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Excerpt: Hold Me Close

Excerpt: Hold Me Close

Book 2: Paradise, Idaho

Chapter 1 – Love Hurts

Kayla Chambers hefted the heavy bag of laundry into the back seat of the sedan beside her nine-year-old son. When she felt the hand at her waist, she jumped.

Alan laughed in her ear, pulled her back against him, put a hand under her chin to turn her head, and kissed her mouth. She stood rigid under him until he stepped back and sighed. “You’re not going to keep pouting, are you? Come on, baby. It’s over. You’re sorry, I’m sorry, and we’re moving on.” He fingered the half-carat diamond stud in her earlobe and gave her the slow, coaxing grin that worked so well on the secretaries in the D.A.’s office, the baristas at the coffee shop. On everyone who thought she was so lucky to have such a charming, handsome man, so crazy about her that he had to go everywhere with her.

“The two of you are joined at the hip,” Alan’s secretary Joan had joked. “Where can I get one of those, who’ll keep me in the lap of luxury and give me anything?”

Be careful what you wish for, Kayla had thought. She hadn’t said it, of course, because Alan had been beside her.

“But you’ve forgiven me,” he murmured now, beside her once more. “I can tell, because you couldn’t wait to wear them, could you? Even to the Laundromat. I know your little weaknesses, just like you know how to push my buttons. That’s why we’re so good together.” He traced a hand down her jaw. “Sometimes I think you do it on purpose, that you make me mad just so you can get presents. You’re going to get more, too, because I’m going to take you dancing tonight.” He had pulled her close again, and his lips were at her ear. “Wear the red dress,” he whispered. “The one that shows off your ass. We’ll have our own special party when we get home. We’ll send Eli to the sitter’s, have the house to ourselves, and you’ll be all mine.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, swallowed, and stepped out of his arms. “We’d better go, or all the machines will be full.”

He sighed again. “What do I have to do here? I lost my temper. I took responsibility for that. But did you? Are you forgetting which of us lied to the other one?”

“I didn’t lie.” She got the words out even as her chest tightened. She could see Eli sitting, tense and wary, in the back seat, and hated that he was hearing this. She shouldn’t say anything, but she did anyway. “I was going to tell you the washing machine was broken. You didn’t give me a chance.”

He wasn’t looking satisfied anymore. He’d stiffened, and she was shaking inside. Why did she always talk back? Why? Why did she never learn?

“So you waited until my basketball night with the guys,” he said. “Knowing that my workout clothes were in the wash. Knowing that I had court the next day, and that my best white shirt was in there, too. We don’t call that honest, do we? We don’t call that helpful. We call that passive-aggressive. We call that undermining my career. The career that’s been feeding you and your son for the past six months.”

“Maybe,” she said, and felt herself trembling even as she did, “I was afraid of what you’d do if I told you.”

He took a step toward her, seemed to stop himself, and took a deep breath. “It’s over. We’re moving on. You can do better, and I know you will. I’m not so hard to please, after all. Your only job is to keep my home the way I like it, and keep me happy. That doesn’t seem so hard, does it? Am I such a bad guy?”

“No.” It was a lie, but what was one more lie, when her whole life was a lie?

He touched the diamond stud again, trailed his fingers down her neck, and rested his hand lightly against her throat, his fingers curling around to hold her there. A reminder, and a promise. “All you have to do is pay attention. And then you get all the pretty things, because I take care of what belongs to me. Just like I’ll take care of you. Always.”

He dropped his hand, and she touched her cheekbone with her fingertips. Gingerly, because it still hurt. “Yeah. You like to give me things.”

He traced a hand over her cheekbone, and she held her breath and didn’t wince. “My sweet baby,” he crooned. “Sometimes love hurts, but it’s all good, because then we get to make up, and that’s the best.”

This time, she didn’t say anything. She just got into the passenger seat in front of her silent son, then waited as Alan slammed the door and shut her in before climbing into the driver’s seat.

Because she didn’t have a car, of course. She didn’t have anything. He had it all. She went where he told her to go and wore what he told her to wear and did what he told her to do. And it still wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

Love isn’t supposed to hurt like that, she told herself as he accelerated away from the stop sign with a speed that pushed her back against the seat. Love doesn’t come from your fists and your feet. Love doesn’t terrorize. Love doesn’t bruise.


Chapter 2 – A Ramblin’ Man

“No.” Luke Jackson made his voice as firm as he possibly could. “Absolutely not. Go home.”

He didn’t usually talk to women this way. But then, this was no ordinary woman. She looked at him, her pretty head cocked, her eyes bright, her mouth stretched in a smile. She looked attentive. She looked obedient. Oh, yes, she did. But no matter how many times he’d told her to leave him alone, she’d insisted on following him. And now she’d sat herself down on the sidewalk, and she wasn’t budging.

Well, if she wasn’t going to move, he would. He took off again, focusing on his rhythm. His running shoes hit the deserted sidewalk with a satisfying thwack, thwack, the familiar routine exactly what he needed before another workday behind a desk.

Paradise, Idaho, on a sleepy Friday morning in July. The promise of heat in the air, the sun already hard at work ripening the wheat and barley beyond the city limits. All the farmers and their families long since awake, because harvest had begun. You didn’t stay lazy long on a farm, and farm habits were hard to break.

Here in town, of course, it was a different story. Here, the kids would be moving more slowly, not yet spilling out into yards and onto sidewalks to play kickball and ride bikes and head to the pool. Relishing their final month of freedom before school started again.

He made it almost two blocks before he looked behind him. And there she was. Still following him.

He turned, hands on hips, and sighed. “You don’t have a home to go to, do you? What the hell am I supposed to do about that? And why me?”

The little dog waved her feathered tail, trotted a few hesitant steps toward him, and stopped. Luke finally did what he’d resisted doing all along: he held out a hand and snapped his fingers.

“Great. Oh, that’s just great,” he muttered when she came straight to him, sat at his feet, and leaned into the hand rubbing her head.

He didn’t really have a choice after that. Not when she fixed him with that same bright gaze, the patch of black over one eye giving her a comical appearance belied by the ribs he could feel under the matted black-and-white coat, the collar that most definitely wasn’t there to decorate her skinny neck. She was clearly homeless, and she was panting, too. It was already starting to get warm out even at seven in the morning, and where would she have gotten anything to drink?

“All right,” he told her. “But we’re talking one day only, you understand me? Water, something to eat, and that’s it. I can’t do anything else with you anyway, because I’ve got to go to work. And this afternoon? It’s straight to Animal Control. Got to find you a family, and it’s not me. I’m a ramblin’ man, baby. Can’t tie me down. I walk alone.”

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