Authors: Sloane Kennedy
Finding Peace is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2015 Finding Peace by Sloane Kennedy
Published in the United States by Sloane Kennedy
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Table of Contents
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:
A big thank you to Rita for doing such a quick and thorough beta read for me and for all your support and encouragement!
Although I have done my best to research some of the medical issues discussed in this book, I am not a medical professional and any liberties taken with reference to medical conditions were done for the sake of the story.
“Son of a bitch!”
Gray Hawthorne let off another string of curses as he felt the seatbelt slam against his chest, his foot jamming the brake pedal down as far as it could go. Although his gut was telling him not to jerk the wheel to the right, he did so anyway and his only indication that he hadn’t run over the big dog standing in the middle of the road was the fact that he didn’t feel his pickup truck’s wheels plowing over the dog’s body. And since the dog didn’t let out a scream of pain, he was hopeful he’d jolted out of his maudlin thoughts quickly enough to avoid causing the animal any kind of injury at all. His truck skidded to a stop on the gravel shoulder and he managed to twist the wheel enough to keep the vehicle from rolling into the ditch.
“Jesus Christ,” he muttered as he put the truck in park and tried to catch his breath. His whole body shook from the adrenaline rush of the near miss but he managed to lift his eyes to the rearview mirror. Damn dog was still standing in the exact same spot in the middle of the road. Although there wasn’t a lot of traffic on the back country road leading to his cabin, Gray knew that the dog would have a very short lifespan if it didn’t get its ass off the blacktop. Between the ranchers and the hunters that lived in and visited the area, a dog’s life was on the very low end of the value scale.
Gray managed to release the seatbelt that was still strangling him, though it took several tries. He checked for traffic and then got out of the truck. The dog was less than a hundred yards away barking incessantly.
“Come here, girl,” Gray called as he squatted. He didn’t know much about dogs, but he figured making himself seem as unintimidating as possible was the way to go. But it didn’t matter because even though the dog turned its big head his way, it didn’t budge and it never stopped barking. Between the close call and the anxiety that had been rolling through him long before he’d lain eyes on the animal, Gray felt an urge just to get in his truck and keep going. It wasn’t the good guy thing to do but that was a label he’d given up a long time ago when he’d learned that good guys didn’t win in his world. They didn’t even get to play the fucking game.
Gray rose and reached for the door handle before he let out another foul curse. He sucked in a breath and then began moving towards the dog, his eyes scanning the road both in front and behind him for cars.
“Come here, sweetie,” he called but the dog continued to ignore him. As he got closer, he could see it was a German Shepherd and that it was enormous. But it was also a mess. Mud caked its fur and even with its thick coat, Gray could see its ribs protruding. Gray tried lowering himself again but the dog didn’t budge. It did stop barking however, and Gray couldn’t decide if that was a good or bad thing. The dog’s golden brown eyes shifted between him and the grove of trees just off to the side of the road. It was the same thing the animal had been looking at when his truck came flying over the slight rise in the road.
“Good girl,” Gray whispered once he was within a couple feet. To his surprise, the dog trotted up to him and sat down at his feet. But instead of barking, it began whining and when it pressed against his hand with its cold muzzle, Gray ran his fingers over the animal’s head. The second he removed his fingers, the dog barked and then took several steps towards the side of the road.
“Okay, Lassie, I get you,” Gray drawled. He followed the dog and wasn’t surprised when it disappeared down into the ditch. He was half expecting to find another dog, maybe an injured one, lying in the heavy brush that was so predominant in this area. But he knew as soon as he reached the side of the road and looked down that the curled up form lying among the foliage wasn’t a dog at all.
Luke Monroe felt cold all over even though it was unbearably hot outside. Except his face – it just felt wet…again. Damn dog. If the mangy mutt wasn’t licking his face, then it was going after any exposed skin it could find. He tried to roll away from the dog’s sticky tongue but pain seared across his side and he bit back a moan. He could feel sharp rocks digging into his body but couldn’t process where they’d come from. The last thing he remembered was walking along the side of the road, the hot pavement reflecting the heat back up at him so it felt like he was trudging through a furnace. There’d been a slight breeze but it had only made the dry heat that much more sweltering and he’d cursed himself for not having the sense to search out a couple more water bottles besides the two he’d stashed in his duffle bag.
Of course, two should have been plenty considering his final destination hadn’t been more than half a day’s walk away. As he had gotten closer to his destination, he’d actually felt little zings of excitement go through his body at the prospect of a soft bed and a hot meal tonight instead of another night trying to fall asleep on the cold ground with the contents of his last MRE sitting like lead in his belly. But truth be told, he’d been even more enthralled with the idea of finally feeling safe, of finally not having to be looking over his shoulder all the time. To have the one man he trusted above all others watching his back like he had when they were kids.
He still wasn’t sure why he was surprised to find that his last hope for salvation had turned out to be wishful thinking. Luke had known it the instant he saw the police car pulling onto the dirt road that led up to the CB Bar Ranch and recognized the familiar face behind the wheel – the one that hadn’t changed much in the seven years since he’d last seen it. At least he’d been smart enough to take cover in a line of trees on the other side of the road while he’d scouted out the area. Once the car had been out of sight, he’d started the long walk back towards town while his weary brain tried to come up with plan B which probably should have been his plan A, since all he’d managed to do in the last three days was spend what little money he had left on the bus ticket that had only gotten him to Billings. After that, he’d hitchhiked with a variety of truckers who’d either wanted to talk his ear off or propositioned him. He’d lucked out with the last trucker though, because the old man had simply dropped him off with a few words wishing him well before he’d continued on his journey west, while Luke had gone south on the highway that would lead him to the small town of Dare, Montana.
Luke hadn’t actually seen much of the town since he’d hadn’t wanted to risk being noticed so he’d stayed on the outskirts and had only gone into a gas station to fill up his water bottles and get cleaned up. It had taken several hours to head out of town towards his destination but since that had turned out to be a bust, he’d been left with no choice but to retrace his steps back to Dare so that he could spend his last few dollars on a much needed meal. But between the gnawing hunger and lack of water, his body had clearly had other thoughts and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember anything after seeing black spots dancing across his eyes. Now he just needed to figure out if rolling down the embankment had caused even more damage to his already battered body.
Luke heard the voice only a fraction of a second before he felt fingers close over his upper arm. He heard a grunt as he lashed out with his right hand and shoved his attacker away from him while he scrambled to his feet. Ignoring the agony that shot through his side at the move, he scrambled to his feet and reached for the gun tucked in the waistband of his jeans. A wave of dizziness swept through him as he aimed his Beretta at the man who was still bent over on the ground, his hand pressed against his chest.
Gray tried to suck in a breath but the pain was too overwhelming and he could only helplessly gasp as he willed himself not to panic. The fucker packed one hell of a punch and Gray had no doubt he’d end up with a bruise where the guy’s fist had connected with the right side of his chest. But the need for oxygen became an afterthought when he looked up and saw the gun aimed at his head. Gray forced himself to drop his hand and he held both arms out, palms open. Standing wasn’t an option yet since pain continued to radiate through his body but he was surprised when the man instantly lowered the gun and held it loosely by his leg.
“Who are you?” the guy snapped as he scanned the area around them. Probably looking to see if Gray was alone or not.
Gray slowly lowered one hand back to his chest as he tried to stand but couldn’t manage it. He was shocked when the guy stepped forward and wrapped an arm around him and eased him up from the crouching position he’d been stuck in.
“Try not to take deep breaths,” the man said as he used his hand to push up the T-shirt Gray was wearing. Under any other circumstances, the rough fingertips dragging over his skin and the husky voice near his ear would have turned Gray on but all he felt was fear as the immediate threat of being shot dissipated and his air-starved lungs refused to heed his order to suck in some much needed oxygen.
“Look at me,” the guy suddenly said as he moved so he was standing in front of Gray. “Slow, short breaths like this,” he said as he demonstrated. Gray didn’t miss the fact that the man was still brandishing the gun but his gray-blue eyes never left Gray’s so Gray focused on them instead and tried to mirror his breathing to match the other man’s. To his relief, air began moving more freely through his chest. The man seemed satisfied and dropped his eyes to skim over the place on Gray’s side where his fingers were still gently probing.
“Does your whole chest hurt or just here?” the man asked as his warm hand settled over the spot just beneath Gray’s pectoral muscle.
“Just there,” Gray managed to get out. The pain was still intense but it was indeed localized to where the guy had hit him and although it still hurt to breathe, at least he could actually manage it now.
“I don’t think your ribs are broken but they could be cracked or bruised. You’ll need a chest X-ray to know for sure.”
Gray shoved the guy’s hand away. “I’m fine,” he snapped even though he knew it wasn’t the smartest attitude to have since the guy had yet to put the gun away. But he was also royally pissed. “You go around pulling guns on everyone who tries to help you?” he managed to wheeze between choppy breaths.
The man stepped back and then looked down at the gun in his hand as if just realizing it was there. He tucked it behind his back and said, “You shouldn’t have touched me.”
“And I didn’t need help,” he added.
Gray snorted and shook his head. “So you just like taking naps in ditches?” he bit out. When the guy didn’t respond, Gray said, “You know what, fuck it. Keep your dog off the road.”
“She’s not my dog.”
Gray nearly laughed at that but his ribs still hurt too badly so he just glanced down at the German Shepherd that was practically pressed up against the guy’s leg. “Right,” Gray murmured as he turned to go. But as he began to climb the slight incline, a wave of heat passed over him and his stomach rolled violently. His vision dimmed as he took his next step and he closed his eyes desperately to try to maintain his equilibrium. It was no use though and he tried to put his hands out in an effort to break his fall as his knees buckled. But his body never made contact with the ground as an arm wrapped around him from behind and kept him upright. He knew he should either say thank you or shove the guy away but all he could do was turn his head to the side as he leaned over and threw up.
Luke managed to maintain his hold on the other man as he continued to retch long after the contents of his stomach had been emptied. Although the man was sweating profusely, his skin felt cold and clammy. Luke had hit the guy pretty hard but he was almost certain he hadn’t caused any injury to any internal organs…almost.
After several minutes, the man’s spasms began to ease and Luke felt his own side burn with pain as the man pressed back against him, his full weight sinking onto the arm Luke still had wrapped around his waist.
“I’m okay,” the guy said as he tried to pull away but as soon as Luke loosened his hold, he became wobbly again.
“I need to get you to the hospital,” Luke said as he glanced around the ground to search out his duffle bag.
“No,” the man said quickly. A strange sensation passed through Luke as he felt the man’s fingers resting on his forearm but he ignored it.
“I could have caused some kind of internal injury-”
“No. I was feeling sick before…it must be the stomach flu. I’m okay.”
Luke wasn’t convinced but when the guy pushed his arm away, he released him. The stranger teetered back and forth a bit but then steadied. Luke kept his eye on him, quickly taking a couple of steps back and snagging his bag off the ground. As the man began walking back up the incline, Luke could see he was struggling and he wrapped his arm around him once more.
“I’m fine,” was the weak protest, the words barely a whisper, the stranger’s skin deathly pale. They’d barely made it up to the top of the ditch when he began throwing up again but since there was nothing left in his stomach, all he could do was dry heave.
Luke spied a pick-up truck sitting farther up the road and got the man moving in that direction as soon as the episode passed. By the time they made it to the vehicle, the man was breathing heavily and Luke didn’t miss the grunts of pain. Guilt went through him at the knowledge that the vomiting was likely making his injury hurt all the more. Luke could feel wetness seeping through his own shirt but he ignored it, taking nearly all the man’s weight on himself as he reached for the passenger side door. It was a struggle but he managed to get him into the seat.