DAhhhhhhhh just did my taxes and I NEED something to cheer up this recently starving artist that I’ve suddenly become. Lol. And there’s only way to do that: EXCERPT TIME 🙂 Ready for some West’s Redemption? Good: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0BL914G17
Lauren had stolen another coat from West.
He was going to file a police report against her soon if she wasn’t careful.
Dang, he’d smelled good, and she wasn’t supposed to notice things like that when she was on the job. She’d done more than her share of unprofessional moves since getting to know West Slade.
She tried on yet another dress. It was an elegant white satin one. She felt like a mermaid coming out of the dressing room. Lauren waited to hear Amber’s verdict. Her friend scrolled busily through her phone before glancing up. “Cute! That’s my favorite one so far.”
They all were!
Amber had a cousin of a friend of a friend who’d won VIP tickets to the fashion show from the radio. Lauren was thrilled, but she still had no idea how she’d get past West to talk to Trout anyway.
This whole operation was absolutely useless, but try to tell Amber that. “I can’t even afford this dress,” Lauren said.
“Think of it as an investment,” her friend said.
“Yeah, sure…” Her friend could justify every purchase. “I should just wear the red…” Lauren mused. After her fiasco with the zipper, Lauren wasn’t sure if she wanted to risk it, but this investigation was getting expensive.
“No, no, absolutely not!” Amber said. “West Slade can’t see you in the same dress.”
“Oh please, I don’t care what he thinks.” If anything, he’d take it as an opportunity to tease her about needing his jacket. Her face heated at the thought of exchanging more “friendly fire” with that guy.
“You might have to be nicer to him, ya know,” Amber said. “Stop blowing up.”
“He tried to bribe me.”
“I told you to say ‘yes’ to everything he said. If you’d just played along, you could’ve found out what they’re working so hard to hide. They already made a deal with FFearfA.”
They sure had! The rioters had mysteriously packed up their tents the day before and left the city. Trout had done something to appease their leader, but what?
Lauren sighed. She should’ve stuck with baiting West a little longer.
“You missed out, girl!” Amber said. “You’ve gotta play this smart.”
Lauren threw the bulk of her loose hair behind her shoulder. “There’s something about that guy that makes me crazy.”
“Right?” Amber picked up her phone again to check her messages. She’d been doing it since they’d gotten there. “You think he’s cute! You wore that jacket you stole from West Slade all day yesterday.”
Lauren immediately defended herself. “I was cold!” And the jacket happened to smell super nice—like West, actually, but that wouldn’t help her case against Amber. Lauren turned to the mirror to check out her dress from the back—the seams were flattering, unlike the last evening gown she’d tried on. She wondered if West would like it. The thought startled her. She pinned Amber with a stern look. “Can you for once help me act like a professional?”
“Professionals can think the enemy is cute.”
Lauren ignored that, checking the price tag on her dress. Her nose wrinkled. “It’s $3,500… I absolutely can not afford this.”
“Why not?” a male voice chimed in.
Her chin wrenched up and she saw West appearing from the stack of dresses. He looked way too good for a Saturday morning. He might’ve been in a ball cap and a relaxed gray T-shirt, but they were worth a fortune if she knew clothes. His dark jeans were stylishly wrinkled with an acid wash. The ends were folded into cuffs at the bottom. He was wearing those overpriced tan leather shoes without any socks.
It was like he’d walked out of the fashion show they were crashing. Lauren and Amber had come in sweats and messy bed hair.
“Are you following me?” Lauren squeaked.
“Do you want me to?” He sucked on the straw from the drink he’d brought into the shop. The shopkeeper didn’t make a peep of protest, especially since it looked like he might help sell the more expensive dress. West had found yet another jacket. The dark leather was much more casual than his suit ones. And still nothing hid how athletic he was. The guy was just built, and… she pulled herself together.
How had he found her here anyway?
And she was staring at him. Had he asked her if she wanted him to follow her? “No!”
Her emphatic—and very late—denial didn’t seem to convince anyone, especially Amber. An amused smile spread across her friend’s face. The only thing missing was her popcorn.
“Hmm, an investigative journalist who doesn’t like to be followed?” West asked. “Seems hypocritical.”
“I follow privacy laws,” Lauren said.
“Do you though?” It seemed a casual enough observation.
She ignored how close he’d gotten to the truth. Why was he still hounding her every step? She’d almost wondered if he’d stop after FFearfA had left town. He’d seemed pretty concerned about them… and then there were his probing questions about her informant. They didn’t even know who it was. She literally had nothing for him.
“Nice dress,” he said. “You know, if you wanted to go to the Marcel show, you should’ve just said something. I’d have gotten you tickets.”
Well, that was a maddening thought. They’d worked hard to score entry. And that wasn’t the point. “I can’t be bought,” Lauren retorted.
“This isn’t buying—this is just a man enjoying a woman’s company. I’d love for you to be my date.”
Amber hid an audible gasp… not very well.
The thumping of Lauren’s heart that had picked up when he’d first made an appearance rumbled into a monster truck engine against her chest at the suggestion. He was trying to throw her off the scent with his easy flirtation. “Really? You’d introduce me to all your friends there?” she asked. “The fashion designer himself?” She started naming off the richest cronies in Nashville that online sites like Flatter had spied West with. “Marian Dobbs, Felicity Shaw, Kyle Costella… Roy Trout?”
He turned silent.
West would keep Lauren far from anyone who mattered. “I’m not stupid,” Lauren said. She ducked back into the dressing room, trying to wiggle out of the expensive dress. “I know you’re not going to help me,” she called through the slats in the door, “but I don’t need you, turns out. I’ve got eyes in my head. I can see for myself who’s really working Trout’s strings.”
West took a second to respond. “Who?”
Well… she didn’t know yet.
“Everybody works his strings,” he said after her silence. “He’s a politician, last time I checked. You’re getting the white dress, right?”
“No!” He wasn’t distracting her from this. “FFearfA backed off. Who’s running them?”
“Some rich cronies somewhere.”
Lauren hated that she agreed with him. She threw on her shirt. “What kind of deal did you offer them to make them go away?”
“They probably got bored of living in sweat-infested tent cities. I mean, c’mon, they’re larpers playing at being revolutionaries. Even they need to take a shower every once in a while.”
“You did something!”
“Wow, Sherlock, you’ve really stumbled onto something here,” he said. “Too bad all the major networks stole your lead. That’s all they could talk about yesterday. You’re two steps behind them. Better luck next time.”
His sarcasm deserved a scathing comeback. She got busy throwing on the rest of her street clothes… as unimpressive as they were.
Before she could say anything, she heard West strike up a conversation with Amber outside of her door. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “You’re Lauren’s friend?”
“Yes, roommate… and editor,” Amber returned. “I’m a fan of your first date.”
He broke into a laugh.
“No, no.” Lauren broke out of the dressing room, still wrestling her shoes on. “You’re not making friends.” She grabbed a fifty-dollar dress from the clearance rack that she’d brutally rejected earlier. It was all black and not at all flattering, but it would do. “I found my dress,” she said. “Let’s go.” Throwing the simple sheath gown over her shoulder, she raced to the front desk.
Amber would have to catch up.
West laughed behind her. “I thought you were supposed to be the fashion queen? You’ll never blend into Marcel’s party that way.”
“Definitely, do the white one,” Amber said.
The little traitor! Did no one know what money was anymore?
“And I like the one that doesn’t break the bank,” Lauren said, setting the dress on the counter. She pulled out her card, really hoping that she didn’t reach her limit in front of West. “I’ll take this dress, thank you.”
The shopkeeper’s grimace showed that he agreed with West and Amber’s pick.
“You’re making a mistake,” West said. “You can’t wear cotton to Marcel’s. It just isn’t done.”
“By all means,” Lauren retorted. “Pick up the white dress for your date to the show. I’m sure she’ll look stunning.”
“That’s not a bad idea.” To her surprise, West rescued the dress from the hook in the dressing room. He cut in front of her in line.
“Excuse me!” Lauren complained.
A fleeting dimple punched into West’s cheek. “Ring the ugly black one up too,” he told the shopkeeper.
“No!” Lauren complained. There were too many strings attached to taking his charity. “You can’t buy my dress!”
He threw his cash down on the counter. Who carried that kind of money around? “Hey,” he said. “I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure you don’t wear it.”
Oh! That wasn’t what she meant! Was he actually taking the dress from her too? That stinker! Lauren’s fingers tightened into fists while Amber giggled beside her.
Beeps followed the sheath dress and the white overpriced one, moments before they landed into a fancy golden box. The shopkeeper announced a final cost that made her wince.
“Keep the change,” West told the shopkeeper. He’d left a hefty tip. He gathered up the sheath dress, bunching it into a ball on his way out the door.
The bells jingled in his wake.
He left the white gown behind.
Amber’s eyes widened and she spun around to look at Lauren. “Did he just buy you that dress?”
Lauren’s stomach tightened. “I am not… taking that!”
“Oh, yes you are!” Amber snatched up the gold box.
No, no! They were not allies with that man! And she wasn’t accepting anything that looked like a bribe. Lauren marched outside to catch up to West. If he wanted her attention, he just got it.
“I can see him through the window,” Amber reported eagerly through her mic. “He’s sitting in that exclusive section that nobody without connections can get. Dang! You’ve got yourself a cute date for the night. Perks of the job, right?”
I’m so not ready for this.
There were downsides to being an outspoken outcast her entire life, and that was Lauren’s complete helplessness in the social scene. Strange that the boldest girl on the internet was a wimp when it came to love.
She pushed her thick brown hair around her shoulders to try to hide as much of that dress as possible, regretting the flashy scarlet for perhaps the hundredth time since she’d gotten here.
“Nope, nope!” Amber tsked. “Don’t cover up the pendant.”
Oh yeah! That was Amber’s camera. Reluctantly, Lauren swept her long hair back, uncovering the pendant and showing off more of her dress than she wanted.
Just own it already!
Stuffing the makeup back into her purse, she snatched up the soft red leather and headed out the bathroom door. “I’m going in.”
“Okay, going dark. In one, two, three…” Amber’s voice cut off when she muted her side as promised. They both agreed that shouting orders into Lauren’s ear would be too distracting, but it now felt eerily still. Soft harp music drifted through the restaurant.
Lauren caught sight of West at his table across the way. He seemed to be sending off a text before slipping his phone into his pocket. He glanced up at her, almost stopping her breath with that chiseled jawline. Dah! He was heart-wrenchingly gorgeous.
This is for truth. Truth. Remember that! I’m doing the world a favor. My name will go down in history as one of the great supporters of freedom—John Hancock and Samuel Payne and…
She swept forward, the ends of her red dress sliding across the floor. She did her best to not jostle anything as she walked… like a certain zipper. It almost felt like walking with a book on her head.
The guy had no right to look so good. But those eyes of his were the culprit behind her runaway pulse. They seemed to stare into her soul and tear out her heart all at once.
Lauren had no idea how to fight back. She was like an awkward clown sent in to tame the lions.
And that kind of defeatist thinking wouldn’t get her anywhere! She was supposed to be the strong woman who toppled corrupt empires on a daily basis.
I can do this. Just pretend that this is a business interview. I’m good at those. Or-or it’s like talking to children. It’s not like I don’t have enough nieces and nephews running around underfoot… or students. I can talk to chil…
She groaned at the turn of her thoughts.
Actually, don’t talk to West Slade like he’s a child… ugh! He’s a professional businessman… one of the best PR guys out there. He’s represented guys like the notorious country star, River MacKenzie, for goodness sake!
And she was going out with him, and on false pretenses. What was she thinking? And why was West Slade even bothering to look at her?
He rubs elbows with Iced Bro and uses and throws away socialites like Nicole Kate and Chocolate Sugar and—and even Trout’s daughter! Of course, Eva Trout had practically left him at the altar with how fast she’d run from that playboy… and he had no problems replacing her. And who cares? That makes him a worm. I don’t care. He’s just a guy.
West stood as she approached, like a lazy tiger in his slow, languid way, like he was both bored with the evening, but hoping it was looking up with some good company. She noticed that he was taller than her, even in her heels, but only barely. What he lacked in height, he made up in confidence… or was that arrogance?
His lips twisted into a smirk that was already becoming familiar to her. “Great entrance. I like a woman who shuts my brain off the instant she walks into a room.”
Her face went hot… hotter than it was before. Was this how his part of the world talked? Or was he just super bold? Amber had handled all messages back and forth with him. A strategic mistake. Lauren didn’t know what to expect or how to keep up.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” she blurted. “I hope you weren’t too… uh, lonely.”
Did she really just say that?
He didn’t miss a beat. “You were worth the wait.” He leaned over her to brush a kiss against her cheek.
His pleasant musky scent invaded her nostrils the instant his smooth lips met her already heated skin. It was bad enough he saw her blushes, now he’d feel them. His touch was casual, yet promised more.
Yeah, he was used to a scene that moved at a faster pace than she was comfortable with. He’d be sorely disappointed when she didn’t follow along… well, mildly disappointed… no use thinking this eager reporter meant more to him than she really did.
Steeling herself, Lauren took the seat that he’d pulled out for her, feeling breathless, perhaps more so because she was trying not to set off that zipper on her tight dress. She allowed him to tuck her in before he sat on the other side of her, proceeding to watch her under heavy lids. He hadn’t stopped smirking.
He was the worst! How could he not know what he was doing to her pulse with that look?
Her source had told them that West was the key to finding everything about Trout, since the two worked so closely together. What secrets were hiding in that intense gaze? One thing she could read—he was fascinated with her. Riveted!
A shiver ran through her at that burning smolder.
Oh, Amber! What had her friend recklessly told him when she’d masqueraded as “Lauren”?
A server came to the table and set their menus in front of them. The main courses were priced in the hundreds. West glanced over the menu at her, his forehead wrinkling as he asked her about any dietary restrictions.
“None… I mean, I should…”
“No, you shouldn’t.” His brilliant smile took a break from that smirk and almost melted her into the ground. Lauren tried to pull herself together as he turned to the server and ordered the most expensive drinks and appetizers in the restaurant.
Her fingers froze over her napkin as she realized how much going undercover would cost him, and she couldn’t say a thing without giving herself away. She scanned the menu to find the cheapest thing on there and saw a fifty-two-dollar lobster soup.
So not good.
She turned back to him and noticed him checking her out.
Lauren tried not to jump. Was he really? He could also be mesmerized by the sequins of her dress or put off by that scar between her brow or…? Well… Amber had really gone overboard with her makeover. Lauren let him know that she’d caught him in the act by meeting his gaze evenly.
He didn’t even look bashful, just owned his scandalous behavior with sparkling eyes.
Jerk! Those eyes were his most dangerous weapon! No wonder he was such a heartbreaker. Women must stand in line for their turn to get played and thrown away.
Lauren desperately tried to think of how to even the playing ground. “It’s a great dress,” she said flatly. “I’ll let you borrow…” it…? No, no, that didn’t sound right coming from a date… in fact, her intended set-down would sound like an invitation that she didn’t mean. “I’ll let you borrow…” She was stuck. “… my fashion sense sometime.”
This night was not going well.
Now she was insulting his fine Arman-whatever suit, but it was better than giving him any false expectations about what kind of girl she was.
In an instant, the smirk that had taken possession of his lips curled up in appreciation.
Buddy, you won’t stay impressed for long.
She could just imagine Amber snorting out her amusement in her car while she listened in. Her friend wouldn’t keep her promise to stay silent for long if she kept messing up. Lauren was supposed to go into this date acting like an airhead—everyone blabbed to the cheerful, easily impressed woman—but she was accidentally sounding like her true self.
“I’m looking forward to borrowing your fashion sense,” West said, saving them both from her blunders with just a touch of a drawl—she found herself oddly intrigued. He must’ve picked it up from that backwoods hometown he came from. “I’ve been missing a feminine touch in my life. I have to say I can’t wait for yours.”
That man had a big dose of flirtation with that drawl!
She laughed, despite her best efforts. The server was back, plying them with drinks and setting the luxurious appetizer in front of them. Yeah, this was how the other half lived—curbing no appetite and giving in to every temptation. Never in a million years would the preacher’s daughter have said “yes” to a date like this. West’s quips only confirmed that.
“Now, wait a second…” she said. As long as he was throwing out sexist comments; she had a few of her own. “If I’m going to lend you my ‘feminine touch,’ I’ve got to see how well you change a tire first.”
“I’m on it,” he retorted. “Where’s your car?”
Did he mean her getaway car?
“Not so fast,” she retorted. Banter was something she was used to with her brothers, and he made it far too easy. “You don’t have to slash my tires just to prove your manliness, I can see your muscles from here, tough guy.”
His brow arched. “Are you checking me out, Ms. Lauren Garcia?”
She swallowed at his playful, confident teasing. How could she possibly keep up with this? It was taking everything in her to channel her inner socialite for this interrogation. She let out a laugh to signal her surrender. “I guess you caught me. You’re all man.” She needed to avoid further arguments that revealed too much of her true nature, but to her chagrin, more of her personality leaked out against her will: “Too much of a man,” she muttered.
He tossed his head back with a laugh.
Did he actually like the real Lauren? He was leaning closer to her now. How had that happened? She needed a clear head for this.
Grace is about to get real. You’ve read about all the Slade brothers… but what about the one you’ve grown to… uh hate?
When it comes to enemies, West has them in spades, but his worst enemy is himself. And if despising all his past mistakes was a competition, he’d win that too. He blames himself fully for what happened to his momma, but could running his boss’s shady multi-trillion dollar empire be a new low? If so, Nashville’s most notorious bad boy has just hit rock bottom.
Enter Lauren Garcia–a goody two-shoes, bible toting daughter of a pastor. And if that wasn’t sickening enough, she’s a snoopy journalistic reporter who’s just dying to write her hit piece on his tycoon boss.
West can’t wait to make her hate him too.
But she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve… and the second West tries to cozy up to her, he’s the one whose head is turning.
He’d better reel his fascination in fast before he gets them both killed. And yet, in the face of Lauren’s stunning quick wit and warmth, he’s dismayed to find he’s lost all control when the sparks between them start to fly.
Sure, Lauren might be the only one with the healing touch to rescue the tattered remains of his broken heart, but can West really change his wicked ways for good or is he about to get what’s coming to him?
It’s time to turn back to his roots at Harvest Ranch and beg his brothers for some help before it’s too late.
“Brookes! Lance Brookes… you got your ears on? Bro… you there?”
Brookes grumbled, setting the skillet heavily down on the stove. He’d installed a police radio in his cabin back in the day, but that was before his world had turned upside down.
He’d shut it off completely if it wasn’t for Tycho. His former colleague from the Corwell police department promised to contact him only in extreme emergencies.
He was lucky Brookes agreed to even do that after everything that had happened, but Tycho was a good guy, along with a handful of newbies. Everyone else was absolutely to blame for what had happened.
“We’ve got ourselves one of those emergencies we talked about,” Tycho said.
Tycho had cut up his peace more times than he could count with his constant “emergencies”—from crowing about his team scoring against the Rams to begging to meet up for drinks. His friend was worried about Brookes. All of them were. Tycho should take that worry and use it to get at the ones who’d done this to him.
Failing that, Brookes wanted nothing to do with his pity.
He was getting ready to rip the cord out of the receiver. He ignored his friend’s attempt at forcing him to live again, setting the pot under the faucet. The water came out steaming hot, despite the blizzard outside.
So far the pipes were good. He’d built them deep into the cabin, away from the outside walls so they’d be safe from freezing. The electricity was sustained by sun panels and a backup generator system. His water came from a deep underground well. He had a woodshed with chickens and even a cow. He’d taken all those off-the-grid things into consideration when he’d built this home for his family.
Back then, he’d lived, breathed, and ate up this survivalist stuff. Alice had inherited the land from her grandparents, and becoming a mountain man had turned into Brookes’s favorite hobby, not the necessity that it was now. Alice had talked about renting the cabin out on CozyCottages.com, since the place was only meant as a summer retreat.
That was before he’d lost everything that ever mattered to him.
“Brookes… need a bird’s eye on… the pass.”
Tycho had taken to referring to his place as the bird’s eye since Brookes had a clear view of the pass from above, over the trees in Silver Forest. It was perfect actually, especially when the sun burst over the mountains and embraced the valley in its golden halo.
Alice had always loved it.
Of course, the clouds were too murky this winter to give him that perfect sunrise.
“You out hunting…?” Tycho was coming in spotty now. Good. That might mean he’d lose him in this blizzard. “Loser, pick… up.”
Brookes chucked a spoonful of cider into his mug in answer.
“Lance!” He could almost hear his wife’s lecturing voice. Alice was Corwell Elementary’s best fifth grade teacher, so she had a strict one. She’d follow that with a kiss that would’ve ensured Brookes ignored Tycho for at least another minute. “Don’t leave your friend hanging,” she’d say.
He gulped, not sure if he wanted to be caught in this fantasy.
Alice’s eyes were hypnotic—a type of yellow hazel. Her hair was curly and black. Her sandy brown skin was a shade lighter than his and so soft that he never got tired of touching it.
Stop it. It’s been long enough. Don’t think. Do. That’s how you get through.
It was supposed to be how people endured these things, so why did this still hurt? He’d lost many good friends in Afghanistan, but he didn’t know what true pain was until now.
“Looking for…” The connection was breaking up. The storm was really bad out there. “… on the run. Code 45.” It was a kidnapping situation.
Brookes jerked forward, almost spilling his cider all over him in the process. He threw all his differences aside when monsters like these showed up. Too many perps had slipped past the law with the corrupt Meyers leading Corwell PD.
He picked up the receiver. “Give me an ID on the vehicle.”
“Light blue…” The connection broke up while trying to give the license plate number.
Brookes wrote down what he could. “ID on the victim,” he said, realizing that they didn’t have much time before the storm wiped everything completely out.
Tycho was trying to tell him, but the reception was awful. Brookes caught the last of what his friend was saying: “… someone from… out of town.”
He wasn’t getting anything. Who was the victim? An adult? A child? “I’m not catching that.”
“… closing the pass due to the storm. Dangers… avalanche…”
That wasn’t what he’d asked. Tycho must not be catching anything he was saying either. “Who’s the perp?” Brookes tried again. “Who’s the driver?”
He only got static.
So Brookes was looking for an unspecified driver with an unspecified hostage in a blue car. What was he supposed to do, chase down every blue car that he found? He grabbed his winter gear, fitting his gun in easy reach before he threw on his heavy, black down coat. He shoved his feet into his boots, moving out onto his balcony.
The cold wetness shot against his face the instant he was outside. His bird’s eye view of anyone entering the pass was nonexistent. The blizzard was at its worst. This might narrow down his list of suspects from Tycho’s broken up instructions because no one would be stupid enough to try to go through this storm, except a psychopath.
… and maybe someone like Brookes.
His thirst for justice was the only thing that wormed its way through the dead, mangled mass that had become of his heart.
Rescuing the victims? That used to be his motivation. He’d seen Jenson in the eyes of every hurt child; every wronged woman somehow became Alice, but now? He took one look at a perp and saw the creep who’d been behind his family’s accident in each hardened face—no matter how these criminals pretended remorse or expressed a desire to change, they never would’ve given their sins a second thought if they hadn’t gotten caught.
The criminal system was a joke! Why should these rats get the chance to live carefree, happy lives when they’d stolen everything he’d ever loved from him?
They brought pain on this world by just breathing their same air.
The thing was that it was impossible to hurt them like they’d hurt everyone they came in contact with, because to feel anything resembling Brookes’s pain, they’d have to feel his same love—impossible for these dirtbags.
And still Brookes would never stop trying to inflict his revenge on them. He couldn’t stop.
Jenson’s laughter echoed through the snow. “Daddy! Watch me. I’m going to slide.”
He didn’t go far. His little son went probably two inches in their flat backyard on his sled.
Alice rested her chin against his shoulder as she came up behind Brookes. Her arms brushed against his back. “Honey, call in sick today. Let’s go to Eight Falls together. There are some good hills there near the cabin.”
“Babe!” She sure knew how to tempt him, but they were so close to catching the thug who’d robbed the string of mom and pop stores a week before. He knew the owners of those stores—just honest, hardworking folks trying to make ends meet. “I wish I could, but… bring home some of that snow for me.”
He’d kissed her for the last time.
Brookes glared into the darkness. He was a tiger chasing his tail, always snarling, always furious… and never reaching anything that would bring him satisfaction.
Would this next hunt bring him the reckoning he craved?
He stared down into the murky blackness swirling in fog and snow. No headlights broke through the storm. There were still some patches covered by the forest he could scour for signs of life, but not much could last out there. The roads turned into ice this time of year. That wasn’t the worst of it. The snow against the cliffs had a tendency to break into avalanches, literally blocking the highway to stop anyone from getting through, sometimes for months. If that avalanche fell on anyone?
They’d be buried alive.
Brookes’s hands clenched the railing of the balcony as he decided whether he should go out into the eye of this storm to cut off this perp’s fun-filled car chase or… let the guy rot out there.
The only thing he had to lose was the habit of living. When every breath brought a fresh wave of overwhelming pain, it wasn’t a sacrifice to risk this broken existence that he somehow found himself in. Sorrow and anger accompanied every beat of his heart. Weren’t these things supposed to get easier with time?
It had been five years!
God, why can’t I shake this?
He caught himself in horror at the relief of crying out to—to what? He didn’t even know.
No, no. Praying was Alice’s thing, not his… especially after everything that had happened. Jenson would be eleven now. His boy had hopped up and down, looking like an orange marshmallow in all those puffy layers of snow gear as he begged his daddy to come along sledding. He’d lost a mouthful of teeth—that jack-a-lantern smile almost convinced Brookes to call in sick.
Yeah, I’m going out to find that perp.
Brookes headed for the stairs to hunt down that kidnapper seconds before a loud boom sounded behind him. The lights in his house flickered out.
Was that his generator?
Growling, he stumbled down the suddenly darkened steps to the thick snow below him. The drifts were already packed to his knees. He’d have to work fast. His bigger four-wheel vehicles would have a hard time getting through all this, but once it was time to break out the snowmobiles, he’d be dealing with treacherous terrain that got people killed.
Instead of going to the garage, however, he headed out on foot to check his energy source.
If he survived taking down the kidnapper, he didn’t want to return to frozen pipes.
Brookes fought through the blistering cold to reach the shed where he kept his generator. The compact building was a shadow in this storm. The closer he came to it, the more the silhouette appeared to be less a rectangle than it had been earlier that night. The heavy snow had collapsed the roof. His generator was buried in a mound of snow and broken planks.
Grumbling through his frustration, he dug through the mess, wishing he’d brought his flashlight. His hands found the hard edges of metal where his generator was submerged under the wreckage. It was still intact. Hoping that the machinery hadn’t become waterlogged, he worked on shoving the heavy equipment under the part of the shed that was left standing.
As soon as he did, he brushed off the snow and flipped the switch off, and then on. Only half the lights from inside came back.
Glancing over his shoulder at his rustic home frosted in snow, he grunted out a disdainful laugh.
Ah really? My prepper cave resembles a gingerbread house stuck in a snow globe.
Way too cute for these hazardous conditions! The white blissful fall of snow glittered through the lights shining from his cabin, surrounded by drooping trees and twisting fog. The roof didn’t even need Christmas lights. A celestial blue glow emanated from his home like it had been blessed from heaven. Alice would’ve been enchanted by the sweet little reminder of her beloved holiday. Maybe once, Brookes would’ve been too.
But now the angelic sight was a glaring reminder of everything he’d lost shoved in his face, almost like how it felt when his older brothers whitewashed him in the snow back in the day to give him a face-full of Christmas.
The season was no longer his favorite time of the year. And yeah, that was a huge understatement. It was time to remodel his place, wasn’t it? He’d paint that cute little red roof a dull gray the first chance he got.
He found the supply of nails and a hammer from his stash in the shed and got to work securing what was left of the structure meant to house his generator. He’d go back to the house and start flipping tripped breakers to get the rest of the lights on before heading out. As soon as he was satisfied with his temporary fix, he turned back to his sickeningly cute cabin.
The moment he did, he heard the scream. He whipped around, staring through the darkness of Silver Forest before him. Was that a wild animal?
Unless wild animals said, “Hey,” then no. He twisted, trying to find the source of the noise.
“Over here!” a female shouted. “Do you see me? Help us! We’re over here.”
Who were these stranded travelers? Lost Christmas tree hunters? Or worse… was this the girl who’d been kidnapped by that perp? He searched the darkness, not seeing her… or anyone else for that matter.
“Keep calling out,” he shouted. “Are you alone?”
“No, no! It’s the two of us!”
And he had his gun on him. Her abductor wouldn’t get the jump on him. “I’m coming. Keep talking.”
“My—my… Milo, he’s not okay! He’s too cold. Help us!”
A female figure struggled through the snow. As he advanced on her, he saw she was supporting someone else through the storm.
He shoved through the heavy powder, his lungs burning in the cold as he covered the rest of the distance. He saw the woman held a child. He was small by the looks of things, with no coat and short sleeves. They’d been out here for a long time. Snow covered them both so that they resembled ice statues more than humans. The kid wasn’t moving.
Charity’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as she drove her six-year-old nephew through Silver Forest pass. The snowstorm was getting heavier through the mountains. The tires slipped the farther they traveled from Corwell, Colorado. Her windshield showed only a blinding torrent of milky white, so that she couldn’t tell exactly where the road was.
Miriam! Miriam, where are you?
She was going to find out where her twin sister had gone if it killed her. It just might, but they had a connection that very few could break, and even from the beginning of all this, Charity had sensed something was terribly wrong.
Milo couldn’t stop talking about how he hadn’t seen his momma for days, though he stayed strangely quiet about his daddy when Charity had pressed him.
Her skin still crawled after what had happened—it was why she’d snapped and left everything behind—her purse, her phone, her luggage, her freaking mind! She’d taken off with Milo before she could even think about the kind of trouble she’d be in.
Charity had an address to go by. That was it. Forget asking for directions. She’d get taken into custody the second she stepped out of her car. It was her word against Hal’s, and who would believe her over the Judge of Corwell?
She’d only briefly glanced down at the GPS in her sister’s car, long enough to know that the place she was looking for was in the most secluded spot out of town that it could possibly be, and that this cute little blue BMW sports car would barely make it out there with these sleek tires.
She hadn’t been wrong. Charity felt like she was playing Road Racer with her older brother like they used to do in their cramped apartment back in the day. She had about the same control on that old-school video game as she had over these roads. The storm was working for and against her—she’d vanished from Corwell PD’s radar like a phantom under this blizzard, but yeah… she was officially lost.
It didn’t matter. Nothing was going to stop her from getting justice now.
Charity had been so fooled by her sister’s husband. How long had Miriam been fooled? The way these things went, Miriam had probably known how abusive Hal was before they even said, “I do,” and she’d walked right into it because… well, Miriam was used to being treated like garbage.
Her heart broke for her sister. How could this happen to her again? Charity had thought they’d broken the cycle of abuse. Hadn’t their mom worked double shifts and an extra job to make a new life for them all? Charity had gone into social work because of that abuse, but Miriam had found someone to replace their daddy, hadn’t she?
Hal Evans seemed so mild mannered, charming—a people-pleaser, considering the way her brother-in-law always worked overtime to make Charity feel comfortable whenever she visited for the holidays; he’d shared the responsibility of making dinners with her sister and reading stories to her nephew, in accents and cartoon voices even!
No one cared that Hal was older than Miriam by fifteen years. The age difference had no claim on his chiseled good looks, vast fortune, and friendly charm. This was his second marriage, and Hal had supposedly owned up to the mistakes that ended the first one. Charity’s sister had told everyone in their family—their older brother, their momma—that Hal was a better man for his challenges in his past. After all the years they’d been married, couldn’t everyone see that he was one of the best men out there? The guy was a judge for goodness’ sake!
And yet, Hal’s steel gray eyes had hardly blinked as he’d watched Charity from the doorway of his mansion when she’d grilled him on what he’d done to her sister:
“Tell me where Miriam is!” Charity’s fingers clenched as she faced him down. Charity should’ve called the police before this, but she wasn’t sure what to believe after she saw her sister’s texts. Her shoulders trembled. Milo’s usual happy voice of greeting wasn’t echoing from the foyer.
Hal’s foot blocked the door to stop her from entering the spacious building that her sister had managed to make into a home. She’d never noticed how tall her brother-in-law was, or how menacing.
Her chin lifted as she faced the man who was supposed to protect the ones she loved most. “What have you done to my sister?”
Apparently, he feared she’d been too loud for the neighbors because he’d dragged her away from her luggage on the porch into his pristine living room.
“What are you doing?” Charity cried out in surprise. He’d resorted so quickly to getting physical, and still she adapted as easily as she’d done as a child. She took advantage of the opening to search for her sister and Milo. Lavish surroundings of crystal chandeliers and paintings worth more than her own apartment met her uneasy eyes. Her sister lived in a mausoleum. The fact never bothered Charity until she tried to find where her sister was buried in it. There was no sign of Milo, either.
Charity’s heart pounded as she raced dangerously through the storm. The windshield wipers whipped from side to side. It hadn’t taken long for the years of deceit to crumble before her very eyes as Hal showed her just how far he was from the caring professional he’d showed the world. He was a star in the criminal justice system, a promising young lawyer who’d shot straight to the top. She’d always admired that he took down criminals, and now she began to wonder what strings he’d pulled to get there.
He’d laughed—laughed—when she told him that she was worried for Miriam—as if some redneck trash like her wasn’t capable of feeling affection for a sister as someone from his privileged background. He’d actually accused her of trying to blackmail him.
“What do you want? Huh? Money?” he spat at her. “You want a piece of what is mine?”
What was he talking about? “Miriam. I want Miriam,” she said. “She told me…” Charity didn’t want to give away that her sister had warned her that her nephew was in danger. “Just let me see Milo, Hal.”
Those watchful eyes sharpened on her. And when he refused to let her see her nephew, he’d wrenched her back from the door with him so that she was trapped in that house of horrors.
What had her sister gone through sharing a life with him?
What did he do to you, Miriam?
For the hundredth time that trip, Charity sent up a prayer to help her family get through this in one piece. God, Milo doesn’t deserve this. He’s a good kid! Their mother was a prayerful woman and she taught her kids exactly how to get through the tough times, but Charity’s faith was beginning to slip after everything she’d seen, even though she desperately held to what lifelines she could. Help us find his mommy, God! We need her.
The windshield wipers kept getting stuck against the snow. Little good they did against this dangerous storm anyway. The headlights barely lit the ribbon of ice that the pass had become. Help me not to crash this car and kill us both! Don’t let Hal catch up to us. We need help… really, really soon!
She was supposed to be celebrating Christmas in the Caribbean with her best friend, Lucy, buying trinkets that would make Milo shout out for joy when they caught up at New Years.
… except her twin sister sent her a text so chilling that Charity had changed her ticket at the last second. “Char, get over here now! Milo needs you! You’re the only one I can trust. Take him away from here. I know what Hal is doing, and he knows that I know! It’s dangerous. I can’t explain right now, but talk to Andrew—he knows where I went, and please, don’t write me back at this number. Be careful.”
Charity promised her friend, Lucy, that she’d catch up to her soon. That wasn’t going to happen, was it? She’d left her cellphone behind. Mom and BJ thought she was on her happy little vacation, and by the time her family figured out that she wasn’t where she was supposed to be, it would absolutely be too late.
Charity had faced Hal in the living room, crossing her arms against the terror pulsating through her. “You think my brother doesn’t know I’m here?”
“Nice try. He’d never let you come. BJ’s more protective than that pathetic mongrel he drives around in that dirty pickup of his. Why do you think Miriam and I are too busy to take his calls?”
Her throat felt dry. That overprotectiveness was exactly why Charity hadn’t told BJ. She’d wanted to see if this was serious before she brought in the big guns. “You can’t…”
Hal cut her off with a dry bark of laughter. “Miriam doesn’t get to see her boy… not unless she comes back to me and we talk this over. Simple as that.”
Relief and horror washed over her—relief because Miriam was alive and far from Hal’s grasp, horror because Charity had somehow put her sister in more danger because she’d been stupid enough to barge into her home without a plan. Still, why the mysterious texts? Why not call Charity directly? Answer her calls? But then she’d spied Miriam’s phone on the coffee table. Had he been monitoring her phone? Sending messages as her?
Why would he do that?
What was real? What was fake?
Charity pretended like every accusation Hal leveled at her was true. “I’ll tell her,” she said, as if she were actually in cahoots with her sister. “When I see her, I’ll tell her your conditions.”
Hal’s gaze narrowed on her. She supposed that his eyes were once beautiful, when they belonged to a soul not as dark and twisted as his. If he saw any weakness in her, he’d take advantage of it. Her body wouldn’t stop shaking. She couldn’t hide it.
His lip curled. “You’re not going anywhere. Sending you was a dumb move. You’re staying with me until my wife comes back for you.”
Charity scoffed through the sound of her racing heart. “You can’t do that. I’m leaving.”
“Yeah? You think you can waltz in and out of my home, like my relationship with my wife has anything to do with you?” His fingers dug into her skin. “How about I make it your business? You want that? I know you’ve always had a thing for me, always teasing me with your eyes.”
She gaped at him. He was mocking her now! Flirting was more of her sister’s thing. She didn’t have Miriam’s looks. They weren’t identical twins. They looked similar enough for people to mistake them for each other sometimes, but that was only when they were younger. Charity had always opted for the more natural, “Mousy” look as her sister called it, letting her hair stay dark. Miriam had gone all out as a blonde bombshell and used those looks to steal away the men’s hearts while they were in college.
More power to her.
Charity enjoyed the quiet life… at least that was what she told herself whenever she was lonely. Despite all that, she’d never betray her sister or her family by “making eyes” at anyone they loved!
“Don’t be stupid,” she told Hal. “I never thought of you as anything more than a brother!”
“Really?” he asked. “That’s a shame. I always had a thing for you.”
His reckless baiting had rocked her to the core. Charity recognized the desperate, wrathful look of a man who was trying to get revenge on the woman who’d finally escaped him.
Charity couldn’t prove how she knew, but now Hal was a danger to his own son!
Her suspicions would never fly in court. She’d fought the system long enough to know how much evidence she needed to relocate a child from their birth parents. Everything she was doing was against the law. And yet, she’d risk losing everything to rescue Milo.
Unbelievably, Hal had actually bought Charity’s nodded assurances that she was there on her sister’s behalf to blackmail him, even though she was a terrible liar. Miriam always claimed her twin’s fluttering lashes gave her away, but Hal was so sure that Charity was that kind of lowlife, he’d left her all alone to get drinks to seal their talks with a smug smile on his face. His arrogance was unbelievable.
“Milo?” Charity whispered hoarsely. Her fervent calls were met with no answer. She tried to catch her breath, her mind going a million directions. She couldn’t stay here. Hal would come back. Milo was better off if she found help. Charity hurried to the front door and tugged at the handle.
It was locked! From the inside? How? Running her fingers down the frame, she found the metal attachment. A blue glow emanated from it, but no bolt or spring. Was it fingerprint activated? Charity couldn’t figure it out. She was trapped.
Oh Miriam… did you really live like this and say nothing?
Charity’s eyes locked on the keys resting on the side table under a decorative sign that said “Family.”
Those were Miriam’s keys to her BMW Roadster. She’d left them behind. The mystery to her sister’s disappearance was only getting more convoluted. Charity stuffed the keys into her jeans pocket. That would be one way to get out of here! She scraped out her phone to dial 911. A brisk-sounding female answered the call.
“Help me!” Charity whispered into the receiver. “I need you to come to-to…” She didn’t know the exact address. The pressure was too much to conjure up the one she gave the Lyft driver. “I’m on Ferguson Way.” She remembered that at least. “Trace my phone for the street number. I’m at Judge Hal’s place.”
“Judge Hal?” This was a small town and Hal was in the criminal justice industry. Of course, this woman would know him. “Is he all right, hon?”
No! “He’s not the one hurt. Miriam is! I mean, I don’t know where she is—she’s my sister, and…”
“His wife? Where is he?”
“Here. He’s here. I’m really worried about Miriam. I don’t know what he did to her!”
“We’ve got a patrol car in the area.”
“Thank you. Come quick,” she tried to keep her voice down through her panic. “Hal is acting, um… suspicious…I don’t trust him at all, and I got this text from my sister out of nowhere…”
“What are you doing?” Hal hissed. He knocked her phone against the carpet.
Charity took a deep breath to scream. He clamped a hand over her mouth so fast that she choked while he grappled with the phone at their feet. He threw it against his ear all while she tried to escape him. “Thanks, Susan, for your help,” he told the lady on the line. His calm voice didn’t give away that he was holding down a struggling woman. “Yes, this is Hal. We’ll call if Miriam doesn’t show up.” He gritted his teeth. “Yes, yes, I understand my sister-in-law’s concern, but I’ve got it taken care of.”
He hung up the phone, one-handed, and tossed it across the room. He glared at Charity, his breathing ragged. His fingers pressed against her mouth, but the rage radiating from him stole her voice from her anyway. “If you think that little stunt will make me play nice, you can forget it,” he said.
The cruel truth had sunk into her bones in an instant. She should’ve called her brother instead of coming herself. Hal had her running like a dog.
Now she was on the road in the middle of a blizzard with no phone. Hal had left her with no choice but to find Andrew. Her brother-in-law’s son from his first marriage lived nearby. He was just out of college. He’d had a promising career once, but Charity had a feeling that Hal had ruined that too. She didn’t know for sure. She only felt it. Just like everything lately. Why else was Andrew out here in the middle of the mountains living as some kind of nature survivalist? When these passes closed off in the winter, he’d be out here with no human contact for months.
That wasn’t normal for a twenty-three-year-old.
The GPS had told her that the turnoff to Andrew’s place was close, but that was half an hour ago. The worthless piece of machinery kept changing its mind each time she lost satellite connection. The clouds were too thick. The reception wasn’t coming through. Still, the GPS acted as if they were close.
Charity wanted to throttle the machine each time it redirected her. If she could remove her hands from the steering wheel, she would. Andrew’s address had been the last one Miriam had typed into her car’s GPS. The second Charity scrambled into the compact BMW and saw where her sister had been, she knew the guy would have the answers she was looking for.
Miriam had talked about her visits to Andrew last year. She’d been trying to connect to Hal’s past life and heal the rifts in his family. Such a thought seemed almost ridiculous now. Hal’s family from his first marriage would be better off if they stayed far away from him.
Either way, Miriam had talked about how Andrew lived in a small cabin on a road just off the pass in the middle of nowhere.
But what road? What pass even? Everything was lost in this punishing storm.
The arrow on the GPS told her that they were at the turnoff. Charity couldn’t see a thing. She slowed, staring at the trees swaying on either side of her. The mountains were only shadows in the distance. Nothing looked familiar. What was she supposed to do?
She moved the car at a snail’s pace. Anything slower and she’d lose her momentum and get stuck in the snow; anything faster and she’d slide off the road.
“Are we at Andrew’s yet?” Milo asked from his booster in the back seat. “We’re going to play with dice!” Her nephew held up the toys that he’d been playing with before she’d snatched him from his home, like it was equally important to everything happening to them.
The kid had no idea they were in a battle between good and evil here.
At least Charity’s acting skills had improved. Good thing, or else they wouldn’t have gotten so far.
Hal had shoved her into the room at the end of the hall.
“Mommy?” Milo shouted out happily.
Hal had brought Charity to her nephew’s room!
She twisted in Hal’s grasp, seeing that Milo was safe. He played with construction paper that he’d cut into triangles, and he was trying to glue dice onto it.
“Char!” Using his mommy’s nickname for her, Milo ran to give her a hug. His arms went around her waist, even as Hal’s fingers slid from her face. She swallowed, staring down at Milo. All the abuse she’d suffered as a child washed over her, no matter how much she’d tried to smother the flood of her memories. Strangely, she felt like the kid she once was, so powerless… but she wasn’t. She refused to be that again. One thing she was certain of—and that knowledge didn’t spring from her master’s degree—abusers liked to feel in control.
Her chin snapped up to face Hal again. “You’re right. You’re right.” She forced the hysteria from her voice. “Let’s play nice.” She gulped, trying to appeal to his vanity next. “We’ve always been friends.”
“Yes, we have.” He smoothed Charity’s hair behind her ear like he had every right.
The darkness pulsating from him made her feel nauseated; the same feeling she got when she was huddled in the bed with Miriam years ago when they covered their ears from their parents’ shouts; Hal’s shark-like focus on her triggered the same alarm bells when going on house visits when she’d sensed inexplicably that something was wrong with the kids she was sent to check on.
Something was very wrong here.
“You’re in my playground now,” he said. “These are my friends, my town. Let’s make one thing clear. No one will believe you over me. Miriam should’ve warned you.”
Typical abusive hack!
The doorbell rang. The police were here! Charity didn’t buy into Hal’s warnings that the law in Corwell was under his thumb. She wasn’t an idiot! They’d have to listen to her, no matter what threats Hal tried to scare her with. She’d scream to alert them that she was hiding here. Hal had to know that he hadn’t intimidated her. She wasn’t a child or broken under his abuse. Would he try to silence her?
The ringing of the doorbell turned into a steady knocking. His eyes narrowed on her. “One peep out of you and you’ll regret it.” His cruel smile shook her to the core—he promised violence with a look. “I’ll tell them that you threatened me, that you’re trying to take my son from me after you did something to my wife… you’re trying to steal your own sister’s life because you’re obsessed with taking her place. You have to have me or die!”
What? He’d ripped off the plot from Single White Female. Ridiculous!
“You threatened my family, and they’ll put you in a holding cell for me,” he said, “even if they don’t believe a word I say… because yes, Charity, they fear me, like you will.”
Clenching her teeth, Charity studied the trees blanketing the side of the road for any sign of a pathway that would get her to Andrew’s. She’d never let Hal win! Years of facing down bullies was a habit that made up who she was. She’d do it over and over again, even if she came away with scrapes and bruises—because she owed it to that scared little kid she used to be.
She owed it to Miriam. She owed it to Milo.
Charity startled with relief when she saw the hidden pathway through the break of trees to the side of them. All that staring into the nothingness of the white powdered forest had paid off.
Oh thank you, God! Thank you!
She’d almost missed the opening. New worries swept her away in its current as she saw the path was lost under the shelter of trees. What if this road was the wrong one? Her GPS had been glitchy for miles. This way could lead to anything, anyone!
If she went down that hill, there was no going back up the snow in this sports car. The slope would take her careening down to the bottom. Her brakes would be useless against this ice. And after she reached that road under the trees below, she had no idea what awaited her next.
Worse, this pass was going to be closed off soon. She and Milo would be snowed in with whatever fate they’d found down there.
Snowed in with an ex-cop for Christmas while she’s running from the law. This might not end well.
Charity is not feeling herself these days. After all…
Is it charity to take off for Christmas break without telling a soul?
Is it charity to suspect her brother-in-law of foul play?
Is it charity to steal his car?
She doesn’t care. Charity will give up everything she has built of her life to save her sister’s son, even if it means the end of her career as a social worker. Driving to meet someone who can clear her name, she gets stuck in the snow with her nephew and they must face the elements and go by foot.
The only man who can help them is an ex-cop who’s turned his back on the world. Will he turn his back on them too? He must work through tragic loss and a horrible miscarriage of justice; she must learn to love again after facing a past of childhood trauma.
Will their feelings for each other heal their hearts before trouble strikes again?
Who’s ready to extend the greatest season of all? I’m so excited to announce that my book, “Snowed in at Silver Forest” will be available on December 27th! Perfect Christmas reading as the holiday winds down and ya’all get to have your own “Snowed in” experiences 🙂 Pre-order your copy HERE to get it delivered to your kindle on release day!
Maria Hoagland’s Essence of Gravity made it in Urban Fantasy too. I also saw Ellie Thornton, MK Dymock, Cami Checketts, Elana Johnson, Rebecca Talley, Nichole Van, Jennifer Peel, AL Sowards, Taylor Hart, Carolyn Tweed Frank and MANY more amazing authors in there! Congrats!!!
This was blackmail. “Return my jeans and all the rest of the laundry you stole,” he said, “and I’ll think about it.” “Wear what came in today, and I’ll think about it.” He flopped down on the chair, having no intention of doing that. “You know what happens to thieves, right?” “Nothing good,” she replied, pouring water into her cup. “I’m willing to sacrifice for fashion.” Cole was kind of at a loss at what to do, since he didn’t have sisters. Normally, he’d wrestle his brothers down by now and force them to do the right thing. He tried to buy time. “What’s in this magical shipment that you’ve got?” “Oooh, well, Henley tops, shawl neck sweaters, cuffed jeans, rolled up slacks—in charcoal, indigo, chocolate. I even tried mustard.” Was anything a real color? He was starting to squirm and sweat all at once. “You can’t buy things for your future brother-in-law. It’s just not done.” “West approves.” Right! Because they had their weird little “understanding.” The traitor. “Ah, and I got you a puffy coat with sweater sleeves,” she said. His whole stomach dropped. “You know, I can buy some new jeans at Harold’s to replace the ones you stole,” he said. “C’mon!” She poked his forearm with her pinky. “You can wear it to the Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice Festival.” “The last thing I’m thinking about is what I’m wearing to the festival.” “I know, right? That’s why I am.” He rubbed at his eyes, feeling the fight drain from him. “If I agree to your terms, then you’ll give me my jeans… now?” “Yes. Well, after dinner.” He took a steadying breath. His gaze was caught by her laughing eyes. Her blonde hair fell over her face while she dished up her plate. “I have a different idea,” he said. “And that is?” “We’ll wrestle for it.” “What?” He picked her up over his shoulder and took her to where the Slade brothers always had it out in the living room, despite their momma’s screams to the contrary. “Cole!” she cried out. Eva was a lot lighter than his brothers, and she kicked her bare feet against his side. “You can’t just wrestle your sister-in-law.” She wasn’t yet. And two could play at this game. “You can always call it quits then, and concede that I’m the victor.” “Never!” Not quite what he expected. The puppy barked joyfully around them, wanting to join in the fun. “I can put you in a pretzel,” he teased her. “I’d like to see you try it.” Really? He set her on the couch, not quite sure what to do with her now that he’d started, but she lunged at him instead and caught him so unaware, that she managed to pin him down against the cushion. “I might not have brothers,” she huffed out, “but I’ve wrestled a few greased pigs at the fair.” Great! Trust her to take this to another level. She was clearly enjoying herself. He threw his arms around her, actually not sure how to make this fair when he saw she completely disappeared under him. He rolled her around, careful not to hurt her. “You give?” he asked her. “Not a chance!” She squirmed out of his grip and fell against the carpet, knocking him back with her shoulder as she wriggled away. “Not until I see you in a turtleneck sweater.” “You can forget that!” He grabbed her knee and tugged her to him. “I pin you for three seconds and then you have to give.” “Who says?” she called out. “I didn’t agree to that.” “Six?” She laughed up in his face and poked her finger into his stomach, and then followed that with lots of fingers digging into the softest parts of him while she tickled him all over. He crumpled, feeling himself go weak like he always did in a tickle war. He tried to catch her hands, all while howling out uncontrollably in laughter. “You can’t…” he said, “… little cheat.” “Someone’s got to even the playing field,” she hollered out. “You big–big lumberjack!” Lumberjack? Ouch! “Ouch!” he said aloud when she caught him under his armpit. He took her by the wrists, realizing that he had no idea how to end this fight and still come out the victor because the little thief was stealing more than his laundry with her every dimple. He tried to hold her still, and quite suddenly, she stopped struggling, her eyes going to his. Her breathing came out heavily. His hands tightened over her. The phone rang, and he turned towards it, a part of him realizing that he needed to stop that sound somehow. “You going to get that?” Eva asked him. Yes, yes, of course. Her hair was everywhere. He tried to push those glorious strands from her eyes. The phone’s ringing screeched persistently over them. Her lashes fluttered in confusion. Wait, what was he doing? He straightened and released her. “Your lucky day,” he told her. That was more for bravado than anything. He abandoned her and headed for the phone, every part of him shaking, partly from pushing it too far with Eva and partly because he knew what this phone call could be about. He answered it.