She just wanted to be happy.
Lauren wished only to get on with her life and career. She looked forward to spending time with the friends she'd had since childhood. But she never expected to be the target of someone's hatenor did she expect to meet a man who kicked her heart into overdriveand gave her the courage to confront her enemy.
Travis Hawke was a scarred military and police-force veteran. After years on the front lines, he had enough of violence.
He just wanted to be left alone.
On the island, he'd found sanctuary among the trees and beaches, and he knew it would be a safe place to wrap himself in peace and healing. The first time he met Lauren, he also knew she could change those plans. When he learned of her stalker, his retirement plans were put on hold. To save the woman who was healing his heart, he had one final mission ahead of him.
In order to find the peace he and Lauren both need, he has to findand stopthe person who hates her enough to kill.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)|
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By Linda Clemons
iUniverseCopyright © 2015 Linda Clemons
All rights reserved.
Lauren Scott drove up the sloped ramp from the Mukilteo Ferry onto Whidbey Island at the Clinton landing. Almost home.
It was the best kind of island weather; she soaked in the just-washed sparkle of vivid early-summer green and the cool air rushing through her open window, smelling of creosote, salt water, and damp green woods. Right now the sun was out, but she knew it might easily rain again, maybe in an hour or maybe just five miles up the highway. She took a deep breath of the cool air and felt the tension leaving her shoulders and neck, felt herself relaxing, even after so many hours on the road. This was better than any medication for stress.
It had been five years since she had driven this road to visit and eight years since she'd packed up and left for college. She smiled at the memory. She had been eager to fly and hadn't expected to ever come back to the island to live. She hadn't intentionally stayed away, but her parents had moved to Arizona soon after she left. She had gone to college at UCSD, graduated with a degree in English, and stayed in San Diego to get her master's degree. She had found a great job with a publishing agency and lived through a short-term but disastrous marriage to a guy she'd known slightly in high school. She still kicked herself for that since she'd continued paying for her stupidity long after the final papers were signed. She had concluded, during her long period of introspection after the dust settled, that the relationship had been about proximity, inexperience, and a little loneliness—and a solid dose of stupidity—rather than anything remotely resembling love.
When she reached the outskirts of Clinton, she pulled over in a pharmacy parking lot and called Jessie. Her voice mail picked up, so Lauren figured she was out with the Clydesdales or the greenhouse she managed with her brother Clark. "Hey, I'm here. I just got off the ferry, so I'll be home in about an hour. I'm tuckered out, as Mom would say, so you three had better not have any big hoopla planned. I just want to give you all a big hug, then throw a cot down on the floor and sleep for a week. See you soon."
Jessie Jones, Meg Adams, and Allie Harrison née Grover had been her best friends since they were all young enough to think boys were just noisy, dirty kids who had short hair, broke things, and never wore dresses. They'd stayed friends through arguments over toys and then boys, through puberty, acne, college, pregnancy, marriage, death, broken hearts, and broken vows. They'd survived their parents' craziness and deaths, and Lauren was convinced that they'd come out whole because of their friendship. They all had left to go to college except Allie, who had been content to commute to Skagit Valley College in nearby Mount Vernon. They'd all graduated, and now with Lauren's return, all had come back home to live. They'd met from time to time over the years that Lauren had been away, flying to meet wherever one of them lived. Jessie had gone to Washington State University in eastern Washington, and Meg to Boise State University in Idaho, where her grandparents lived. After graduating from the community college, Allie had taken over her parents' bakery, had fallen in love with a deputy sheriff who'd moved to the island after a stint in the Navy, and now had two lively, towheaded boys.
Lauren drove up another long grade and mentally catalogued the landmarks: the turn-offs on the left to Smuggler's Cove and Double Bluff; the road on the right to Langley, with its memories of county fairs with her friends; and then the drive through Freeland and Greenbank and the old vineyards at the "waist" of the island, where the sea was visible on both sides of the highway. She wondered what was planted in the vineyard now. For several years it had been loganberries, and then it had lain fallow for a long time. There had been talk at one time of the land being sold and developed. After the "Californication" of the 1980s, islanders were slow to give away space to developers, though, and she was glad nothing had come of it.
She passed Rhododendron State Park just past the Navy's practice landing field, and then, ten miles north of Greenbank, she spotted the pedestrian overpass over Highway 20 and the big banner hanging on it that welcomed her class to its ten-year reunion. She turned right off the highway onto Main Street in Coupeville, a street that ran straight down the hill to the water and the oldest part of town, which perched on the shore of Penn Cove. She could see changes as she drove. Whidbey General Hospital seemed bigger—another wing? There was a new, well-done bronze statue of a firefighter in front of the old firehouse, and the jail attached to the courthouse seemed bigger than she remembered, too. She noted with pleasure that the Victorian home where Allie and Tom lived and ran the bakery had several cars in the side parking lot, so business must be good.
She was excited at the thought of seeing her friends again. It had been almost three years since they'd all been together, when the women had all flown to San Diego to be with her. She'd called them when she'd finally filed for divorce, after finding Don in their bedroom with the realtor who'd sold them the house. The three women's presence had been comforting, especially when Don—snake that he was—tried to slide everything they jointly owned neatly into his own pocket. Meg had offered to pay for a tattoo on Lauren's ring finger: "Never Marry a Lawyer."
Forget it, she told herself. She was here, and he wasn't, and if he knew what was good for him, he'd avoid her when he came to visit his family. He'd recently started pestering her to come back to him, somehow deluding himself into thinking that it had all been a mistake and that she still loved him. Ugh. She didn't love him and certainly didn't want or need him.
She had escaped, though she knew he would eventually find her here, since this was his home, just as it was hers. She thought back to her last couple of days in San Diego and wondered why it had taken her so long to come to that point.
The night before she started for home, the phone had rung just as she let herself into her apartment. She hobbled across the room, favoring her sore knee, pissed and miserable. She checked the caller ID and groaned. "I really can't deal with you right now," she muttered as she limped on to the bathroom, letting the call go to the machine.
As she dropped her clothes on the floor, she heard his voice. "Are you there? We need to talk. Why aren't you returning my calls? I know you're not gone; I called your office. I'm coming over tonight ... we need to talk, Lauren. You know what I want, and you know I'm right."
She sighed and rested her forehead on the cool tile wall. He wasn't going to give up. She had told him no so many times and in so many ways that she was exhausted from it, but he just wouldn't quit. Tears burned behind her eyes, and anger made her grit her teeth. She would not cry! She was stronger than that, and that rat bastard did not get to decide how she'd feel!
On impulse, she picked up the phone and punched in his number. She didn't give him time to say more than hello. "Listen to me, you son of a bitch! If you set foot on my porch again, I'm not going to call the police; I'm not going to talk to you; I'm not going to play nice. I'm going to blow your goddamned head off! You get that? Stay the hell away from me!" She slammed the receiver down, hoping she'd broken his eardrum.
She took a deep breath and headed back to the bathroom. She turned on the shower, grabbed her robe from behind the door, went back out and checked the deadbolts and chains on the doors, and then stepped into the water, drawing in her breath with a hiss as the hot water hit the scrapes and cuts on her shoulder and hip.
Why wouldn't he leave her alone? She had filed police reports all three times she'd been hurt, but there was never enough to go on. No witnesses—just a random mugging, a push into traffic, an accident. Maybe it wasn't him attacking her; she couldn't see Don being that devious. He was more likely to lose his temper and hit. But someone was targeting her, and it was time to turn the tables. She had taken her counselor's advice. She'd filed a restraining order—again. She'd given the police the new phone messages, the e-mails at work, the notes he'd left—again. And then she'd resolved to do the only thing left she could. Nothing held her in San Diego, and she was ready to leave.
And now here she was, where she fit and felt safe. Even through all the hassle of the past two years, Lauren knew her life was good overall—and about to get better now that she was home. During the past couple of years, she had written the first two in a series of young adult novels, and they had caught on, making life easier. She was more than solvent now, and she occasionally wondered if that had been her appeal to Don. She shook off thoughts of "then" and focused on right now.
She turned right onto Ninth Avenue and in a few blocks reached her house. She took a deep breath as she turned off the car and rolled down the window. Home. She studied the house, looked at the changes. It didn't look that different from the outside. It was a hodgepodge of styles, having been pegged together from its beginning as a two- or three-room cottage just over a hundred years earlier. It had been added to over the years, usually through the addition of a porch, which was closed in as another room was needed, and then another porch added. When she was a kid, her mom had complained that when she or her older sister Kaitlin spilled milk at one end of the kitchen, it ran across the room and out the door before she could grab a cloth to mop it up. Her friends at college had laughed when she told that story, thinking she was exaggerating. She smiled, remembering. The ceilings had all been different heights and different materials: acoustic tile in the dining room, plaster in the living room, beadboard in the one small bathroom. She wondered what changes she'd find now. The couple who'd bought it when her parents retired would have left their stamp on it, she was sure. They were a nice couple, relocated from Malibu, but originally from England. They had been eager to sell when she approached them because the wife was ill and wanted to go home to Yorkshire.
What they couldn't change, and certainly would not have wanted to, was the setting. The house sat about twenty feet above the cove, with a great view of the wharf, gorgeous sunsets, and because of a barrier of locust trees along Ninth Street, privacy. The previous owners had obviously been even keener gardeners than her parents, she thought, since in the angle of the L-shaped building was a lovely cobbled courtyard with a mountain ash tree in the center. A curved bench circled the tree, and well-tended bushes and plants bordered the courtyard. Her mom's favorite fuchsia bushes were still here, along with spirea and several varieties of roses, some on trellises and some low and bushing out, as well as rhododendrons and azaleas that were mostly past their bloom. The house, the smell of the plants, and even just the feel of the air brought a flood of memory, and she treasured it. She was looking forward to grubbing around in the dirt; it had never been a hardship for her to pull weeds for her mom. She'd always loved the feel and smell of the earth beneath her fingers, though finding the occasional earwig under a damp piece of wood always gave her the creeps. She'd been pinched by one while picking apples once, and it had hurt like the dickens. She always thought of them as armed cockroaches. She could imagine sitting out here on some old wooden deck chairs with benches and tables, bright cushions, and lanterns, with friends, wine, and food. Good to be home.
She groaned and stretched as she got out of the car. It had been a long drive from Redding, where she'd stayed the night before, and a long overall two days of driving from San Diego. Her Honda CR-V was packed to the top with her personal possessions, and a few of her family's bits of furniture were in transit and would be here in a few days. She had nothing in San Diego that would draw her back. She would miss her coworkers and her boss, but that was it.
She called Jessie again and this time reached her. "I'm home," she said.
"Perfect," Jessie answered in her low, slightly gruff voice. "Meg and Allie have been calling every five minutes. Don't do a thing. We'll be over in ten minutes with wine, food, everything we need to welcome you. And we won't stay long. We'll empty your car, hug you, eat, drink, and leave you to sleep. Party later."
Lauren laughed. "You've grown amazingly efficient. What happened to 'I can't find my purse'? Or phone, or keys, or shoes?"
"Hey, I'm a businesswoman now. Besides, you guys weren't around all the time to find stuff for me, so I learned to cope. See you in a few."
"Okay. Bring some folding chairs unless you want to sit on a blanket on the floor."
Lauren smiled as she walked up to the kitchen door, pulling the house key out of her purse. She noticed something on the concrete step and frowned. A small dead sparrow lay there, neck bent at an acute angle. Poor thing. Either it had run into the window, or a cat had dropped it. She wondered if the previous owners had had a cat they couldn't take back to England with them. She couldn't imagine them being so heartless as to abandon it, though, so it was probably a neighbor's. She went back to the car and found a paper bag from a takeout meal and picked up the bird with it. She laid it on top of the trash can next to the garage. She'd bury it in a corner of the garden later.
She unlocked the door and stepped into the kitchen. It felt odd, like home, but not home—no dog barking as the car drove up, no Mom throwing open the door to fuss over her, no Dad lifting her cases out of the trunk and grumbling about how much they weighed.
Okay, she told herself, you wanted this, and now you have it. Can you really go home again? The house welcomed her. There were changes, of course, and so far she liked them, though she had to admit that part of her missed the familiar comfort of the way it used to look. The pokey old kitchen had been redone and was way too grand for her basic cooking skills, but it was attractive and fit the age of the house. The ceilings had been lifted, and all the acoustic tile was gone; the exposed beams were marked with age, but they shone with polish. She strolled through the house. A second bath had been added off her parents' room—her bedroom now, she realized. There were new hardwood floors, level now, in all the rooms. No more slanting porch floors covered with linoleum or carpet to hide the irregularities. There was a whole new front porch too, and she smiled, wondering if in a few years she would close it in to make another room. It ran the whole width of the house along the front, facing the water. Another good idea, she thought. The northwest-facing porch was the best place to soak up the sun in the afternoon. She went out and sat on the steps and took a deep breath. She couldn't seem to get enough of filling her lungs with the sweet, salty air.
Her phone rang just as she stood to cross the lawn. She didn't recognize the number, though it was local. When she answered, a voice she didn't recognize said in a high singsong voice, slowly drawing out each word, "Welcome home, Lauren," and disconnected. She frowned and tucked the phone back in her pocket. Kind of creepy, and not something her friends would do. She shrugged. Probably one of her old classmates here for the reunion who'd heard she was here and was goofing off. Some people never got over being adolescents.
Excerpted from Plan B by Linda Clemons. Copyright © 2015 Linda Clemons. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
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