"This smashing sequel shows that respectful communication is downright scorching... This sweet contemporary will appeal to romance fans who like their heroes powerful and smitten and their heroines capable and genuine."-Publishers Weekly STARRED Review
"Open your eyes, Michelle."
She gasped at the sight of the infinite night sky stretching all around her, full of more stars than she'd ever imagined.
He'd thought of this. For her. It was so perfect, so romantic, it stole her breath. She smiled and curled her fingers around Ray's.
When everything you love is on the line...
The Isles of Scilly off the coast of England are remote, windswept and wild. They're the perfect place for Ray Powell to recuperate after the toughest Afghanistan mission the military contractor has ever run. Except instead of the peace and quiet he so desperately needs, he's faced with a beautiful American woman who instantly challenges his iron control.
It's best to proceed with caution...
Seeking her own safe haven, Michelle Cole is intrigued and flustered by the intensely compelling and irresistible man.
As their cautious friendship slowly builds into simmering attraction, their hearts and souls are about to be broken open...if they'll allow it.
Praise for The Longest Night:
"Touching and stupendously fresh... Contemporary romance fans will savor every page."-Publishers Weekly STARRED Review
"One of the best debuting romance writers in memory... Braden has a genuine gift."-Booklist STARRED Review
Longest Night Series:
The Longest Night
The Deepest Night
About the Author
Kara Braden makes her debut in modern romance with a story of love in isolation. She believes that engaging, romantic fantasy can be found everywhere in the world, even in the most unlikely places. With the support of her wonderful husband, cats, and dogs, she writes from her home office outside Phoenix, Arizona, where she spends her time hiding from the sunlight and heat.
Read an Excerpt
Friday, July 5
Ray Powell knew that the captain of the Penzance Runner had sailed the waters off Cornwall for years, but that didn't stop him from surreptitiously bracing himself as the chartered fishing boat heeled to starboard with reckless speed. The darkness stretched around them in three directions, broken only by the silvery white glow of endless stars above and the welcoming lights of St. Mary's harbor ahead. Though it was July, the cold wind off the Celtic Sea slid through the open window to bite at Ray's face, and three or four days' worth of stubble did little to warm his skin.
The boat's captain was an old fisherman based out of the port town of Newlyn, on the mainland. He steered the boat toward a long, narrow dock on the south side of the harbor. All around them, small fishing and pleasure boats rocked on the waves. St. Mary's was the largest island in the Isles of Scilly, thirty miles off the coast of Cornwall. Everything, from furniture to groceries, had to be brought in by ship. Here on the islands, ships were a way of life.
"Hopefully the weather's taken a turn for the better. The rain stopped just yesterday, after almost a solid month. Not that it's stopped the tourists." The captain eased up on the throttle; the bow plunged as their speed slowed to a crawl. "How long are you here for, this time?"
"Just a couple of weeks. Maybe a bit longer," Ray answered. He hadn't yet decided. Maybe he'd just stay until all his bruises and wounds healed. Maybe he wouldn't leave at all.
No, that was just wishful thinking. Much as he loved it here on the island where he'd spent so much of his childhood, he'd made a home for himself across the Atlantic, in Virginia. He had responsibilities to his employees and his best friend turned business partner, Preston Fairchild. Together, they ran Samaritan International Security, a private military contracting company tasked with local security and bodyguard work in a dozen hot spots across the globe. Though their on-site command teams and managers were all competent, Ray was under no illusions about the success of the company. That lay firmly in his and Preston's hands.
Besides, he thought pragmatically, without Ray to carry his share of the load, Preston would bury himself in work and never have a moment's fun. Worse, Ray acted as the senior field troubleshooter when things went disastrously wrong. If Ray quit Samaritan, that responsibility would fall squarely on Preston's shoulders, and Preston hadn't been out in the field for almost five years. He wasn't getting any younger. Then again, neither of them was.
Ray laughed at himself and ducked belowdecks to retrieve the hefty backpack that served as his only luggage. He was thirty-six, not sixty-three, and he had no intention of settling down in any way. He wasn't about to lock himself behind a desk in a corner office, spending his nights in a horrid Colonial house behind a picket fence, complete with a wife, kids, and some irritating little yappy dog. Hell, he hadn't even committed to financing his truck. Cash purchases, short-term leases on pre-furnished apartments, and women who weren't in the least interested in steady relationships suited him just fine. The only constants in his life were Samaritan International Security, Preston, and Preston's family, odd as they were.
An insistent beeping cut into his thoughts. He fished his cell phone out of his leather jacket and smiled wryly at the familiar name. He took the call and put the phone to his ear, but before he could say a word, Preston demanded, "Ray? Are you all right?"
"What are you, my mum?" Ray countered, leaning against the bulkhead to stay out of the captain's way.
"If I were your mother, I'd disown you. You never call. You never write. Of course, I've seen your handwriting, so I wouldn't be able to read it, but at least I'd know you were still alive."
"It hasn't even been one bloody day!" Ray protested, trying not to let his amusement creep into his tone.
"Try three," Preston said bluntly. "Your last call was from Islamabad."
Ray's smile vanished. He closed his eyes, trying to piece together the last couple of days, but it was all a blur of travel.
The mission had technically been in Peshawar, Pakistan, but he and his team had ended up over the Afghan border in Jalalabad. They'd had to take a more roundabout route back into the relative safety of Pakistan.
Once everyone was safe and the crisis resolved, Ray had taken the first available route out of the country. He'd ended up on far too many connecting flights between Islamabad and London, but he could swear he remembered checking into the office at some point. Hadn't he?
"Shit. Everything's terrible," he said, belatedly giving Preston the all-clear code word. If he'd said "great," Preston would have the nearest field team mobilized to come to his rescue. Unfortunately, running a private security and military contracting company meant he and Preston were both prime targets for revenge attacks, especially when they were out of the country.
"Then you're an asshole for not calling," Preston said, not hiding the relief in his voice. "Doc Murray's report said you were injured."
"It's nothing more than a scratch," Ray dismissed, flexing his left arm. The bruises barely twinged, and the stitches were more irritating than painful.
"Nothing more than a scratch," Preston repeated. "It was twelve stitches and a course of antibiotics after you neglected it for half the mission."
"The doctor's report was that thorough?"
"Yes. Are you taking your antibiotics?"
"Twice daily, as prescribed. I even set an alarm on my phone." He took the phone down and opened the calendar to do a quick count. "Only a few days left. I'm fine, Preston."
"Really. I promise." Ray sighed, closing his eyes against the remembered sting of the desert sun. Jalalabad was greener than many places in Afghanistan, but the sun glare was still painful. "It could have been worse, Preston."
"Which is why you went to fix that fucking mess," Preston said confidently. "Anything you need to tell me that you left out of your report?"
"No, nothing to worry about. It was just the usual cock-up when you let civilians roam free in a war zone."
"Those civilians pay the bills."
"Lucky us. Bloody exhausting, cleaning up after them."
"Mmm-hmm. So, I take it I should have your PA clear your calendar?"
"I know I sent you an email or something about that."
Preston's cough didn't quite disguise his laugh. "You texted me, and I quote: ‘Bugger this. Leaving the sodding desert. Going north on holiday.'"
"Technically, all of that is accurate," Ray pointed out, grabbing a handrail as the boat lurched. Outside, he saw the captain securing the mooring lines.
"Not exactly a formal request for leave."
Ray started across the cabin. "I'm your bloody VP! I granted myself leave."
Preston laughed. "Fine. I'll let everyone know you're off the grid for a while. If you're not back by the end of the month, I'm selling your truck."
Settling the backpack over his uninjured shoulder, Ray headed out onto the deck. "Do and I'll burn down your house." He checked his watch-quarter past ten. Liam closed the kitchen at Valhalla's Rest at nine. "I'm off. I'm headed for the pub."
"Right. Be safe, Ray. If you need anything, call."
Ray huffed in answer and disconnected, trying to ignore the feelings of guilt that rose up inside him. He knew he needed this sort of downtime after a rough mission-it was one of the rules he and Preston both followed-but that didn't make him feel any better about abandoning his responsibilities.
Still, now that he'd taken this holiday, Preston wouldn't let him back into the office even if he returned to Virginia. So he searched through his contact list until he found the number for St. Mary's Taxis and called for a pickup at eleven at the local pub. Then he jumped down onto the dock and shook the captain's hand.
"I'm headed to town to grab a pint. Can I buy you one?" Ray invited. He'd already paid the exorbitant passage fee, rather than spending the night in Cornwall and taking the ferry out tomorrow. Unfortunately, it was the height of tourist season, and flights from Land's End had been booked solid through tomorrow night, and Ray hadn't wanted to wait.
"Thanks, mate, but I need an early start back in the morning, or the wife will have my head. Raise one for me." The captain shook Ray's hand. He'd been glad to take the charter, upon hearing that all the flights from Land's End were booked, but it was no surprise that he'd be just as glad to get to sleep so he could start back home first thing in the morning.
"Done," Ray promised and started down the dock, heading for Hugh Town, the main settlement on the island. With every step and every breath, the tension bled from his aching, tired body. Though he hadn't been here for a couple of years, now he was home.
* * *
Michelle Cole awoke to an unfamiliar ringing sound. Ring-ring. Ring-ring.
That was odd. She didn't have a British ringtone set on her phone, did she? She rolled onto her back and opened her eyes to an unfamiliar curtain of gauzy white lace. Beyond, the night was absolutely dark, without a hint of suburban lights.
Memory crept back slowly. She was on the island of St. Mary's. Valhalla's Rest Bed and Breakfast.
Flying from Arizona to New York to London had left her jet-lagged. On top of that, the train trip to Cornwall and the brief flight to St. Mary's had left her exhausted. She had no idea what time it was, and when she tried to check her cell phone on the nightstand, she found it dead.
Her travel power converter. Right. She remembered packing one in Arizona, but when she'd arrived at Valhalla's Rest just a few hours earlier, she hadn't been able to quickly find it. She'd need to dig it out before she went back to sleep. She'd be lost without her cell phone.
Fumbling in the dark, she picked up the landline phone. "Hello? Er, Valhalla's Rest Bed and Breakfast," she said, trying to recall her professionalism. The B and B wasn't open for business, but she was still the closest thing it had to a manager, at least for now.
"Oh, thank goodness you're in. Miss Cole, isn't it?" asked an unfamiliar female voice-an older lady, if Michelle had to guess. Before she could answer, the woman continued, "I believe my husband dropped you off there just a little while ago. I'm calling from St. Mary's Taxi Service."
"Yes, uh..." Michelle sat up, rubbing her eyes. "Is there a problem? Did I leave something in the car?"
"Oh, no, not at all. I'm terribly sorry to inconvenience you, but there's a bit of an issue regarding one of your guests."
Baffled, Michelle shook her head to try and clear out the cobwebs. "I'm sorry. What guest? The bed and breakfast is closed for now."
"Yes, I know. It's something of a complication, but nothing we can't clear up right quick."
Michelle frowned, wondering if the woman had confused Valhalla's Rest with another bed and breakfast or hotel on the island. "You said you're with the taxi service?"
"I'm sorry-this is terribly rude of me. I'm Helen Stewart. I run the company."
The woman waited, and after a moment's pause, Michelle automatically said, "Nice to meet you."
"And you, Miss Cole. As for your guest, we're bringing him around in an hour, if you could please have a room ready?"
"I can't. I really can't. The hotel's closed, Mrs. Stewart."
"Yes, I do know that. We all knew Liam, poor man. It was terrible, him going so suddenly, but at least he went in his sleep-"
"Mrs. Stewart," Michelle interrupted, wondering if this was really happening or just a very odd dream. "I really can't have a guest. The hotel's not open. It's not even my hotel."
"But he always stays there. I'm certain he'll be no trouble at all, and there's nowhere else he can stay. The island's all booked. It's tourist season, you know. And he's one of ours."
One of ours, Michelle thought, waking up a bit more at that. As in, from St. Mary's? Then why would he need a hotel at all, unless it was just for one night? She still wanted to object, but St. Mary's was a small, tight-knit community. Even though Valhalla's Rest wasn't hers, she didn't want to lose the goodwill of the locals.
Hesitantly, she said, "Well-"
"Wonderful," Helen interrupted immediately. Michelle could hear the woman's cheery smile, now that she'd gotten her way. "He's at the pub for a bite now, so you won't even need to make dinner. We'll bring him round in one hour, then?"
"One hour," Michelle confirmed numbly, and they both hung up.
She turned on the light and got out of bed, rubbing her eyes with one hand. She checked the clock on the wall. Just after ten. She'd been asleep for maybe two hours.
Of course, she'd been running a bed and breakfast for years, back in the States. She knew how to deal with troublesome guests on less sleep. Hopefully this particular guest wouldn't be troublesome at all.
He had to be a local who just needed a place to stay for one night. Maybe there was a problem with his house-plumbing leak, electricity went out, something like that. Something in the kitchen, she guessed, since he was having a late dinner at the pub. At least he was polite enough not to expect her to cook for him on no notice.
Yawning, she went to brush her teeth and make herself presentable.
* * *
A Cornish pasty and a pint of local ale went a long way toward soothing Ray's post-mission nerves. The familiar pub had been comfortably quiet, with only a few locals at the bar and tourists at the tables near the windows. The bartender, a man Ray knew only in passing, had been happy to serve up a late meal, but he'd spent most of his time cleaning the bar and restocking. Ray was grateful for the silence; he was too tired for any sort of meaningful conversation. St. Mary's was his refuge when the rest of the world turned dark and threatening.
Now, as Ray went out into the cool night, he felt another piece of his combat wariness break away. The wind was bracing, the sky overhead dark and filled with stars even here, in Hugh Town. Ray hefted his backpack and headed for a battered white taxi waiting in the street.
Ray lifted a hand to wave at the man leaning against the passenger side. "Evening, Malcolm."
"Ray! How are-My God, what happened to you?" Malcolm asked as Ray stepped into a pool of light at the curb.
Ray's smile tugged at the cuts on his face. "Never try to shave on an airplane," he deflected with a laugh.
Malcolm smiled back, though the expression was tinged with worry. He hurried to open the back door as he relieved Ray of his backpack. The courtesy wasn't necessary, but tonight Ray appreciated it. He was too tired to do anything but get into the taxi and close his eyes. He'd been on the move for longer than he wanted to consider, crossing eight time zones. He couldn't recall sleeping on the flight from Gatwick to Newquay or the train from Newquay to Penzance.
This time, he was asleep before the taxi started to move.
He woke from his doze to Malcolm softly saying, "Ray? Wake up, mate. We're here."
Ray opened his gritty eyes and looked around. They were parked just outside the familiar white walls of Valhalla's Rest. If Virginia was now his home, Valhalla's Rest was his sanctuary. Once, it had been his grandparents' house-the place where he'd spent every summer holiday. When he'd inherited the property, he'd been in the Royal Marines. He'd sold the property to an old family acquaintance who'd wanted to turn it into a bed and breakfast. Ray had given Liam a more than fair price, with the understanding that the doors would always be open when Ray needed a refuge. And after a mission like the one in Peshawar, Ray definitely needed one.
"Sorry, Malcolm. It seems I've been bad company tonight."
"That's all right. It looks like you need a good night's rest, and it's almost time for me to turn in for the night. A little quiet is always nice." With a brief, reassuring smile, Malcolm got out of the driver's seat and circled around to the trunk.
Ray opened the door, got out stiffly, and then stretched his aching muscles, feeling another piece of tension break away. He took his backpack from Malcolm and paid him, saying, "Thanks. I'll give you a call tomorrow night or the next, whenever I head back to the pub." Normally, Ray preferred to walk whenever he was on the island, but he was still feeling too stiff and achy from the mission and all his subsequent travel.
Malcolm's nod felt awkward and unusually reticent, as if he were hiding something. A shiver of suspicion went up Ray's spine, though he pushed it aside. He was overtrained in dealing with combat situations, stressed, and exhausted. He was seeing shadows where there were none. So he just said, "Good night, Malcolm. Say hello to Helen for me."
"Of course. You take care of yourself, Ray," Malcolm answered, heading back to the driver's side while Ray went up the path to the front door.
He knocked, feeling a twinge of guilt at the late hour, even though Helen had promised him she'd phone ahead to ensure he had a room. Liam was getting on in years, and-
And wasn't the one who opened the door. Instead of a graying old man with a weathered, cheerful grin, Ray found himself looking down at a petite, unfamiliar woman in a fluffy pink sweater and blue jeans. In the soft porch light, her brown hair looked dark as espresso, matching the huge eyes that went wide as she took in the cuts and abrasions on his face. She was absolutely enchanting.
Who was she? Ray resisted the temptation to crowd her back into the well-lit foyer so he could see her more closely.
Realizing he looked like a thug who'd come out on the wrong end of a bar brawl, Ray put on his best smile and said, "Sorry for the late arrival. Are you Liam's niece?" He had to struggle with his memory for a moment. "Vicky, right?"
"Um. Actually, no. I'm Michelle Cole. Vicky asked me to look after the place." She didn't step back to invite him inside.
Her New York accent caught him off guard, distracting him from asking why Vicky, not Liam, would be hiring help. "You're-" He cut himself off before he could say something ridiculous, like "American." Instead, he said, "I'm sorry. I've been traveling for days. I'm Ray Powell."
"Traveling," she muttered, her brows drawing together in a frown.
Out in the street, Ray heard the low rumble of a car engine and the squeal of a steering system in need of fluid. Michelle shook her head and leaned to the side, looking past Ray. He turned to look back over his shoulder, and they both watched Malcolm make a U-turn and drive back toward Hugh Town.
Once the car was gone, Michelle took a breath as if steeling herself and looked up at Ray again. Her smile seemed forced, but she politely said, "Come on in. I made up one of the rooms for you."
"Thank you." He followed her inside, noting that she locked the door. Was she the only staff present? That would explain her reticence to let him in. Hell, in her position, he wouldn't let himself into the B and B, given the way he looked-not without a police escort.
She picked up a key from the side table near the door to the manager's office. "Let me show you to your room."
Wanting to set her at ease, he said, "No need. I know my way around. Which room is it?"
"Top of the stairs, turn right, go to the end of the hall. It's the big one with a full bath."
To prove that he really was a frequent guest, he said, "The Serica room. Thank you." He held out his hand for the key.
This time, her smile was a bit more genuine. She set the key in his palm and said, "I think there's a first aid kit in the kitchen, if you need. Would you like me to get it for you?"
For one brief moment, he imagined how her hands might feel on him, tending the cuts, abrasions, and bruises that the on-site medic had neglected. A blink-and the memory of her shocked expression at first seeing him-pushed the thought aside. "Thanks, but no. A hot shower and a good night's rest will do more than enough."
"All right. The kitchen opens at"-she hesitated for a single breath-"seven. If you need anything before then, just knock on the office door." She gestured at the door off the foyer, near the foot of the stairs. "Good night, Mr. Powell."
"Good night, Ms. Cole," he answered, bemused at the formality. He started up the stairs, listening as she went into the manager's office and locked the door. Behind the office, he knew, was a small apartment with a bedroom, kitchenette, and private bath. But that was where Liam lived. Why would she go in there? Where was Liam?
Avoiding the creaky fourth stair without conscious thought, Ray dragged his free hand up the railing, feeling a fine layer of dust. Unusual, that. A sniff verified that the air felt closed and musty. The hallway lights were on, but no lights shone under the guest bedroom doorways. His senses were still battlefield-sharp. He stopped at the top step, overlooking the dark sitting room below, and concentrated on listening to the space around him.
The silence was so heavy, he could hear the faint rattle of the water heater refilling. Valhalla's Rest never attracted particularly rowdy guests, but this sort of quiet felt empty. Deserted.
No guests. An unfamiliar attendant who was staying on-site, in Liam's apartment. Dust in the air.
He went to the Serica room and found the door locked-another oddity. Why would Michelle lock the door, especially if the B and B was empty?
He had too many questions and not enough answers. He went into his room, closed the door without bothering to lock it, and set his backpack on the chair by the window. His jacket followed, and he sat on the edge of the bed so he could take off his boots and socks. The effort was exhausting. He stripped to his briefs only because he knew he'd sleep poorly if he wore his jeans for another night.
Thankfully, he'd remembered to take one of his last remaining antibiotic tablets with lunch before taking the boat from Newlyn. He never would have made it to the bathroom for a glass of water. He certainly didn't have the energy to brush his teeth.
He only got up long enough to open the window. Fresh sea air rushed in, displacing the closed-in, musty feeling. That thought brought back the nagging feeling that something was wrong-a mystery whose solution had to do with the empty guest rooms and the pretty American woman who was apparently running the B and B by herself.
Whatever was going on, though, it didn't feel threatening, which meant he could put it all off until tomorrow. For now, he wanted nothing more than sleep. Even the shower could wait.
* * *
Breathe, Michelle told herself, leaning back against the office door. She'd expected some harmless, temporarily homeless local. In her imagination, she'd had a picture of an older man with a small overnight bag, a guest looking to stay just one night until he could call a handyman.
Instead, she'd gotten more than six feet of danger and muscles and fire barely hidden behind blue eyes and a mischievous, crooked smile. Ray Powell was precisely the type of man Michelle avoided at all costs-the exact opposite of every boyfriend she'd ever had. Certainly he was no one she'd ever feel comfortable having as the sole guest in her old B and B, Anchor's Cove. In fact, her self-preservation instincts had nearly made her slam the door in his somewhat battered face.
But he'd been patient with her. He hadn't tried to force his way inside and hadn't expected her to take his bag. And he was obviously hurt, whatever the cause. She hadn't had the heart to refuse.
Almost a foot shorter than his six-foot-one, give or take, she'd felt like a child standing in front of him. Instead of craning her neck back to meet his intense gaze, she'd found herself talking to his broad chest-not that she had objected to the view. His leather jacket had hung open, showing an old T-shirt that had done nothing to hide the beautifully defined muscles underneath, and though his jeans were baggy and worn, she didn't think there was a spare ounce on him anywhere.
Still, she couldn't push aside her memory of the cuts on his face. They looked just days old, with a hint of healing bruises on his cheek and jaw, just faint touches of yellow that almost disappeared in the soft foyer light. His size was imposing enough to make her feel threatened just by standing there, and that was without the evidence that he'd been in some sort of a fight.
Or, she admitted to herself, maybe he'd been in an accident. Just because he felt dangerous-deadly-didn't mean he actually was. Besides, he'd been nothing but polite, despite the way she'd stared at him like an idiot.
One night. He needed somewhere to stay for one night. Was that what the woman from the taxi service had said? Michelle couldn't remember.
One night wasn't so bad. She nudged her mind away from thoughts of muscles and wicked eyes and an engaging, lopsided smile, trying to get herself back into management mode. She hadn't actually run a B and B for almost a year, but it wasn't too difficult for her to start putting together her to-do list.
Her guest had looked exhausted, so she doubted he'd be up before eight or nine. She'd wake up early, do her yoga, and then be ready to make him breakfast whenever he got up. If the weather held, maybe she'd pick flowers and set up a dining table on the patio so her solitary guest didn't feel uncomfortable in the big dining room. Then she'd tend to his room and try to discreetly find out how long he needed to stay. She thought it was one night, but she'd actually feel better once she had confirmation of that.