Brooklyn Wells has fought her dominating father, CEO Parker Wells, every step of the way. Instead of taking her appointed place in the boardroom, she's a social worker. Instead of living for diamonds and designer gowns, she helps her community's poor and lost. And now she's falling hard for the troubled newcomer who saved her life—and holds dangerous secrets . . .
For Carter Marshall, Wellspring offers a chance to put tragedy behind him and start again. Caring too much is not in the plan—until the irrepressible Brooklyn teases him to live once more . . . and recklessly lose himself in passion.
But Parker Wells has a major deal riding on his daughter's arranged marriage. And he won't stop at using Brooklyn and Carter's pasts to drive them apart. As they fight scandal, betrayal, and their own vulnerabilities, will the fire between them burn even hotter—or flame out for good?
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The ground was wet. Cold.
But Carter Marshall couldn't bring himself to move, to walk away. He clutched the weathered copper ornament in his hands. It was the only thing he had left of his old life, the only tangible reminder that they both existed. Everything else was gone, charred beyond repair.
"I'm not sure how to do this," he mumbled to himself. He knew he had to let the anger go now. It had consumed him, filled him to capacity and pushed him to keep going. He wondered what would take its place, or if he'd even be able to let go of the hate he had in his heart for the man who had taken away everything.
The rain pounded on his head, drizzled down his face. It had been an hour since he'd arrived, but he couldn't bring himself to complete his task. Instead, he'd sat there, his expensive Tom Ford suit soaked and his Cole Haan shoes muddy. Nothing mattered anymore. Not his wealth, not his name, not his work. Everything that he'd once held dear seemed like a curse now.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "I'm sorry I wasn't there. I was too obsessed with work, too driven, too focused on my damn money. I thought if I just worked hard enough, I could give you the life you deserved. I only wanted to make you happy."
His eyes welled with fresh tears. As if he hadn't cried enough already. The loss of his beautiful wife and daughter had devastated him to his core, weakened him. Even now, almost two years later, he could still smell the gasoline, taste the smoke in the air, hear the screams of the neighbors as the fire burned. He recalled the determination on the firemen's faces as they worked to put the blaze out, and he remembered the exact moment they all realized that it was too late.
You're the best part of my day, my hero.
Her words still haunted him. Her hero. His wife of three years, his college sweetheart, had told him he was her hero. Only he didn't feel heroic. What was the opposite of hero? Coward. Loser. Nobody.
Instead of being home with his wife and newborn daughter, he'd been working. Late. It seemed his work had eclipsed everything in his life, despite his denials. Krys had told him time and time again to live a little, to enjoy life. But the lure of the prestige, the money, the connections that his business guaranteed was important to him. He'd worked too hard, too long to let it go. He'd been distracted, meetings all day and projects to finish. When the phone rang, he'd moved it to voicemail with a little text that said, Give me a minute.
To think that was the last thing Krys heard from him ... He'd been so busy he couldn't even pick up the phone and answer. Was she scared? According to the arson investigators, the fire had started around seven o'clock. The call from her came through a little after seven. What if that one phone call could have changed something? Countless hours in therapy, numerous assurances that he couldn't have known, did nothing to quell the guilt he felt every time he looked at her response to his text. The worse part was that he hadn't even seen her response until hours later, after he'd been ushered from the scene of the crime. It read, I love you. Always remember.
Even in her last minutes, she'd been thinking of him. And he'd been thinking of his next project, his next dollar. What good is all the money in the world without her, without them?
Closing his eyes, he willed himself to move, to do what he came to do.
He scanned the area around him. It was their spot. Krys had insisted they visit as often as possible since it was the place where he'd proposed.
Today would have been their wedding anniversary. Remembering her beautiful face on the day he made her his wife made his heart ache. Krys was beautiful, in a classic "Clair Huxtable" kind of way. She was a good woman, believed that taking care of the home, being a wife and mother was the best job in the world. They'd been so young, so full of hope.
People had questioned him about the choice to marry so soon after college graduation, for even being with the same woman for so long. Even his best friend and business partner, Martin Sullivan, had been wary. And he'd known Krys for as long as he'd known Martin. Carter couldn't explain it, though. He wasn't an impulsive person. Everything Carter had done in life had been carefully planned. It was the reason he and Martin had been so successful. Neither of them played around when it came to business.
Marrying Krys, though, was his destiny. At least, he'd thought so at the time. She'd supported him through some of the worst times of his life — the death of his youngest sister and his grandmother and his parents' subsequent divorce. Krys never wavered, never wanted him to be anybody but himself. She'd never complained when he traveled for work or forgot to take the trash out. She was perfect, and he didn't deserve her. He'd broken the promise to love and to cherish, to have her and to honor her. If he had, he would have answered her call. He should have been there. Especially since she'd always been there for him. Krys had given him the best gift he could ever have — her heart, her body, her soul. He'd promised to protect her, to be there for her. Except I wasn't, not when she needed me the most.
Time hadn't made this wound better, hadn't healed him like they told him it would. He'd started to resent them — his parents, his friends, his employees ... everyone. The questions were becoming unbearable. The sad looks infuriated him. Most of all, when people told him It will be okay, he wanted to slap them. Because he was not okay, and wasn't sure he would ever be okay again. He knew he had to try, though. For them. For Krys and for his baby girl, Chloe.
Carter closed his eyes and inhaled the wet, night air. It was too late to be the father Chloe needed. She wasn't even a year old. He'd never heard her say "Da Da" or had the pleasure of watching her toddle into his waiting arms for the first time. It's not fair.
The tears fell freely down his cheeks and his stomach lurched into his chest. I failed. Carter looked down at the glass Christmas ornament in his hand. It was shaped like a heart, personalized with their names and their wedding date. Krys had purchased it for their first Christmas as a married couple. Sighing heavily, Carter dropped the ornament into the small hole he'd dug, next to the tree where he'd dropped on one knee and proposed to his first love, his only love.
"I made them pay, Krys."
Within days after the fire, the Detroit Police Department had arrested the young men that were responsible. But pressure from city officials had them backtracking on the investigation. Of course they did, because one of the men, the main culprit, was the college-aged son of one of the most influential business owners in the city.
The McKnight family was well-known in the Detroit area. Carter had effectively launched a smear campaign, blasted them on every social media site. Through his own computer skills and those of his partner, they'd crippled the McKnight business. Revenge was best served with a depleted bank account. A guilty verdict wasn't enough for him. He'd just been awarded a settlement in the civil lawsuit he'd brought against the city and the family for hampering the investigation.
Money wasn't his motive, though. He wanted them to lose everything, just like he had. Those young men had destroyed his life on a whim, because of a bet. They'd targeted his house because it was on the corner lot in a mostly African American neighborhood — because they could.
"I donated most of the money to the burn unit at Children's Hospital and set up a foundation to help burn victims and families who've lost everything to a fire."
It would never bring them back. He knew that, and he'd certainly paid the price of the personal vendetta he'd waged against the culprits, with his family and his work. The criminal and civil trials had taken a lot out of him. Now, it was time for him to let the anger go, let them go. That was the hard part.
He covered the glass ornament with mud and stood to his full height. By all rights, he should be celebrating. He'd won. His mother had set up a family dinner, and his brothers had mentioned a hookup he had no intention of taking advantage of. What would be the purpose? Sex? Because that's all it would be. He was empty, a void that would never be filled.
"Everyone wants me to move on, but how? Is it even okay to love someone else?"
And now he was officially crazy, talking to the night air, to Krys like she could actually answer. At the same time, if he had a sign, maybe he could let go fully. His wife and child died, but his love never would. That much was certain. I don't have room for anyone else.
"I love you. Take care of each other."
Sighing, he made his way back to his car and, after one last glance at the tree, sped off.
A houseful of people awaited him when he arrived at his mother's place about an hour later. There were old friends, cousins, and more cousins. The smell of fried chicken wafted to his nose, and his stomach growled.
"Carter, get your butt in here."
Iris Johnston was a loud, formidable woman. She pulled him into her strong arms and squeezed tightly. Carter wasn't an overemotional person, rarely gave out hugs, but he couldn't help but wrap his arms around her plump waist and relax into her embrace.
"Ma, I thought it was only going to be family." He pulled back and kissed his mother on her cheek. "You promised not to make a big deal about this."
Iris shrugged and gestured to the table of food in the corner. "Eat. You deserve this. You've had a tough few years."
His stepfather, Chris, joined them and patted him on the shoulder. "She's right, Carter. Have a seat and relax yourself. This is the least we could do for you."
Carter walked through the house, greeting the people who'd turned out for him. One by one, they hugged him, gave him sad glances before they offered more congrats and condolences. Shit. It was like Krys and Chloe had just died. His thoughts flashed back to all the food his mother insisted be dropped off to the house, all the stares.
When he finally made it to the kitchen, he grinned at the sight of his brothers.
"Carter, I'm glad you're finally here," Kendall said, giving him a quick man- hug. "Mom has been worrying the shit out of us." Kendall was the baby brother, and officially a college graduate as of two months ago. It had been a happy day when he'd walked across the stage, because they all thought he wouldn't make it.
"Yeah, man. She was a nightmare." His brother, Marvin, leaned against the sink. Carter reached out and clasped his hand in their signature handshake. Marvin was the middle son, the lawyer of the family.
"Well, I'm here. Not sure how much longer, though. I told her I didn't want a party."
"Baby brother, if you leave, we're all going to have to pay for it." Carter turned to see his older sister, Aisha, standing behind him. "And let me tell you, I'm sick of y'all fools leaving me behind to clean up your messes."
Carter pulled his sister into a tight hug. "I'm sorry, sis. But you know crowds are not my thing. I'm getting antsy just listening to the chatter."
Aisha's expression softened, her brown eyes wide with unshed tears. "I know. But you have to start living again. You know Krys would want that." She rubbed his cheek. "You can't die with her. You're still here for a reason."
Carter blinked and prayed for an intervention, anything to stop the pain in his sister's eyes. She was worried about him. Being the oldest of five siblings, Aisha had been a sponge her whole life, taking on their emotions like they were her own.
"I don't want to talk about this," Carter said, leaning down and kissing his sister on the forehead. "Where's the food?"
Aisha's shoulders fell, and she nodded. "I'll fix you a plate."
Moments later, he was sitting at the small table in the kitchen, eating while the party roared on in the other room. Aisha sat across from him, watching him eat.
"I've been calling you. When are you going to come back to the office?" she asked. Aisha worked as the chief financial officer of Marshall and Sullivan Software Consulting Inc. She basically kept the company up and running while he and Martin traveled the world. His sister had been calling him for weeks, every single day. "Martin needs you back in the office."
Carter knew he'd been a lousy business partner. Martin had basically picked up all the slack in the last two years. It wasn't right for him to continue this way. And with his best friend recently tying the knot, Carter wanted to be able to step up again to let him be a happy newlywed. "I know, Aisha. I plan to go back soon."
"Soon? The office has been inundated with calls, requests for proposals. You're on the verge of something bigger than you ever dreamed, especially with the Wellspring offer. Don't give it all up."
"Aisha, please shut up!" he snapped. His sister's mouth closed in a tight line, and he immediately regretted his outburst. "I'm sorry. It's just ..." Forget it. She wouldn't understand. Work was the last thing he wanted to do, because work was what he'd allowed to get between him and his wife for too long.
"I get it," his sister said, picking at the table with her thumbnail. "You're hurting, and I don't want to take that away from you."
He was such an asshole. Aisha had only been trying to help, to take care of him like she'd always done. It wasn't her fault he was incapable of being social. He had never really been the type of person that enjoyed being around a lot of people. Carter had always been more solitary, preferring to be by himself than go to the club.
"I didn't mean to yell." He dropped his fork on his plate. "But Krys is gone, Aisha. She's dead, and so is my baby girl. It takes a huge effort for me to get out of the damn bed in the morning. I just ... I need some time."
"I know Krys is gone, Booch. I get it."
Carter rolled his eyes at the use of his childhood nickname. Only a few people still used it, but it always reminded him of being a kid. He wasn't a child anymore. He wasn't going to conform to everyone's ideas on how he should handle his grief. Shit, he was the one that had to go home every night to an empty house, an empty life.
"No, you don't get it, Aisha." Carter pushed away from the table and stood, pacing the floor. "Please stop pretending you do." He pointed at his chest and whirled around to face her. "I'm the one that has to deal with the fact that some ignorant prick decided to set fire to my freakin' house. With my family inside. I'm the one that has to look at myself in the mirror every day, knowing that my wife was scared and needed someone to talk to her and I didn't answer the phone."
"You can't be everywhere at once, Booch. You were working. Krys understood that about you."
"How do you know what Krys understood?" The anger that rose up in him was irrational and directed solely at the one person who didn't deserve it. "She needed me." Bile rushed up his throat and he fought to control it from coming out, spewing over his mother's hardwood floor.
Aisha stood and approached him, fire in her brown eyes. She gripped his chin and twisted it downward to meet her gaze. "You want to know how I know? Krys called me."
Carter's eyes widened. "What?"
"I didn't want to tell you because I knew it wouldn't help you at the time. You had the trial and then the lawsuit. It was keeping you going. Now that it's over, I need you to hear me, Carter."
He swallowed roughly, clenched his hands into fists.
She sighed. "Krys called me that night. She knew she wasn't going to make it." His sister's eyes filled with tears. "She needed to talk about some things. One thing she made sure she said was that she loved you. Carter, she loved you. Everything about you. But she knew you. She knew that you'd let her death consume you, she knew you'd let this ruin you. Your wife, my sister-in-law, wanted to be sure that you didn't. She wanted you to live, to have a life even though she wasn't here. She made me promise to tell you when the time was right. I'm telling you now."
Exhausted and emotional, Carter gave in, letting the tears that had filled his eyes spill. He fell back into the chair. His head bowed, he whispered, "I don't know how to do this, Aisha. How can I live without her?"
Aisha pulled a chair in front of him and sat down, tilting her head to meet his gaze. "It won't be easy. But you have to. You deserve to live. That's what she wanted for you. God didn't keep you here so that you can die a slow death, in your grief."
"What else did she say?" His voice cracked. "Was she scared?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Touched By You"
Copyright © 2018 Elle Wright.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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