After a night of mistakes and misunderstandings, Ryan Marsh thinks he's back on the road to redemption. All he needs to do is convince the court-appointed counselor that he's just fine. But when counseling intern Kellie Cavanaugh sees the stark pain in Ryan's eyes, she knows that without her help he's headed for disaster. Soon it's Kellie who's in trouble. She can't get personally involved, no matter how drawn to Ryan she might be. When they end up volunteering for the same community project, Kellie can't deny her growing feelings. Will she land exactly where she shouldn't in love?
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Kellie Cavanaugh rushed into the office bringing with her a blast of chilly autumn air and a few colored leaves that had blown against the door. She was late. Not a good thing considering she interned for LightHouse Center, a substance abuse outpatient office in LeNaro, Michigan. She wanted a good report despite her tardiness.
Grabbing a quick cup of coffee, she took a sip and coughed. "Ugh, who made this?"
Marci, the receptionist, laughed. "John."
"What's wrong with my coffee?" Her boss, John Thompson, stood with hands on his hips.
Kellie made a face. "It's like tar."
"Get here on time and you can make the coffee." His voice sounded stern, but Kellie knew better. John was all bark.
Still, she managed a sheepish smile. "Sorry I'm late. I overslept."
John nodded. "How'd your interview go yesterday?"
Kellie had left early to interview with the large school district in Traverse City. One of their school counselors had tendered her two weeks' and needed to be replaced. The school was currently interviewing. John knew the school's superintendent and had pushed to get her in the door. She owed him big-time.
"Promising. Very promising." Kellie added more cream and sugar to the super strong coffee.
Again, John nodded. "Ginny's not here today, so I'd like you to take this morning's assessment. It's a court order and the guy's waiting in the lobby."
Kellie peeked at the tall, dark and handsome man pacing the tiles. "You want me to take him?'"
"Yes, I do. We're all part of a team. When one of us is missing, others fill in. Besides, you've done well with our teens. I think you're ready."
She was ready. With only a month left of her internship, Kellie had been doing teen assessments on her own. She'd even facilitated the teen group sessions for the last few weeks. Kellie had shadowed her mentor, Ginny, for months. She knew how to conduct an adult assessment. She'd seen it done by the best.
Still, Kellie didn't appreciate the way her heart pounded. Was it normal nerves or something else? She peeked again at the guy in the lobby and a flutter of attraction rippled through her.
Nope, not going there.
The guy moved with impatient grace, like some fairytale prince who'd lost his way to the castle, but he was no storybook hero charging in to give Kellie a happily-ever-after. Kellie didn't believe in fairy tales anymore. She believed in hard work and faith in God to get a person where they wanted to go.
"Here's the alcohol screening questionnaire he completed. Looks pretty clean." John handed her Prince Im-patient's paperwork. "It's his first offense."
"You mean the first time he's been caught." Kellie scanned the documents for his name. Ryan Marsh.
John gave her a tsk-tsk of warning. "Careful, Kellie, you haven't been here long enough to be that cynical."
Kellie shrugged. Her cynicism had been cultivated long ago. She flipped through Ryan's papers. He'd been courtordered for a substance abuse assessment as part of his conditional sentence for Operating While Visibly Impaired. A misdemeanor. It didn't matter that he'd been hit with the lowest charge; the guy had been arrested for an alcohol-related crime. In her book, that made him a modern-day lepertreat with compassion but do not touch.
"Okay." The lobby seemed to shrink before her eyes. She could do this. She knew how to control her reactions and her feelings. She'd done it for years.
Kellie glanced at Marci, sitting primly behind a sliding glass window that gave her an eyeful of Prince Im-patient's delectable pacing. "Give me a minute and then send him back."
"Sure thing, Kellie." Marci snapped her gum and gave her a wink.
Kellie took a steadying breath, picked up her doctored coffee and headed for her office. It was one thing meeting with kids, quite another to assess someone so handsome it hurt to look at him.
After five minutes of mental prep, she looked up to see her Prince Impatient literally darken her doorstep. If a person could look like a thundercloud personified, it was definitely Ryan Marsh.
"Come in, Ryan, please. I'm Kellie Cavanaugh, an intern here." She extended her hand hoping he didn't notice the way her voice had cracked.
He briefly returned her handshake.
Kellie didn't cower at his strength or the fact that he towered over her. "Have a seat."
He sat down, his knees brushing the front of her desk.
So far, he hadn't said a word, but she could feel his frustration and something darker emanating from him like a low growl. Shame? This bear of a man had been caught in his own snare.
"So, tell me why you're here."
His eyes widened slightly, and he wiped his palms against long, jean-clad thighs as if it took considerable effort to remain seated. His impatience hadn't cooled as he gestured toward the paperwork on her desk. "You've got the court order."
"Yes, I do. But I'd like to hear your story."
"It's so stupid." His deep voice sounded remorseful rather than defensive.
Most stories she'd heard here were, but Kellie didn't say that. She nodded for him to continue.
"How long will this take? I've got to get to work."
Ryan had a job that he was worried about keeping. Definitely a good sign. Same with his questionnaire. He'd given a lot of right answers, but that didn't mean they were true.
"About an hour or so. I have a series of questions to ask, so you might as well get comfortable."
He nodded but didn't relax.
"You were about to tell me what happened," Kellie coaxed.
"I was at a party and had a few beers too many" His gaze pierced her. "Something I don't usually do. Anyway, a friend agreed to drive me home. While I was waiting for him in my truck, I must have dozed off. The police were called because of the noise, and the next thing I knew I was arrested."
Kellie studied him. Hard. Something didn't add up. He didn't usually have a few too many beers? Right. A person didn't get arrested without cause. "What happened to your friend?"
"He bailed on me."
She sat back. "Do you hang out with this friend a lot?"
Ryan shook his head. "No. We went to high school together. I ran into him at a football game, and he invited me to the party and I went. He hadn't been drinking and agreed to drive me home."
"In your truck?" Kellie had heard all kinds of lame excuses sitting in on assessments. This one was right up there.
He ran his hand through thick dark hair that had a nice wave to it. "Yeah. I know. Stupid."
"So the police arrested you because ?" She wanted his perspective on why he'd gotten into trouble.
"It was cold that night, so I started the truck to turn on the heat. I was sitting in the passenger seat, but it didn't matter. The cops said I had control of the vehicle with the intent to drive."
"And did they talk to your friend?"
"No. They couldn't find him. He left with someone else and that's all it took to make me out as a liar."
Was he? A twisting worm of doubt in her gut said he wasn't. Maybe he'd been at the wrong place at the wrong time under the wrong circumstances. "This is how you remember it happening?"
He looked her straight in the eye. "That's how it happened. I had no intention of driving. I don't drink and drive."
Kellie shifted under that direct gaze, but she didn't look away. His eyes were dark brown and hard like bitter chocolate. That worm of doubt turned again. Liars weren't usually so forthright.
She cocked her head. "Okay, tell me about yourself. Who are you, Ryan?"
The corner of his eye twitched. "What do you want to know?"
He did things the hard way. Okay, fine. "I have an entire sheet of questions here, which we'll take in order. The more open you are, the easier this will be."
"I don't have a drinking problem," he said.
He wouldn't be here if there wasn't something amiss in his life. "A problem is a broken shoelace, something you fix and it goes away. We treat the disease of alcoholism and addiction. That requires management skills."
This time he shifted in his seat, looking wary. Nervous even. "Okay, what's your first question?"
"Your general health appears good. Are you currently taking any prescription meds?"
"Have you ever been prescribed medications for pain?"
Kellie narrowed her gaze. "When and what were they?"
"I had my wisdom teeth pulled a month agothey were impacted pretty bad. I still have the bottle of Percocet."
"Did you take them?"
"I took one."
"Why only one?"
Ryan shrugged. "I didn't like how it made me feel."
"And how did it make you feel?"
"Sort of loopy." He sat forward with an annoyed look on his face and his dark brows furrowed. The thundercloud was back. "Look, Ms. Cavanaugh. I don't do drugs. I never have. And I don't normally drink much."
How many times had she heard her brother deny his addiction? How many times had her parents believed him? They refused to see what his substance abuse did to their family.
What it did to her.
She cleared the painful memories inching into her brain. Ryan Marsh was convincing. He believed he was okay, and part of her wanted to believe that, too. He wasn't like her brother. For one thing, Ryan looked a person in the eye.
"Except for that party?"
He sat back and blew out his breath in frustration. "Yeah, except for that party."
She'd hit a nerve but had to dig deeper. "Why?"
Now he looked angry. "What do you mean, why?"
"Why did you have a few beers too many?"
He looked away then and shrugged. Now he was lying. By refusing to admit his reason, he wasn't being true to himself or to her. Ryan Marsh had a definite purpose in drinking that night, she was certain. He didn't strike her as the kind of guy to do anything by accident.
She waited, feeling the struggle going on inside him.
He looked up.
In his eyes she read stark pain so acute, her heart flinched. It felt like she'd run into a jagged piece of glass that cut quick and deep. "Alcohol won't make it go away."
"It did for a while."
Her stomach tipped over and fell, feeling like it had dropped to the soles of her feet. Ryan Marsh hurt, and he hurt badly. People hurting that bad often tried to medicate their sorrow to make it go away instead of dealing with it. Is that what he was doing? Was this the first stepping stone to a bigger issue?
Please, God, no
The prayer whispered from her soul. She often prayed for clients, especially the teens in her group. She cared, but this was different. This bordered on something else. A connection between them where she felt his pain and wanted to take it away. But she couldn't do that. Things didn't work that way.
Straightening her paperwork, Kellie regrouped. This man wasn't her client nor would he be. She was only filling in for Ginny. Ryan Marsh would become an agency client if recommended for counseling. She needed to remain impartial, objective and, above all else, emotionally removed.
But those eyes of his were killers, sucking her into a vortex of feelings she shouldn't have. Settling the list of standard questions on the desk in front of her like a shield, she continued her line of questioning and note-taking.
His employment, his education, his family lifeeverything checked out. He was a regular guy with a normal life. From what he'd told her, a very stable life. Ryan was the middle child of three. He grew up on his family-owned cherry orchard, but he worked as a farm manager for a nearby horticultural research station. He'd worked there since graduating from college five years ago. The guy had no prior arrests, not even one speeding ticket according to the court records.
Yet, he was here.
She looked at him. "So, you've never been in trouble with the police before."
He fidgeted in the chair and his boot hit the front of her desk when he tried to cross his legs. "Sorry."
Again she'd hit a nerve. Had he been in trouble before? She smiled and waited for him to answer.
"I'm sorry, what was the question?"
She rephrased. "Have you ever been in trouble with the police before? Maybe not arrested, but warned? Or questioned?
The color drained from his face. "Questioned."
"Why?" She held her breath.
"My fianc e was killed in a tractor rollover. My brother and I were there when it happened." A brief glimpse of that tragedy shone from his eyes, but then he shuttered it off as easily as she might pull the shades on a window.
"When was this?"
"A little over three years ago." He looked down at his feet. With his elbows balanced on his knees, Ryan clasped his hands so tight his knuckles had turned white.
She watched him closely. It was eating him up inside. Was he an alcoholic without knowing it or headed there because of his grief? It wasn't uncommon for someone who'd never showed signs of substance abuse to slide down that slippery slope as a way to cope.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"Yeah, me, too." He struggled for control.
Part of her wanted to dig deeper, get him to talk about what had happened that day, but she stopped herself from asking the question poised on her lips. She wasn't his counselor.
Kellie quickly gathered her papers and stood. "I think I have everything I need for now. You signed a permission waiver for us to check with your family, so I'll complete those interviews later today."
He stood as well. "Why do you have to talk to them? I told you everything you asked."
Kellie wouldn't sugarcoat the reason. "We need to establish your credibility."
He jammed his hands in his pockets. "Okay, fine. Then what?"
"Then I'll review what we discussed along with the questionnaire you completed and make my recommendation to my boss and mentor counselor. Once they've reviewed the paperwork, we'll forward their findings to the court. You'll get copies of everything."