Shatter MeAn Entangled Brazen Book
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Release Date: May 16, 2015
Especially when the promise had been made to a dying man.
Alex McCray tightened his grip on the steering wheel as he entered the city limits of Colton, Illinois. He fought down the threatening memory of chaos, explosions, bullets, and his best friend Drew Sanders's raspy voice. The nightmare haunted him every waking moment as it was, but being in Drew's hometown only made it more real. More inescapable. Eight months ago, he and Drew had planned to throw a barbecue when they returned home. But that inevitable day beyond the wire, just before the end of their last tour, changed everything. Now Alex was honor-bound to ensure Drew's widow was coping okay. Just what he wanted--to nurse Reagan's heartache when he couldn't get over his own.
He rolled past the first intersection and thumped a fist on the console between the seats. Reagan would want to know what happened. Want to know if Drew had suffered. Hell yes, he'd suffered. Drew had jumped on a live grenade and lost the lower half of his body. Worse, he'd done so to save Alex. No way could he tell her that he was responsible for killing her husband.
"Son of a bitch," Alex muttered. He sucked in a deep breath and gritted his teeth. Just check on her. She'll be fine, all things considered. Then you're out of here.
Free to go back to Chicago, kick back with his family at his surprise birthday party he wasn't supposed to know about, and start his life over as a project manager in his brother's engineering firm. Or maybe he'd accept a position as a civilian instructor at Scott Air Force Base. Though he didn't really care for that option; it made forgetting impossible.
Either way, he wouldn't be here, checking in on a woman he'd been more attracted to than he should have been, who'd put her husband in the ground less than a year ago.
But Drew's final words had been a request to look after Reagan, and Alex owed the man who'd saved his life that much. At least.
He turned a corner, taking the road that went past the school where Reagan taught third grade. The last time he'd been here, Drew had been driving. He'd stopped to surprise her at lunch, dragging Alex along with him. She'd made the entire lunchroom applaud their local heroes, much to his discomfort.
Drew had been so overjoyed to see her. She, on the other hand...she'd seemed happy, but distant.
An invisible fist wrapped around his gut. Oh hell, could Drew have read into things wrong, suspected Alex's interest? Nothing had ever happened between Alex and Reagan, but there had been one strange night that haunted Alex. They'd literally bumped into each other in the hallway while the neighbors, and Drew, were on the patio. Both of them had been drinking, but the look in her sky-blue eyes when he grabbed her by the elbow to keep her from falling and held on a moment too long... She'd walked away, as had he, but something lay behind her eyes. Something that grabbed him deep inside and twisted each time he tried to reason it out.
He ground his teeth together again. He didn't want to be here. He'd put off his promise for the first month of being home. Drew was the hero. He deserved a hero's memory. And Alex didn't intend to fuck it up any more, much less be constantly reminded of how he'd sent his best friend to the grave.
Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen. Then you're home free.
After all, this was just a quick check. Drew's life insurance certainly would have seen Reagan comfortable, and she had the means of supporting herself as well. This was nothing more than an obligatory condolence call.
He nosed around another turn, onto the quaint suburban street he'd been down a dozen times with Drew. Scraggly tree branches scattered across the first few yards. Bits of shingles littered lawns, and as he squinted to look beyond the immediate houses, evidence of more storm damage became clear. Gotta love the Midwest and its powerful storms. The round that had hit Chicago and knocked out several thousand people's power at the end of May must have barreled through here as well.
Good thing no one seemed to have suffered severe damage. Or if they had, they'd evidently cleaned it up, leaving only a little debris behind.
Except for the three-foot-wide hulking half of a tree across Reagan's smashed front porch.
And the bare spot on her roof where a two-foot-square patch of shingles had been sheared off.
And the faux shutter on her front window hanging on by its bottommost hinge.
Alex blinked. What the hell? Was that duct tape over the glass on the window?
He braked at the edge of her drive and glanced around, questioning whether he had the right house. It looked...abandoned. Certainly neglected. Had she moved? She must have. Evidence of repairs on her neighbor's roof stood out as he looked more closely--new shingles shone against the weathered gray shake. Orange stickers on the windows across the street marked three new replacements. And the house he'd passed, just to Reagan's east, was undergoing a new paint job.
Her car sat in the drive--no, she hadn't moved. So why was her house the only one on the block still in disrepair? That massive storm had come through three weeks ago.
He pulled in, eyeing the porch, debating whether it would fall on his head if he attempted the three steps to her door.
* * *
At the sound of a car engine shutting off, Reagan marched toward the front door. Freaking contractors--this one was getting a piece of her mind. The first had taken her deposit and failed to show then avoided all her attempts to track him down via phone. The second showed up drunk and nearly hacked off his own leg when he put the chainsaw to the giant maple across her porch. He'd barely scarred the bark before she'd kicked him off the job. This would be the third, and he should have arrived four hours ago. Drew had left her in this damn bind. If he hadn't locked up his bank accounts, she might have been able to afford the deductible on a quality repairman, not some second-rate storm chaser. Then again, she shouldn't be surprised Drew found a way to control her, even from beyond the grave.
She jerked the door open, prepared to rip the roofer a new asshole. But what greeted her on her doorstep had her snapping her mouth shut and stepping back in stunned surprise. Alex McCray stood with his hand raised to knock, looking equally surprised.
It took a minute for her brain to connect the pieces and send words to her mouth. She swallowed her surprise and smiled. "Alex? What are you doing here?"
No sooner had the question left her mouth than a flutter stirred in her belly that she experienced every time his deep forest green eyes connected with hers. God, eighteen months had passed since she'd last seen him, but he hadn't changed. The dark hair he kept just a little too long for regulation invited her fingers to slide through the hint of waves. His broad shoulders and muscular chest offered a safe haven she yearned to sail into. And the ever-present hint of stubble on his chin left her wondering how it would feel against her lips.
He smelled good, too. Spice and sweetness, completely unlike Drew's overpowering musk.
"Reagan? What the hell happened?" Concern bunched his forehead and created crinkles at the corner of his eyes.
"Um." It took another second for her to collect her thoughts enough to realize he was talking about her damaged front porch. "Oh. Storm damage."
"I get that, but..." He trailed off with an arched brow.
"Hello to you, too, by the way." She stepped back from the door and beckoned him to enter. At least inside he was less likely to have the roof come crashing down on his head. No way was she telling him the whole sordid mess--she didn't want his pity. Not to mention, Alex would never believe the man who'd saved his life had left her in this predicament, much less accept the dark side of his best friend's personality. She waved her hand, dismissing the situation. "Stupid roofer hasn't shown up. I hired him...a while ago."
Alex's other eyebrow shot up to join the first. In the silence that stretched between them, she became acutely aware of how he filled up the living room. Her nerves tightened her stomach into knots. Her palms turned clammy, and her pulse skipped erratically. He made her giddy like a naive teenager all over again. And she was certainly far from naive.
She crossed her arms over her breasts to keep her hands still. "What are you doing here, Alex?" They'd talked once since he returned, since Drew had died. The phone conversation had been awkward at best. In a hundred years, she'd never dreamed he would show up on her doorstep, when she was finally able to acknowledge there was something unforgettable about him, and yet, she still couldn't. A ghost remained between them. One he viewed as a hero. One she knew was anything but.
"I, ah, wanted to see how you were doing." He glanced at her, then quickly looked at the mantel. "How you were holding up."
Great. What exactly could she say? I'm better off with him gone, now go away? He'd never understand. Even if he could, she didn't want to be the one to tarnish Alex's memory of Drew. Alex was alive because of him. And in their short phone conversation, she'd gathered he didn't feel deserving. If he only knew the things she knew.
"You thought I'd want what?" Furious color rose to his cheeks. His hand whipped out, the flat of his palm in a direct line with her cheek. "Did I ask you to think for me?"
Reagan shoved aside the memory of Drew's last homecoming. She'd moved beyond the fear, and she wouldn't revisit it now. She cleared her voice and dropped onto the edge of the couch. "I'm doing okay. You?"
Pain flashed across his face before he smothered it with a tight smile. "Hanging in there, I guess. One day at a time. It's still weird sometimes. I keep expecting..." He frowned. "You know how it is."
Nope. She didn't. She knew freedom, and there wasn't a part of her that missed the fists, the yelling, the fear, and the absolute control Drew wielded over her life, including locking down their finances and making it virtually impossible for her to escape. Still, she nodded anyway.
As if he were afraid he might break it, Alex lowered himself gently into the sofa beside her. His thigh brushed hers. "What's the deal with the roofer?"
"Um." Heat crept into her cheeks. There was nothing more embarrassing than having to explain--to a stranger or even her best friend--how Drew had left his sister as his beneficiary because he'd never trusted her with a dime of his money. "Well, I was preoccupied with the end of school," she lied. No way was she going to open that can of worms. "I thought I hired someone legit. He took my money and ran."
Alex's frown deepened. "What about insurance?"
"Oh, it's covered by the policy. It's the deductible I have to meet." Five thousand dollars she'd had to scrape together the first time and certainly didn't have now. "When the first guy didn't show, I got smarter and refused to pay a deposit. Number two showed up drunk, so I fired him. Number three...well...he was supposed to be here at eight."
A tic pulled at the side of his jaw. "You're shitting me, right?"
She shook her head. "Nope." There was no reason to mention she'd been forced to find a virtual handyman this time around. And Alex's cologne was doing fantastic things to her mind, making her think of how nice it would feel to settle into his side and forget all the headaches. She smoothed her hands on her shorts and rose from the sofa. "Can I get you something to drink?"
She drew in a steely breath as she made her way to the kitchen. Talk about ironic. For the last five years, she'd had to watch every step she made around Alex for fear Drew would retaliate if she laughed too hard or smiled too brightly. Now, when she'd finally escaped her prison of a marriage, she still had to maintain the guise. All things considered, it would be easier if he left. Quickly.
Ignoring her question, Alex followed her and asked, "You think this guy will show up?"
Hardly. She opened the refrigerator and bent to peer inside. "Who knows. Beer?"
She grabbed two bottles, shut the door, straightened, and turned to pass him his beer, catching him staring at her ass. His gaze jerked to hers. For a moment, a spark of attraction flared between them. He quickly looked to the sliding glass door to her back patio as he accepted the drink from her shaking hand.
Oh, God. She closed her eyes for a half second and drew in a deep breath. Yeah. He needed to go. Before she did something she'd regret. Like touch him.
She popped the cap off her beer and took a long swig.
Alex gestured with his drink toward the backyard. "Desi and Chance know anyone who can fix the porch?" he asked of her neighbors, whom he'd met on several occasions. "And is it just me, or is it hot in here?" He tugged at the collar of his T-shirt.
"I don't have the air-conditioning on." Because the tree had taken it out as well--one compressor flattened like a pancake.
He threw her an are you serious look.
She shrugged. "Well, it's kinda toast, too."
"Jesus, Reagan," he muttered. "Can anything else go wrong at once?"
She couldn't help but chuckle. "Let's not tempt fate, shall we?"
At that, the deep lines on his forehead smoothed, and his mouth quirked with a half smile that made her heart stutter. Damn, he was more potent than she remembered. She gulped and fled to the safety of the living room, putting a good twenty feet of distance between them.
He didn't seem to take the hint. Following once more, he sat down beside her and reclined on the sofa, stretching long, muscular legs out in front of him. She told herself not to stare at the powerful thighs his jeans couldn't hide, but she couldn't help herself. Man, he was probably as beautiful naked as he was clothed. More so.
He cleared his throat, drawing her attention to his face. Heat rushed to her cheeks. Caught red-handed, staring. How embarrassing. Good thing he couldn't mind-read.
Then again, judging by the sudden intensity in his forest green gaze, maybe he could. She shifted sideways, far enough they weren't touching, but not so far away her attempt at distance would be overt.
"So, how long are you in town?" she asked. With any luck, he'd be gone within the hour. Because if he wasn't, she couldn't guarantee she could maintain the charade.Book Details