Faith Russell refuses to be with a man who feels a sense of obligation toward her. Sure, she's been through some traumatic events that have left her a little shaky. That doesn't mean she needs Sheriff Ben Wheeler hovering. She'll be fine…on her own.
Despite her protests, however, Ben won't budge. He insists they share a romantic connection that deserves to be explored. She'll admit she finds him attractive, but how can she be close to a man who might view her as a duty? It's not until she catches a glimpse of herself through his eyes that she discovers what he feels for her is very real.
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Ben Wheeler hated to fail at anything.
He hadn't made a habit of it in his seventeen-year career in law enforcement. Oh, there'd been screwups, sure. Like the one that had landed him in the ICU for a week with a bullet hole in his gut. But that time, he'd taken down the guy who shot him and a second one who'd been about to shoot him, so he couldn't exactly call it a failure. He'd lived, they'd died. And naturally, there were cases—particularly in Homicide—that had gone cold, which he hated.
But failing to find an ordinary guy… Not a professional hit man or anything like that, not someone who knew how to disappear as a career skill. Nope, just a sleaze who'd abused his wife and, now that she'd left him, wanted to teach her a vicious lesson. Ben couldn't think of an excuse in the world for his failure to locate Rory Hardesty and put the son of a bitch behind bars.
His fingers flexed on the steering wheel despite the brief glower he gave them. He wished like hell there was a different, logical route to take into West Fork—one that wouldn't add fifteen minutes or more to the drive.
One that wouldn't take him past the Russell Family Farm, coming up on the right once the highway rounded a curve that followed the river.
Every time he saw the damn farm, he was slapped in the face with the reminder that he'd failed.
Was still failing.
He should have been able to keep Faith and Charlotte Russell from being terrorized and hurt.
He'd spent this afternoon in Everett helping train volunteers for a program that kept first-time juvenile offenders out of the court system. He was giving his time generously because he believed in preventative law enforcement. Nip crime in the bud, so to speak. Make teenage offenders who'd surrendered to an impulse to shoplift or threaten someone face sober citizens from their own community who could assign real-life punishment while also offering the kind of attention and caring the court system couldn't. The kids who took the opportunity seriously wouldn't have the crime on their records. Ben liked the concept.
He'd keep his gaze straight ahead as he passed the farm, he told himself. Allow no more than a brief glance, to be sure there wasn't an ambulance or police car with flashing lights there to signal trouble. Not that there would be at this time of day—Hardesty liked the midnight hour.
Less than half a mile past the Russell farm, the highway led into the small town of West Fork in the foothills of Washington's Cascade Mountains.
Ben's town now, although he didn't know yet whether it would be permanent. He'd taken the job as police chief a year ago and still hadn't decided whether the decision had been good or lousy. Life was undeniably more peaceful here than it had been in Los Angeles. Peaceful, however, could be considered a euphemism for boring. He hadn't made up his mind which it was.
For a man who had worked his way up from a street officer in the LAPD to a lieutenant in Homicide via long stretches undercover in Vice, spending his days worrying about a chain saw stolen from a rental outfit or graffiti on the high-school gym wall felt unreal. Most of his officers were young and inexperienced, not toughened by ten years or more of urban crime like the homicide detectives who'd worked under him in Los Angeles had been. These days, the most dangerous place he stepped into was the city council chamber. He and the conservative, unimaginative idiots who made up the council did not see eye to eye on most issues. Unfortunately, he was dependent on them for his paycheck and continued employment.
Although Ben had been feeling satisfied with his afternoon's accomplishments, he'd been growing increasingly tense from the minute he'd left the courthouse in Everett. All because he'd have to pass the Russells' place, which made him think about Rory Hardesty, about Charlotte, and most of all about Charlotte's identical twin sister, Faith, who was Hardesty's ex. The two were twenty-nine, he knew; Faith had lived in West Fork her entire life except for the four years of college, while Charlotte had come home only recently to help Faith and their dad.
His squad car came abreast of the cornfield within which Faith had designed a maze that was a huge hit with area teenagers. Then he passed the handpainted signs strung along the highway, promising Antiques! Fresh Organic Produce! Plant Nursery! Local Arts & Crafts! Corn Maze! It was about the same time he'd moved to West Fork that the Russell Family Farm had been converted from real agriculture to primarily retail. Whether the farm/store/nursery amalgamation was doing well enough to keep the property from being sold off as neighboring ones had been, he had no idea.
Ben was startled to see that his turn signal was on and he was slowing. What in hell? He'd been avoiding the farm and Faith Russell in particular for weeks now. He had no new information to offer her.
But, damn it, here he was turning in anyway, pulling into the hard-packed dirt parking lot in front of the nearly one-hundred-year-old barn that housed the retail business.
Faith's Blazer was parked beside her father's battered pickup truck up by the two-story yellow farmhouse. It was late enough in the afternoon that she was home from the elementary school, where she taught kindergarten. He knew she came straight home every day, changed clothes, then went straight to work at the barn, taking over from the part-time employee who filled in days when Charlotte wasn't able to. Don Russell, the twins' father, had been injured in early August when the tractor had rolled on him. Now, in October, he was becoming more mobile, but was still on crutches and couldn't be of much help to his daughters in keeping the farm going. Ben had seen the strain on his face; Russell felt guilty as hell that his land, his farm, was still in the family only because Faith was willing—no, determined—to work herself to the bone to save it.
Russell wasn't the only one feeling guilty. If only Ben could find and arrest Faith's ex-husband, that would take a hell of a lot of pressure off her.
A van and a car were parked in front of the barn, which meant Faith had some business. He parked beside the car and, after a moment, got out.
Spiky purple asters bloomed in the narrow bed in front of the barn, as did a clump of sunflowers at the corner. A scarecrow sat atop a bale of straw right outside the barn doors. Sheaves of dried cornstalks and a couple of pumpkins added to the Halloween appeal. Between the corn maze, the pumpkin fields and the wagon rides, Halloween was big for the Russells.
Damn it, what was he doing here?
He knew the sight of him upset Faith. She probably wasn't any happier to see him than she would have been to see her ex-husband stroll in.
Her divorce had been final over a year ago. The mar riage had lasted three years, and resulted in only one police report, after Hardesty had beaten Faith so viciously she'd have died if a neighbor hadn't called 911. He'd gone—too briefly—to jail, and she had left him. What little Ben knew of the marriage had come from Charlotte, who'd told him that the final beating had been the worst, but not the first. Hardesty had hurt his wife over and over again. Until that last time, she'd lied when she got medical treatment for broken bones and concussion. Forgiven him again and again. Intellectually, Ben knew how the dynamic of an abusive relationship worked and why the women often came to think they were at fault and deserved the punishment. Textbook info aside, he still didn't really get it.
Sometime this past summer, Hardesty had apparently gotten over any sense of shame and decided Faith should be ready to forgive him again and come back to him. When it became clear that wasn't happening, he'd gotten mad.
First, in August, came a middle-of-the-night arson fire that did some damage to the barn. That was when Ben had met the Russell sisters. A week or so later, a cherry bomb was lobbed through the dining room window when both women were sitting at the table. Ben had arrived to find Faith white with shock, her silken skin bristling with shards of glass from the shattered window. She'd been virtually deaf for nearly a day after the explosion and was damn lucky her eardrums hadn't been permanently damaged.
Hardesty hadn't gone back to his apartment, hadn't shown up to work the next day. He'd vanished—until the night he broke into the farmhouse and attacked Charlotte, thinking she was Faith. Concussed and with an eight-inch-long gash from a knife, Charlotte had gone to the hospital.
"Rory wouldn't have hurt Charlotte on purpose," Faith had insisted. "Only me."
As if that made it all right. Ben hadn't quite managed to hide his rage, he knew, remembering the way her eyes had dilated when she'd seen his expression.
Ben muttered an obscenity under his breath and felt like a fool, standing here outside the barn, afraid to go in.
Only, he told himself, because he didn't want to upset Faith.
Too bad he knew a lie when he heard one, even when he was the one telling it.
Still asking himself what he was doing here, Ben stepped inside, then paused to let his eyes adjust to the dim light. Small windows let in some sunlight, and double doors thrown open on one side of the barn to allow customer access to the nursery area outside made a bright rectangle.
The space in here was divided by open shelving units built of rough wood that sectioned off garden supplies from art and antiques from produce. In the middle of the barn, a large counter held displays of hand-canned jams and jellies as well as an old-fashioned cash register.
No one was behind the register. His eye was caught by a woman picking through a bin of Yukon Gold potatoes and filling a bag. He recognized her from the library, where she worked.
Ben nodded. "Ms. Taylor."
A potato in her hand, she looked up, momentarily apprehensive. "Chief Wheeler. Oh, dear. I hope you're not here because there's a problem?"
"No, I came to speak to Ms. Russell or her father. Whoever's handy." He smiled. "I might buy some of that raspberry jam while I'm here."
"It's divine, isn't it?" She laughed. "I think Faith is outside helping someone."
He was halfway across the barn when Faith and a pair of women came in from the nursery area. Faith was pulling a flatbed cart with half a dozen large, potted shrubs on it. With her head turned away as she said something to the other women, she didn't see Ben immediately.
Oh, hell, he thought, frozen in place.
He never got over the shock of the first sight of her. She was so damn beautiful. More than that, she made him think about sunshine, golden roses in bloom and picket fences. Home, the kind he'd never had. She was grace and sweetness.
All good reasons for him to stay away from her. He wasn't the man for a woman like her, not after the life he'd led. Growing up first with a drug-addict mother, then in foster homes, going straight into the ugly world of inner-city law enforcement—these things didn't make for a man who could be domesticated enough to belong behind a picket fence.
But damn it, sometimes he just wanted to look at her. To drink in the sight of her corn-silk blond hair, worn most often in a braid that hung down her back or flopped over one slender shoulder. The delicate, beautifully sculpted lines of her face and her pretty mouth. Her eyes—God, her eyes, a blue richer than the sky. Her slim body, endless legs, long-fingered hands he could all too easily imagine touching the five-year-olds she taught every day as she gently guided them.
And yeah, he could imagine those hands touching him, too, although most of the time he didn't let himself.
This, of course, was why he'd stopped by today. To see her. Nothing else.
He'd gotten himself breathing again when her head abruptly turned and her startling eyes gazed right into his. They widened and darkened, and he'd have sworn color rose in her cheeks.
God, he thought. She thinks I have news about Hardesty.
He was deluding himself if he thought she was reacting to him sexually. Hell, no; he was fated only to be the bearer of tidings, good or ill, as far as Faith Russell was concerned.
It didn't help that he was wearing his uniform. That was another thing different for him here in West Fork. He'd been on one plainclothes assignment or another for his last ten years in L.A. There, the uniform got taken out of mothballs mainly when he had to attend funerals. Now he embodied the police department in this town, so he wore a uniform most days. It felt both constricting and conspicuous to him. Conspicuous, of course, was the point.
"Ms. Russell," he said in an easy voice. "Ladies. Looks like you're in for some fall planting."
"It's the best time to put in shrubs and trees," one of them told him. She studied him with interest. "You're Chief Wheeler, aren't you? I've been wanting to talk to you about the proposed skateboard park. I know there's some controversy about it…."
Smiling an apology at Faith, he drew the woman aside and, while her friend paid for the shrubs, let her say her piece. He recognized her name once she introduced herself. Sonja Benoit managed the video-rental store in town, while her husband owned a car dealership. They had two teenage sons, which might have been why Sonja had gotten involved in the grand plans to build the skateboard park on a vacant lot near the high school. It might also be, he speculated, that Guy Benoit was fed up with chasing skateboarders off the grounds of his dealership.
By the time Sonja was satisfied that her committee had his support, her friend was pulling the cart outside and Faith was ringing up the potatoes, corn and lettuce for Ms. Taylor, the library clerk. A moment later, he and Faith were alone. Dust, shimmering in the sunlight, billowed out front as the two vehicles reversed.
Faith turned to look at him as he walked toward her. Her face was nearly expressionless. "Do you have news, Chief Wheeler?"
Not Ben. She hadn't called him Ben in weeks.
"No," he said quietly. "I didn't mean to alarm you. I only stopped by to be sure you're all right, and that you haven't heard from Hardesty."
A shadow passed over her eyes, as if a cloud had blocked the sun from a lake's surface. But after a moment she shook her head. "If I could tell you how to find him, don't you think I would?"