Copyright © 2013 by Maya Banks
Lauren Wilder descended the steps from her second-story apartment above the Main Street Medical Clinic and breathed in the crisp spring mountain air.
The wind kicked up and a few tendrils of hair escaped the hastily done ponytail. She pulled her light sweater tighter around her and looked for traffic before crossing the street to the diner where she worked.
Not that there was ever much traffic in Clyde, and certainly not this early in the morning, but later, the sleepy town would come alive and a host of regulars would filter into the diner for their morning coffee, breakfast and, more importantly, the day’s gossip.
The bell jangled when she entered the front door. It was a sound she never heard when the small diner was filled with customers, but in the morning, it seemed jarringly loud and it always startled the quiet peace that blanketed the tiny mountain town.
It had taken her months to settle in and truly feel as though she belonged here. It was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of New York City, and a year ago, if someone had told her that she’d end up taking refuge here, in a place that still hadn’t caught up to the rest of the world, she would have laughed and said never.
She was, or at least she had been, a total city girl. She loved the conveniences of living in one of the world’s largest cities. Everything was at her fingertips. A walk, or a subway ride away. Sometimes a cab ride if she was in a hurry.
Max, her older brother, had found his way to Clyde when he’d fallen in love with Callie. Her family had lived here for decades. They were as much a part of this small town as the fixtures and buildings themselves.
Lauren had always assumed she’d stay in the city. Settle down with a businessman who shared the same interests as she. Have two children, a boy and a girl, and complete the American dream.
The problem with that fantasy was that she’d chosen the wrong man, and now she could never return to her old life. She didn’t want to return to her old life.
She’d found more than just sanctuary in Clyde. She’d found the family she’d always longed for in the Colters. She understand well why Max had been willing to give up his wanderlust and settle in these mountains, surrounded by the family who’d pulled him—and Lauren—into their arms.
For the first time in months, she was starting to regain some of her old confidence. More importantly, she was learning to forgive herself for the choices she’d made. She could now go to sleep at night without cringing over her naïveté. Or at least most nights.
The first step for her had been moving out of Max and Callie’s home and into her own apartment in town. It hadn’t been easy to convince her protective older brother—or the Colters for that matter—that she was ready to be out on her own. They’d grown used to having her close and watching over her, and while she adored them for their unconditional love and protection, she’d been thrilled to take that step.
She had a place of her own, and she had a job. So it wasn’t the career she’d planned, nor was it a job worthy of her college degree, but it was a job that paid well. She made enough to get by on, and she wasn’t depending on her brother’s fortune to support her.
She went into the kitchen, where she found Clark warming up the fryers and the grill and Evie brewing the coffee. She reached for one of the aprons and quickly tied it around her waist.
After smiling and offering her good morning to Clark and Evie, she headed out front to make sure the tables were in order and that the sugar and spice containers were filled.
It was a routine she followed daily. Same schedule. Same time. In her previous life, she would have been bored and ready to go stir-crazy. Now she found the routine predictable and soothing.
It was safe.
There was no constant fear that she’d do or say the wrong thing. No worrying endlessly over what kind of mood Joel was in. No blaming herself when he took his temper out on her.
She hadn’t realized just how far she’d been beaten down by the man she was involved with, until she’d been away for months and was able to objectively look back at just how stupid she’d been.
She sucked in a deep breath and chastised herself for going back. She couldn’t undo the past, but she could sure as hell make certain she didn’t make the same mistakes again.
New life. New chance. New opportunity to be a different person. Or at least to find the person she’d been before she’d allowed Joel to change her.
At six a.m. sharp, she flipped the switch to the neon Open sign and made sure she had an order pad and a pen in her apron pocket.
She and Evie worked the morning shift with Clark manning the grill. The diner closed at two because Dillon Colter’s pub opened at lunch and the pub usually attracted the evening crowd.
Lauren liked the hours because it left her with the entire afternoon off, and her workday was behind her. She often spent the afternoons with Callie and Max or when they were gone, she’d visit with Holly and Lily Colter.
They tended to stop in to visit Lauren more often now that she’d moved into town. Lauren knew they still worried about her and that none of them had been thrilled with the idea of her moving out on her own so soon.
Of all of them, Holly understood Lauren the best, and Lauren loved the older woman for her willingness to give Lauren room to breathe.
She needed to regain her confidence and reassert herself. Make her own decisions and live her own life. She may not be ready to take on the entire world yet, but she could safely say she was ready to take on the town of Clyde.
She smiled when the bell jangled, signaling the first customer of the day. She turned, already having a good idea of who it would be, and she was right.
Seth Colter, the sheriff, strode into the diner and took his usual seat by the window.
“Morning, Seth,” she said as she approached his table.
Seth looked up, giving her a warm smile that made her insides squeeze. All of the Colters had been so good to her.
“Morning, Lauren. Everything okay today?”
It was the same question he asked her everyday.
“Yep. How is Lily doing? You want your usual?”
Seth’s entire face softened at the mention of his wife.
“She’s doing great. More tired than usual, but we’re taking good care of her. And yeah, my usual will be great. Keep the coffee coming if you don’t mind. Had a late call last night and I’m operating on three hours’ sleep.”
Lauren winced. “Ouch. Anything major?”
Seth laughed. “As major as it ever gets here. Lost hiker. His girlfriend got worried when he didn’t show up for dinner. Turns out he was over in the next town with another woman.”
Lauren shook her head and then turned in the direction of the kitchen. “I’ll be right back with your coffee.”
She grabbed the freshly brewed pot of coffee and poured a cup, adding two sugars and one cream. She quickly scribbled Seth’s order, tore off the paper and then slid it across the divider to Clark.
Then she went back to Seth’s table with his cup of coffee.
“You’re a goddess,” Seth said, grabbing for the cup before it left her hand. “Hey, before I forget, I’m supposed to tell you that Callie is coming over to visit Lily this afternoon and Lily wanted me to tell you that you should stop over after your shift.”
“Thanks. I just might do that,” Lauren said.
“How are you liking the new place?” Seth asked, peering at her intently over his coffee. “You having any problems?”
She smiled at the concern in his eyes. It was nice to have people who cared about her.
“The place is great. Just perfect for me. It’s cozy and it’s right here in town. I know Max worries, but—”
“We all worry,” Seth corrected gently.
“Yes, I know, but you shouldn’t. I’m fine. The apartment is great. I love the job. It’s nice to be around people again without . . .”
She trailed off, embarrassed by where she’d nearly gone with the conversation.
“Without?” Seth prompted.
“Worrying that they’ll hurt me,” she said softly.
Seth reached over and squeezed her hand. “Now that you don’t have to worry about here. You have me and Max plus the dads and Dillon and Michael to watch out for you. Not to mention Callie, Lily and my mother, and between you and me, someone would be a damn fool to ever cross my mother. She’s pretty scary when it comes to protecting her babies, even if her babies are grown damn men and women.”
Lauren chuckled. “She’s the best.”
Seth nodded. “That she is. She’s currently on a tear about the arrival of her first grandchild. Dillon, Michael and I just try to stay out of her way.”
“Thank you, Seth,” she said solemnly, when he lifted his hand away. “I appreciate your kindness more than you know. I don’t know what I would have done without all of you and especially your mom.”
His expression was serious. “You’re family now, Lauren. We take family very serious. You can come to us for anything, anytime. We want you to be happy here.”
She raised her head when another customer came in. “Let me go get this customer. Your food should be up in just a sec and I’ll get it out to you.”
Seth smiled and nodded and then called out a greeting to the person who’d walked in. Lauren was still learning the people of the town, but she prided herself on knowing most of their faces, even if she hadn’t put names to everyone yet.
Small-town life wasn’t ever anything that had appealed to her in the past, but she’d grown to love Clyde and all its inhabitants. They’d embraced her. Made her feel welcome. She’d only been here since just before Christmas and already it was like she’d lived here all her life.
She sighed a little as she walked away from Seth and warmly greeted the man at the next table. Seth was a good man. As were both his brothers Dillon and Michael.
The Colters were . . . Well, they were different. There were no two ways about it. Seth’s parents, or “the dads” as he called them, were not that standard set of parental figures. Holly Colter was married to three brothers and in turn their three sons were married to one woman. Lily.
Callie, the baby of the bunch, was the only one who had what could be deemed a traditional relationship. She was married to Lauren’s brother, Max.
The hell of it was that Lauren envied all three women with all her heart. Holly, Lily and Callie. Maybe even especially Holly and Lily.
Each woman had three men completely and utterly devoted to their happiness and well-being. They loved Holly and Lily, and their devotion ran so deep that sometimes it hurt Lauren to look at them.
What would it be like to be cherished and adored by three men? To have that kind of relationship where she would be the heart and foundation, the very core of it all. She couldn’t even fathom being so loved, but she wanted it with all her heart.
Old feelings of insecurity crept to the surface. And with it, accompanying shame and humiliation. She’d been so desperate to find love that she’d found herself in a relationship she never should have been involved in. Worse, she’d remained in it when it had been clear that she didn’t belong.
She had only herself to blame for remaining. She couldn’t be blamed for his actions, but she sure as hell could take responsibility for not standing up for herself sooner.
Shaking off the cloud of sadness that hovered over her, she busied herself with the rapidly filling diner. For the next few hours, she barely had time to breathe, much less dwell on her past mistakes.
Besides, she was beyond that now. The future was what she made it. Here in this tiny Colorado mountain town, she’d found her niche. A new life. A brand new beginning where the mistakes of the past wouldn’t continue to haunt her.
New York City
“We’ve been at this for months and still don’t have a single goddamn lead,” Liam Prescott bit out.
His partner, Noah Sullivan, grimaced. “You aren’t telling me anything I don’t know. But here’s the thing. We didn’t imagine those bruises on Lauren. And we damn sure didn’t imagine how terrified and ashamed she was. Still gets my gut all into a knot every time I think of how she looked the first day we met her.”
Liam’s lips drew back into a snarl as he pulled the SUV into a tight parking spot outside of a brownstone divided into apartments. He sat for a long moment, his big hands curled around the steering wheel as he stared up at the number above the archway to the front door of the building.
“This better turn up something,” he said. “We’ve exhausted all our options. It’s like this guy doesn’t exist.”
Noah got out and Liam followed. They walked up the steps and Noah buzzed the apartment. They waited a long moment and Noah buzzed again.
“Doesn’t look like she’s home,” Liam muttered.
Noah blew out his breath. “Okay, let’s go wait in the car. We’ll hang out for a while and see if she shows.”
The men retreated, climbing back into the SUV. Noah propped his elbow against the window and frowned. Then he glanced in Liam’s direction.
“Do you think she was straight with us? With her brother?”
Liam’s brow creased and he turned, angling his body so he leaned against the driver’s side door. “You think she lied? You saw her, Noah. She sure as hell didn’t make that shit up.”
Noah held up his hand. “Don’t get all pissed off. I know she didn’t lie about what the bastard did to her.”
“Then what the hell do you think she lied about?”
Noah hesitated. “I’m not sure, but I don’t think we got the full story. This guy is a ghost. No one knows a damn thing about him. No prints in the system, and I doubt Lauren was the first woman he beat up. Assholes like him usually have a few run-ins with the law.”
“You think she’s protecting him?” Liam asked incredulously.
There was a hint of anger to his voice and his scowl deepened.
“No,” Noah said quietly. “I think she’s scared out of her mind.”
Liam’s expression darkened even further and he gripped the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. “I want that bastard.”
Noah nodded because he felt the same way. When they’d taken the job from Max Wilder, they’d expected a stereotypical rich-girl scenario. An overprotective brother who wanted a babysitter for the sister he didn’t have time for.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
Lauren Wilder was a shy, sweet woman who’d been badly abused by a man she’d trusted. From the moment Noah had laid eyes on her, he’d ached to hold her. To wipe away all the hurt and show her that all men weren’t abusive assholes.
Liam had reacted even more strongly than Noah had. He’d taken one look at Lauren and had been so furious that he’d ended up scaring the holy hell out of her.
The two men had worked together for a hell of a long time. They’d seen and done it all. But they’d never fallen for the same woman, and Noah still wasn’t sure what the hell they were supposed to do about it.
For now, they existed in denial, and they only discussed her in a professional context. Anytime it started to get personal, Liam clammed up and got that look in his eyes that meant the subject was closed.
Noah sighed. “I want him too, but I’m starting to think we’re barking up the wrong tree.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell does that mean?”
Suddenly Noah straightened, his gaze fixed on a tall blond woman walking down the sidewalk.
“I think that’s her,” he said.
Liam’s hand went to the door handle, but he waited, tense and silent.
Both men watched as she turned up the walkway to the apartment. A moment later, she took her keys out and unlocked the door.
“Let’s go,” Noah said.
He and Liam got out of the car and hurried up the walkway just as the woman swung open the door and stepped inside the foyer.
“Ms. Jennings?” Noah called.
The woman whirled around, fear immediate in her eyes.
Noah held out a placating hand. “My apologies for startling you. My name is Noah Sullivan and this is my partner, Liam Prescott. I was hoping for a moment of your time. We’re looking for someone, and it’s very important that we find him. We’d just like to ask you a few questions if that’s all right.”
She stared suspiciously at them, her hand still gripping the edge of the door.
“Are you cops?”
Noah shook his head. “No ma’am. We’re not cops. I guess you could say we’re investigators of sorts.”
“Like a P.I.? I always thought those weren’t real. Just stuff you see on cop shows and in the movies.”
“We’re not private investigators,” Liam said gruffly. “We were employed to keep a woman safe from the jerk who beat on her. We want to find this asshole so we can put him away. We need your help to do that.”
She blinked at Liam’s bluntness but her stance relaxed and she was clearly conflicted about whether to allow them into her building. Finally she took a step back, opening the door wider.
“Come in,” she murmured. “My name is Susan, but my friends call me Suki. Long story, but you can call me Suki.”
Noah could tell the woman was as nervous as a cat backed into an alley. He didn’t want to frighten her, but he had Liam with him and Liam was . . . Well, he was Liam. Blunt. Overwhelming. And growly.
Especially when it came to Lauren.
Once they walked up to her second floor apartment and were seated in the living room, Noah pulled out a photo of Lauren and slid it across the coffee table toward Suki.
“Can you tell me if you’ve ever seen this woman?”
Suki went completely still. Noah wasn’t even sure she was breathing. Her hands shook as she reached for the photo and fear crowded her eyes.
Then she turned with a fake, too-bright smile and said, “No, sorry I haven’t. Did something happen to her? Is she . . . dead?”
The last was asked fearfully and Liam frowned, leaning forward.
“Now why would you assume she’s dead or that something’s happened to her?”
Panic flared on her face. “I just assumed. I mean something had to have happened to her if you’re looking for her, right?”
“We aren’t looking for her,” Noah said calmly. “We just asked if you’ve ever seen her.”
Suki shook her head. “No. Sorry. Don’t know her.”
“Why are you lying?” Liam asked bluntly.
The woman vibrated with fear. Most people would have been pissed at blatantly being called a liar. Not this woman. She looked like she was going to be ill.
“Let’s try another question,” Noah said. “Do you know who this woman was seeing? Know his name? What he looks like?”
“I wish I could help you,” she croaked. “But he’d kill me.”
Liam and Noah exchanged quick glances. Noah’s pulse sped up and he leaned forward, scooting to the edge of his seat in anticipation. Finally, they were getting somewhere.
“Who, Suki? Who would kill you?”
When she looked up, tears shone in her eyes. “He hurt her. We all knew it. He always kept her on a very short leash. He told her how to dress, how to act, where to be and if she didn’t fall into step accordingly, she always wore bruises the next day.”
A low growl emanated from Liam’s throat. Noah shot him a warning look. The last thing they needed was to terrify Suki further and have her shut down and refuse to talk.
“Who did this to her?” Noah asked softly. “I need your help, Suki. I want to nail his ass to the wall and make damn sure he never does this to another woman.”
“Just give us his name,” Liam urged. “You don’t have to tell us anything else. Just give us enough to find him.”
She laughed, a raw, hysterical sound that was abrasive to Noah’s ears.
“You can’t stop him. He has cops on his payroll. He won’t ever be punished.”
“There are other ways of getting justice that don’t necessarily involve cops,” Liam bit out.
At that she went quiet and stared intently back at Liam. For a long moment she looked between the two men as if grappling with her decision to confide in them.
Finally she drew in a deep breath. “His name is Joel Knight. It’s all I’ll say, and I won’t testify. I won’t give a statement. I’ll deny ever seeing you, talking to you or even that I know who the hell you are.”
Liam’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Joel Knight? Are you sure?”
Noah shook his head. He’d known that Lauren was holding out on them. What he hadn’t realized was that she’d blatantly lied. She’d made up some other name of some fictitious guy and they’d spent the last four months wasting their fucking time searching out nonexistent leads.
“Of course I’m sure,” Suki said, an edge to her voice. “I’m one of his girls.”
Noah lifted an eyebrow. “What does that mean exactly?”
She pressed her lips together. “It’s time for you to go. I have an appointment in an hour and I have to get ready. I’d like you to leave. I’ve said all I’m going to say.”
Liam opened his mouth to argue, but she’d already risen, her agitation evident as she stalked to the door to open it. Her hand gripped the edge of the door, and she was pale as they walked past. She looked like she was going to be ill at any moment.
As soon as they were over the threshold, the door slammed behind them. Noah winced. “Damn, you get the idea we aren’t welcome any longer?”
Liam made a noise that sounded like a snort, and the two men returned to the parked SUV.
It was quiet in the vehicle as Liam drove away. Noah wasn’t entirely certain where he was going. He hadn’t gone back in the direction of their offices.
After a moment, Noah pulled out his cell and started to put in a call to his buddy who worked for the NYPD. He hesitated, Suki’s words floating back to his mind. Then he cursed and put the phone back up.
She was making him paranoid. For all he knew she was talking out her ass.
“Problem?” Liam asked.
“I was going to call Johnny. See what he could dig up on this Joel Knight dude.”
“And? Why didn’t you?”
Noah grimaced, already feeling a little stupid. “Because Suki said he had cops on his payroll.”
He thought Liam would tell him what an idiot he was being. Out of the hundreds of cops in the city, what were the odds that it would involve their contact?
But Liam merely nodded. “Better to be safe. We can do some digging on our own, but I’d rather go straight to the source.”
Noah’s brows drew together. Liam pulled into a parking place that was half a block down from a pub they frequented.
“What do you mean by that?” Noah asked.
“I’ll tell you over a drink,” Liam said.
If Liam was actually going to hit a pub so they could sit and talk, this had to be serious. Liam was more of an “act now, think later” kind of guy. Elaborate planning wasn’t one of his stronger points. That was Noah’s job. Noah thought out issues. Liam carried out the plan. It was a combination that had worked well for them over the years.
They ambled in and instead of sitting at the bar, they took a seat at one of the tables in the far corner, and Liam held up two fingers to the waitress.
Nodding, she offered a hello in greeting and then hurried off to get their order. They were here regularly enough that the staff was well acquainted with their preferences.
“So what’s going on in that head of yours?” Noah pressed.
“I think we should go see Lauren,” Liam said in a low voice.
Noah frowned. “That’s not what we were hired to do.”
“Fuck what we were hired for. We can’t do the job unless we have all the information from Lauren. And we don’t have it. We’ve been chasing our tails because Lauren was too afraid to tell us or her brother the truth about who abused her. If we confront her, we’re less likely to get the brush-off. If we call her up, she’s not going to just offer us this information over the phone.”
Noah sighed because . . . shit. This was going to open a whole damn can of worms.
“You know this isn’t a good idea,” Noah said bluntly. “We both obviously have feelings for her. We can’t do our job if we’re too busy fighting over who gets the girl.”
The waitress appeared, and Liam clammed up while she plopped the cold bottles down on the table. Once she left, Liam took a sip before carefully setting it back down. Noah waited. There was definitely something on Liam’s mind.
Liam stared directly at Noah, his gaze intent, jaw tight. “You ever wonder why I just let Lauren go so easily?”
Noah’s brow crinkled. “Max came to get her and brought her home with him. What could you have possibly done?”
Liam simmered with impatience. “Come on, Noah. Are you telling me you didn’t care when she left? That it didn’t bother you that we had to trust in the fact that her brother could keep her safe? That you didn’t want to tell him he was making a huge fucking mistake so that we could keep her close to us at all times so we’d make sure no one ever hurt her again? Quit pretending you don’t care. This is me you’re talking to. I know better.”
“So what?” Noah snapped. “What the fuck was I supposed to do? I couldn’t damn well make a move on her. Not after that shithead did what he did to her. We were strangers to her, and we scared her shitless.”
“It brings me back to my original question.”
“No, I don’t damn well know why you let her go so easily,” Noah said impatiently. “Do enlighten me.”
“The few times we got her to actually talk to us, she spoke about the family her brother married into. That her sister-in-law had three fathers—all married to the same woman—and that her brothers were also hooked up with the same woman.”
Noah nodded. “Yeah, I remember it. Sounded a little bizarre, but whatever.”
Liam’s eyes gleamed. “I wanted her to go back with Max because I wanted her to be around that kind of relationship. See how it worked. Become comfortable with it. Maybe even be able to view it as not so unorthodox.”
Realization crept into Noah’s mind, grabbed hold and shook him until he was staring at Liam in astonishment.
“You aren’t saying what I think you’re saying are you?”
Liam cocked one eyebrow.
“At what point were you going to ask me how I felt about it?” Noah demanded.
“Are you saying you’re against it? Are you saying you’ll back off if I tell you I want Lauren?”
Anger nipped at Noah’s heel. It prickled his nape until he was gripping his beer bottle so tight, he feared it would break.
“Think about it, Noah,” Liam said softly. “Think real hard about it. We’ll get on a plane and go talk to Lauren about the guy who beat her up. After you see her again, you tell me what you want to do. Because I’m not backing off. I’m going to wait for as long as it takes, but when she’s ready, I’m going to be there.”