all of us who love you both and want this issue put to rest.” Declan knew he was asking a lot. Probably too much.
They grew up thinking they all shared the same father and mother. That Charlie breezed in one day and their mom let him sweep ten-year-old Callen away and into a life of crime. But it turned out Charlie wasn’t the only one with secrets. He had five wives in his lifetime, not four, and the first was Callen’s real birth mother. A woman no one but the woman standing in the middle of the family room knew about until a few weeks ago when their collective past starting blowing up.
Callen clenched his teeth together hard enough for his jaw to make a cracking sound. “Find another subject. Now.”
“Declan doesn’t have to. I will.” Mom smiled as she set the stack of books on the edge of the table with shaking hands. “I figured my grown sons needed a little privacy, so I’m giving you all some space, but not so much that you think I’m running away. Just enough to let you live your days without me being under foot all the time.”
Declan glanced at Callen. “I think that last part about running away was for your benefit.”
The days had passed in slow motion over the last two weeks as Callen and Mom played an annoying chess game. She walked into a room and he walked out. She apologized and he replied with something like “whatever,” but nothing got resolved.
Not that Declan could blame Callen. The guy had been gutted and turned inside out. Everything he thought he knew—what they all thought they knew—turned out to be wrong. Declan had his own issues with his Mom’s choices and her decision to hide the truth for all those years. But that was nothing compared to the betrayal Callen had to feel.
The guy was a runner. He stayed on the road, and before Shadow Hill, he only checked in now and then. Thanks to that, every morning Declan woke up and for the first few minutes laid there begging the universe to cut them all a break and let Callen still be in the house. If a morning came when Callen gave in and took off, Declan knew he’d blame Mom for pushing Callen away . . . and he hated that.
“With Sophie on the road with Beck and most likely to stay here with him when they get back into town, I’m going to move over to her old place. We talked about it last night on the phone and arranged everything.” His mom’s voice never wavered. She stood there, proud but with exhaustion tugging at the corners of her eyes.
Declan would feel bad about that later. For now, he had a bigger question. One that seared across his brain and demanded an answer. “You’re going to live with Tom?”
Tom Erickson, the Shadow Hill handyman. The same guy who knew their parents all those years ago when he was a teenager and they were first married. They all lived on the same street in Sweetwater before Charlie ripped the town off and left Mom behind to answer for the crimes she didn’t know about until the town’s coffers were bare.
Tom, the guy who clearly had a decidedly not-just-friendly thing for their mom.
Yeah, no fucking way.
She shot Declan the same no-nonsense look she used when she made it clear she didn’t want to hear who started what fight when they were kids. “I’ll be renting the apartment over his garage.”
Callen slowly lowered the water bottle. “Isn’t that the same thing as living with the guy?”
“I had the distinct impression you didn’t care what I did.”
Pain flashed in Callen’s eyes, but he blinked it out. “I never said that.”
Jesus, they were driving him nuts. “I’m two seconds away from locking you two in a room and making you fight this out.”
Mom brushed her fingertips over the cover of the top book on her pile. “I’d be fine with that.”
Silence screamed through the room. They all stood there, not moving, before Callen spoke into the quiet. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“I’m still your mother.” The words sounded harsh, as if each one had to be ripped out of her.
“Yes, Callen. I am.” Petite and fast, she didn’t wait around. Not after Callen landed his usual verbal killing blow. She scooped up the books and left the room.
Declan waited until he heard her footsteps on the stairs and could see her legs disappear out of sight before turning back to Callen. “Do you have to do that?”
“I don’t believe for one second you think sharing a gene pool is the only thing that defines a family.” They shared a shitty father as well as a loving and decent mother, and Declan would stick by that stance no matter what a DNA test said.
Callen hesitated for a second. “No, but I’m not ready to deal with what she did and didn’t do just yet.”
“Well, you need to get there, and soon.”
“I can make my own decisions.” Callen ended his pronouncement by downing the rest of the contents of his water bottle.
“You have every right to feel gut shot.”
“Thanks for that.”
Declan ignored the attitude. “But as your brother, I’m warning you that if you don’t explode soon, have some reaction other than shutting down and flinging barbs at mom, I’m going to take you outside and beat the ever-loving shit out of you.”
Callen smiled. “Name the day.”
“If the roles were reversed you’d be all over me until I dealt with this.”
The smile disappeared behind a narrow gaze. “That’s not true.”
But it was. Callen kept his common sense and skepticism long after the rest of them did, not because he was a pessimist or negative. Because he wanted everyone safe. The end result could be annoying, but Callen came from a good place. His actions spoke to his devotion to family. He liked to pretend that side of him didn’t exist, but he showed his love for all of them every damn day.
“Believe what you want, but know this. It’s my turn to protect you.” When Callen’s frown deepened, Declan continued. “What? You think you’re the only Hanover brother with the right to get up in everyone’s business?”
“Kind of, yeah.”