Returning to Laguna Beach after four tours in the Middle East, Christian Wolfe leaves the military behind and buys a wine bar, vowing to keep his life simple. He fights to keep his devastating PTSD a secret and refuses to burden anyone else with his baggage. When stunning Kelly Prescott and her red stilettos saunter into town, she drives him past the bonds of his self-control.
Successful in her father’s stuffy law firm, Kelly’s too compassionate to survive in the cutthroat world of corporate litigation. Leaving behind both family and courtroom drama, she moves to Laguna to become general counsel for a nonprofit veterans’ organization.
She didn’t bargain on a gorgeous modern-day Heathcliff, and in Christian, she sees another kind of challenge—one she can’t resist.
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Christian Wolfe squeezed his eyes shut, willing the sharp pain piercing his temples to dissipate. A nasty force tightened the screws of the vise around his skull, and he marveled his eyes didn't pop out of his head. He sucked in a few deep breaths to steady himself. Would these headaches ever stop kicking his ass?
Cracking open one eye, he closed the accounting file with a decisive click. Business was excellent at Vines, the wine bar he owned. Despite having a bookkeeper, he couldn't help double-checking the numbers.
Once a control freak, always a control freak.
He surged to his feet and gripped the edge of his sturdy mahogany desk. Fresh air. Outdoors. Even though sunlight could exacerbate the pain, his trusty mirrored aviator sunglasses helped. Where were they? Why the hell weren't they in their usual spot in the tray on the top left corner of his desk?
Amber, his exceedingly competent bar manager, entered his office. "Christian, can you —"
"Not now. Sorry." He held up one hand once he spotted the glasses on the top right corner of the desk.
She stepped aside, silent, and he skirted around her to exit the building pronto. She'd seen him bolt out of the restaurant a few times and was always discreet. Probably why he liked her so much.
He stalked toward the beach in the center of town. Each inhalation of the salty ocean air softened the iron tendrils clutching his skull. Damn it, something needed to change. He couldn't keep running out of the wine bar every time his head hurt — and it hurt like hell — or when panic bubbled to the surface. Vines would go out of business, and he wasn't prepared to surrender his new civilian life.
Many of his army buddies were surprised when he'd decided to open a wine bar instead of pushing paper for the government. But he'd had enough of war and bureaucracy. Besides, he had a soft spot for his grandmother, who'd come over from Italy when she'd been a young girl. Sharing delicious food and fine wine was a nod to his heritage. And running a successful business gratified him. Taking charge, organizing, and pouring wine weren't exactly saving the world, but too bad.
He arrived at the small beach, stopped on the promenade, and stared out at the white-capped waves of the Pacific. Although he wasn't as avid a surfer as his buddies Nick and Brandt, he enjoyed the adrenaline rush from riding waves. Mostly, he loved how the salt air acted like a balm, soothing his pounding head. Especially when he felt amped and anxious, like now.
Something needed to change. Support groups and doctors didn't help. No more discussing the horrors of losing some of his men and watching others lose limbs or worse. No more talking about the failed rogue mission on his first tour. Definitely no reviving the crushing losses suffered by his Iraqi counterparts on the subsequent three trips back to the Middle East.
When he resigned his commission, the doctors proclaimed his headaches and nightmares were symptoms of posttraumatic stress. Screw that. He squeezed his eyes shut, blocking out Laguna Beach's postcard view, and willed his shoulders to relax.
About six months ago, Amber had left a pamphlet for Peaceful Warrior, a local veterans' organization, by his computer. He'd skimmed it. Pondered the various offerings. None appealed except for the meditation classes.
Although he knew where the center was, he'd avoided checking it out. Yet the meditation group intrigued him. Could it really help him quell the panic attacks? Someone had described meditation as learning to control your mind or direct your thoughts to where you want them to go. Running from the nightmares and stress obviously wasn't working for him.
He kept his eyes shut, savoring the warmth of the sun on his skin, and continued to drink in the crisp ocean air — this was as close to meditating as he'd ever achieved. Hell, he'd check out the schedule now. Nobody needed to know. But he'd be damned if he'd wear flowy white pants, sniff incense, or hold those fancy beads that resembled a rosary from his Catholic-elementary-school days.
He spun away from the comfort of the azure waves and walked the few blocks to Peaceful Warrior. The tree-lined street was quiet. The pedestrians and tourists tended to flock to the main drag. Nonetheless, he glanced over his right shoulder, then flicked his gaze to the left. Double-checked the right side again. Nobody around. He wasn't paranoid. Just cautious.
He approached the older brick building and hesitated a few paces in front of the entrance. Took a step back and considered the unimposing two-story facade. He stood taller, assuming his military posture.
Maybe he just needed a punishing session with the punching bag or a few fingers of Jameson whiskey. Stop being such a damn wuss. Workouts and alcohol weren't driving the demons away. He stepped forward. Something needed to change.
"Christian?" A husky voice lilted his name.
His head whipped to the right. A beautiful woman dressed in a conservative dark suit and tortoiseshell glasses stared at him. Somewhere in his brain he registered dangerously toned legs encased in red skyscraper-high stilettos.
Sweat popped onto his brow, and he swallowed, his throat suddenly parched. Recognition flooded his system when he dragged his gaze up from those spiked heels. Her tawny cat eyes captured his — Kelly Prescott. Didn't she live in San Diego?
"Um, hey, Kelly." What the hell was she doing at Peaceful Warrior?
"What are you —?"
"Why are you —?"
"Ladies first." Distract. Deflect. Damn it to hell.
"Well, it's kind of a secret at the moment, but I'm about to interview for the general counsel position here." The corners of her rosy lips curved up.
"General counsel?" For some reason he couldn't seem to utter more than two words at a time.
"Yes. They've needed one for a long time and recently got a grant to fund it. So here I am." She walked toward him. Hints of cinnamon and some exotic scent assaulted his nostrils.
He drew in his abs and expanded his chest. Kind of like a rooster. He grunted. "You're going to commute?"
"No, if I get the job, I'm actually moving up here." She shrugged and flashed perfect white teeth, oblivious of his discomfort.
"Huh." Over a year ago, her golden beauty had caught his attention when she'd accompanied his buddy Nick and Sophie to Vines. He'd been single at the time — hell, he was always single — and asked Nick about her. She was Sophie's best friend. His attraction cooled when he'd learned she was a wealthy corporate attorney working for her daddy's firm and dating another lawyer. Too complicated.
"So what are you doing here?" She tilted her head up, still about a foot shorter than he was, even with those damn shoes that would be forever burned into his brain.
"Oh, just taking a break from work, getting some fresh air." He gestured with palms sweatier than they'd ever been in the searing heat of the Middle East.
"Funny, I thought you were going inside too." She raised perfectly groomed eyebrows. "Wish me luck?"
"Good luck." Apparently, he'd never speak in full sentences again. His brain waves sputtered and sparked, nothing igniting except for a curl of lust in his gut.
"Thanks. Are you sure you don't want to go in?" Her eyes were the color of burnt caramel — stunning.
"No." Had he yelled? "No, thanks. I'll just finish my walk."
A good soldier knew when to retreat. He pivoted abruptly and strode in the opposite direction of his wine bar. He expelled a deep breath and wiped his damp hands on his jeans.
Although he'd managed to avoid discussing why he was lurking outside of Peaceful Warrior, he couldn't remember a word he'd said. Damn it, she'd totally thrown him off guard. Images of sliding those glasses off her pert little nose and wrapping his hands in her long sun- streaked hair assaulted him.
He prayed the walk would cool him off. If not, he'd need to dive into the frigid Pacific Ocean.CHAPTER 2
Kelly closed the door behind her and sagged back against it, fanning her face with one hand. Her cheeks were burning from what could only be described as a strange encounter with the tall, dark, and smoldering Christian Wolfe. Up close, he was quite the specimen. Pure animal attraction — it was the only logical answer. Lord knows his conversational skills left something to be desired.
What had he been doing in front of Peaceful Warrior? She shook her head. Not her problem. She had enough of her own at the moment, thank you very much. She entered the office doorway into a cramped, deserted reception area and double-checked her watch. The brief conversation had only cost her three minutes. She was still early.
She tapped the toe of her scarlet patent-leather stiletto on the linoleum floor and checked her watch for the hundredth time. Her appointment was at one thirty, and it was already two fifteen. At least her overheated skin had cooled.
She glowered at the Executive Director nameplate on the battered office door, willing the occupant to open it and meet with her already. Damn it, she'd played hooky from the office, and the last thing she needed was her father lecturing her on the importance of billable hours. This interview symbolized more than a new job. It represented a complete life reset.
Without warning, the executive director's door flew open. Kelly straightened her spine and smoothed back an errant strand of hair determined to escape her low chignon.
"Ms. Prescott?" A stocky red-faced man with steel-wool hair barked at her, pinning her with dark raisin eyes. His short-sleeved olive-green golf shirt and khaki slacks didn't exactly shout "executive."
Accustomed to snarling bosses, she nodded and rose from the hard plastic chair. She strode toward him and shook his hand. "Kelly Prescott and you must be Mr. Williams."
"Come on in, come on in." He turned, and she followed him into a musty shoebox of an office. Banker cartons lined the walls from the dingy beige carpet to the low popcorn ceiling. A small window could have offered some natural light and fresh air, but battered vinyl blinds prevented relief for the oppressive room. The warm air was as still as a tomb. If this were the executive director's office, would she be assigned a closet?
He gestured to an old-fashion armless office chair in the midst of the chaos. She sat, carefully placed her red leather briefcase on the floor, folded her hands in her lap, and struggled to regulate her pounding heart. The nerves were solely based on the stakes of the interview and had nothing to do with Christian Wolfe. Nothing at all.
He leaned against the edge of an enormous weathered-oak desk and crossed hefty arms across a barrel-like chest. Was that a Rolodex on his desk? It couldn't be, could it? Did he have a typewriter too? Pay attention, girl.
"So tell me why I should hire you." His face was impassive.
"Well, I'm confident I'm the best fit for the general counsel position. I've got a history of excelling at whatever I do, starting with graduating summa cum —"
"I've read your resume. I know you're smart. You work for the Prescott Law Firm. Your dad's got a reputation, so I figure you're tough. Tell me what I don't know." He shook his head.
She paused and pushed her glasses back up onto the bridge of her nose. So he didn't want to hear about the high-profile cases she'd won. Already this was a complete one-eighty from her comfort zone in the big bad world of corporate litigation. Thank goodness. Time to shift gears. She squared her shoulders.
"You're correct. I'm smart. I'm tough. I'm not afraid of hard work. What my resume doesn't show is that I care. I want to work somewhere I'll make a difference. Where I can actually help people instead of making huge corporations more money." Where justice and compassion are valued, not irrelevant.
"Okay, that explains nonprofit. Why work with veterans? Why Peaceful Warrior?" His neutral tone revealed nothing.
"Because I care about the people who've served our country. They should be treated as heroes and given the chance to start over. New careers. New lives." She inhaled deeply, warming to the topic. "I've researched your foundation, and I love what you do. It's important. It's vital. We need more organizations dedicated to providing assistance to these displaced soldiers —"
"This is more of a jack-of-all-trades than a traditional attorney role. It's tough. The money sucks. It's not about billable hours. It takes a personal connection." He raised a bushy brow. "What's yours?"
"My roommate in college was ROTC and served in Iraq after graduation. She died, and her family was devastated. I ended up reading more about all the problems with the people who actually do return home and can't seem to reintegrate." She leaned forward, her hands gripping her thighs, her gaze intent upon his. She wouldn't allow him to throw her off with constant interruptions — she was used to them.
"I'm also experienced with trying to help someone I care about beat addiction. I know how much support troubled people need." Her stomach clenched, and she blinked to keep her eyes from filling.
He frowned and shook his head. "This isn't a group of addicts, Ms. Prescott. Far from it. Sure, some of the soldiers are struggling with booze and drugs, but it's just one small segment of what we do."
"Of course, I know the focus is on helping vets and their families with a variety of issues from legal to medical to finding housing or a job and providing complimentary programs like meditation." Crap, had she screwed this up already? Her belly certainly wouldn't unwind.
"So the big question is can you handle it without becoming too emotionally entangled?" Doubt crept into his baritone voice.
"Are you too emotionally entangled, sir?" Frost cut through her tone, and she pressed her lips together. If one more person implied being a woman would impact her professionalism, she would scream.
"Touché. I'm not trying to be a hard-ass. Well, twenty-five years in the Marines will do that to you. This is another world compared to big corporate law." He paused and shrugged. "You'll be handling a lot of the business stuff, but we're small. A lot of this is personal. You'll meet people with stories that would rip apart even the hardest of hearts. And you need to project calm for them no matter what. They can't doubt your capability."
She nodded. "I get it. Look, I've got a great poker face. I was assigned the more challenging clients because of my ability to stay calm." On the surface anyway. If anybody could read her mind or hear her galloping heart ...
He scrunched his brows together, unconvinced. "Well, I'm —"
"Mr. Williams, I am the perfect person for this job. Do you have any other objections to bringing me on?" She leaned forward, injecting strength and confidence into her tone, her lawyer voice.
"Did you look at the salary? We received a grant to cover it, which is why we've actually got this new position. Your office would be so small it makes mine look like the Taj Mahal, a lot of the work isn't attorney work, and if you think you billed a lot of hours before, you'll do more here without a whiff of a year-end bonus."
"Yes, I did." She nodded and struggled to breathe evenly. "The salary is ... um ... low. I'm not afraid of long hours. I've planned an appropriate budget." She'd squirreled away most of her generous salary to escape a life she hadn't chosen.
Enough was enough. For the last six months, she'd cried every morning in the shower, dreading going to work in her overbearing father's stuffy, possibly corrupt, law firm. Time to create her life on her own terms.
"Don't you live in San Diego? You're willing to move?" He crossed his arms over his chest again.
"For now. I've got a lead on a place here." Her belly leapt in anticipation. Sophie would rent her the cottage, wouldn't she?
"When could you start?"
"Are you offering me the job?" She gripped the edges of the chair to stop herself before she bounced in her seat like a little kid.
"Ms. Prescott, would you be interested in becoming the general counsel for Peaceful Warrior?" Finally, he smiled.
"Absolutely." She returned his smile, stood, and resisted the urge to hug him. "Absolutely."
He stepped forward and grasped her hand, a stronger, warmer handshake than before. Had her entire life just changed in the course of a quarter hour?
"When can you start? As you can see, we're a little backed up around here." He gestured to the mountains of documents stuffed into the room.
"Can you give me a few weeks? I need to resign and move. And I could commute at first because I'm in Solana Beach in North County San Diego, and it isn't far."
"Of course. What's a few more weeks? We'll get all the paperwork handled, and I'll have Susan clear out your office and get it set up."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sunset in Laguna"
Copyright © 2018 Claire Petretti Marti.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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