Authors: Olivia Jaymes
Tags: #Comtemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Short Read, #Military, #Kindle World, #Applewood, #Chicago, #FBI, #Career, #Nephew, #Nurse, #Deceased Sister, #Emotional, #Second Chance, #Emptiness, #Lifetime, #Family, #Care, #Years, #Adult, #Erotic
Text copyright ©2015 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Cat Johnson. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Hot SEALs remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Cat Johnson, or their affiliates or licensors.
For more information on Kindle Worlds: http://www.amazon.com/kindleworlds
A Hot SEALs / Danger Incorporated
By Olivia Jaymes
Years ago, Caleb Faulkner left the little town of Applewood for the excitement of Chicago and the chance to build a career with the FBI. Unfortunately it also meant leaving behind Micheala Adams, the woman he loved and adored. All the success in the world couldn’t fix the emptiness he felt inside without her.
Michaela gave up her chance at a lifetime with Caleb to stay in Applewood to nurse her dying sister and care for her nephew. She doesn’t regret her decision but sometimes in the middle of the night she thinks about what might have been.
His career in ruins, Caleb is back in town to lick his wounds and start again. When he and Michaela run into each other it’s agonizingly awkward and more emotional than he expected. The less they see of each other the better.
Unfortunately, their hearts have other plans.
WITH A TIRED grunt Caleb Faulkner heaved the last cardboard box onto the kitchen counter and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was a hot and humid day and his t-shirt stuck to his skin from his exertion. He should have hired someone to do this but he hadn’t been thinking all that clearly when he’d planned this move.
The small Craftsman style house would be home for the next three months or so while his mother recovered from a mild stroke and the federal government obliterated over a decade of hard work.
His good friend Jon Rudnick placed a lamp on the floor before heaving his large frame into a leather-cushioned easy chair. Jon had been a close friend for a long time and had recently retired from the Navy SEALs to open his own security firm with a few friends. “I think that’s the last of it. Hell of a way to spend Labor Day.”
“Doing hard labor? I can’t thank you enough for the help. This would have taken me all damn day if you hadn’t been here. Dad’s not getting any younger and he shouldn’t be hefting boxes if I can help it. I’m trying to get him to retire but he says he’d be bored as hell.”
Caleb grabbed two beers from the refrigerator and handed one to Jon who rubbed the chilly bottle on his forehead before twisting off the cap. “It’s no trouble. Ali’s got a late summer cold and she’s taking it easy this weekend. I’ll pick her up some chicken soup on my way over to her place.”
“Looks like you’re all domesticated now.” Grimacing, Caleb took a long draw on his beer and sat down on the couch. “But you look happy.”
Jon picked at the label on the bottle, wet from condensation. “I am happy, so that makes one of us. You can punch me if you like but you don’t look too happy for a man that’s moving back to his hometown and his roots.”
That was the problem with old friends. They knew a person inside and out.
“Let’s just say that a month ago the thought of moving back to Applewood was the furthest thing from my mind. Then one case gets blown out of proportion and I’m on indefinite suspension while I’m being investigated. They think I botched the case and all because some rich guy got busted and he’s got all his wealthy cronies throwing their weight around in Washington and making things difficult for me at work. This wasn’t how I pictured my life.”
Caleb had always assumed he’d be with the FBI until he retired. Until this incident his career trajectory had only gone one way.
“Your life or your career?”
Shrugging, Caleb took another drink from the already half-empty bottle. “What’s the difference? My career is my life.”
Jon shook his head, a smile playing around his lips. “There was a time I would have said the same.”
“But not now?”
“Not now. I have a life and I have a career. There’s more to me than being a former SEAL. I don’t want to be one of those guys that hang out in the parking lot of their old high school talking about their glory days. That’s a shit way to live.”
Caleb sat back and propped his feet on the coffee table. “It’s easy for you to say. You have a new career with your security business. I’ve got nothing. I told Dad that I’d help him with his carpentry jobs but I can’t imagine doing that for the next twenty or twenty-five years. Day in and day out. No excitement. No adrenaline. Don’t tell me you could live without that. You crave it just like I do.”
“Sure, but there are other ways to get that. Take up sky diving or something. You can do whatever you want. The only one holding you back is you. I have to ask—do you even want to go back to the FBI after getting jerked around like this?”
A good question, and one Caleb didn’t have the answer to. Yet. But the subject was never far from his mind. When the investigation into the handling of the Morton case was complete and Caleb was found to have handled it by the book, he’d have to make the call of whether to stay here in Applewood or go back and try and salvage what he could of his career. He’d worked too damn hard to simply chuck it away without a second thought.
“It’s what I do,” Caleb said after a moment. “I’m not sure I can do anything else. My childhood dreams of being a cowboy or an astronaut are long gone.”
Jon took the last swallow from the beer bottle and set it on the end table. “You’re too tall to be an astronaut but you might find work as a brick wall.”
At six-foot-four and two hundred and thirty pounds, Caleb wasn’t a small man. Even in high school he’d been a big kid, playing quarterback on the football team because he could easily see over his front line. His size had never been a handicap. Not in the military and not when he’d signed up with the FBI. He’d used it well to intimidate those around him but it wasn’t much of an advantage now that he was back in his hometown. What was he good for now?
Helping little old ladies reach the top shelf at the grocery store.
Jon levered up from the chair and walked a few steps away to the large picture window overlooking the quiet street. Caleb had rented this house because of its proximity to the town square, not the serene small town atmosphere the tree-lined street promoted. He was used to concrete, metal, and glass punctuated with the roar of engines and the wail of sirens. Add in some gritty exhaust fumes and he was in heaven.
The closest he would probably come here in Applewood was a neighbor burning their leaves.
“Have you seen her?” Jon asked, his gaze still directed outside so he didn’t see Caleb’s shoulders immediately stiffen. But Caleb had no doubt his friend had heard him suck in a breath at the mere suggestion.
Caleb didn’t even have to actually hear her name. Her memory was enough to knock him sideways.
“No. No, I haven’t. But I doubt I can avoid her. This town just isn’t that big.”
Jon turned and crossed his arms over his chest. “What are you planning to say to her when you do?”
Caleb laughed but it sounded strangled in his throat. “You’re assuming I have a plan. I don’t. I have no idea what I’m going to say. I do know what I’m going to do. Or at least what I hope I’m going to do. I’m not planning to make a fool of myself. She doesn’t need to know how she affects me all these years later. I’ll be polite and friendly. Hopefully we can give each other a wide berth.”
It had occurred to Caleb more than once that Michaela might not want to see him even more than he didn’t want to see her. The last time they’d spoken hadn’t been sunshine and puppy dogs. When he’d walked away that final day Michaela’s face had been wet with tears as she clung to the cotton fabric of his shirt, her eyes begging him not to go.
But he had. There was no changing the past. No rewriting history.
“That’s probably for the best,” Jon agreed, tossing his empty in the trash can Caleb had set up last night when he’d received the keys. “Unless of course you’re here to stay. That would make everything different.”
“It wouldn’t change a thing.” Caleb shook his head, too many memories making his insides churn. “You know the old saying about making your bed and lying in it. This is one of those times. Just because I stay – and I’m not saying that I am – wouldn’t make Michaela any more inclined to forget the past. That ship sailed long ago.”
“Maybe she still feels the same.”
Not a chance in hell.
“She stopped loving me years ago. Smart girl.”
Some things were meant to be and some not. Michaela was meant to live in a small town. Caleb was meant to fight wars in deserts and chase bad guys for the government. Their dreams had made sure they would never have a future together. It was all for the best.
Jon slapped Caleb on the back and smiled. “I know you’ll be okay, but just in case I’m inviting you to the poker game me and a few friends put together when we can. Cards, beer, and artery-clogging food. Are you in?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Text me with the details.”
“Will do. I better get going. I want to check on Ali.”
Caleb stood and followed Jon to the door. “Thanks again for all your help. And the poker invitation.”
“What are old friends for?” Jon laughed as they stepped out, the heat and humidity almost taking Caleb’s breath away. Autumn couldn’t come soon enough. “I’m glad you’re back even if you aren’t. Let me know if there’s anything else you need help with.”
There wasn’t anything anyone could do. Caleb had to deal with the mess of his life all by himself. He couldn’t see far into the future, but if he didn’t get straightened around there wouldn’t be much of one.
He’d screwed up everything important in his life. At age forty this was officially Round Two of Caleb Faulkner and he didn’t intend to lose.
“SO WHAT ARE you going to do?”
Michaela Adams picked up the menu and pretended to peruse it so she could have a few precious seconds before answering. Her friend Charlotte, however, wasn’t fooled in the least. She plucked it from Mika’s fingers and slapped it down onto the worn formica table. The two of them were sharing a late lunch at the Applewood Diner. Their kids were playing together while Charlotte’s husband Ron babysat them while also simultaneously watching a football game.
Their lunches were a tradition that had started years ago to allow the mothers a few hours out of the house. Of course it had changed a little over time as the children had grown older but the point was still the same – girl talk time.
“That menu hasn’t changed in thirty years and you always get the fried chicken on Sundays. Stop stalling. Have you seen him yet?”
Mika let out a long suffering sigh and shook her head. Charlotte was like a dog with a bone and she wasn’t going to let this go until Mika spilled her guts all over the booth they were occupying.
“No. I’ve been busy and I bet he has too. Frankly, he’s only rented that house for three months. I might get lucky and never see him while he’s here.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes and groaned. “In Applewood? You’re kidding, right? There’s no way you can avoid him and you know it. You’d have to become a hermit and we both know Alex isn’t going to let you do that. What are you going to say to Caleb when you see him after all these years?”
Mika had no idea and had spent the better part of the week trying not to think about it. It dredged up way too many memories. Good, bad, and downright painful.
“How about ‘nice to see you and welcome back.’ That sounds neutral. What Caleb does now doesn’t affect me one way or the other, Char. That was a long time ago. I’m older and hopefully a hell of a lot wiser. It takes more than a good looking smile for me to find a man attractive.”
The waitress brought their drinks and took their order, leaving them alone once again.
“You loved him once,” Charlotte pointed out. “You didn’t get the closure you needed and now he’s back. I just thought you might want to talk to him and put this behind you once and for all.”
Mika sputtered, the ice cold water choking her for a moment. “Closure? I think his leaving after college graduation and joining the Navy could be called closure. Add in the day years later when he told me he was taking a job with the FBI in Chicago and I think he nailed that sucker shut. He said goodbye, Char. He couldn’t wait to get out of Applewood. It was his dream and I always knew that. I was fooling myself to think he’d stay here for me.”
“You could have gone with him. Alex wasn’t your responsibility. Your parents practically begged you to follow Cal.”
Mika remembered those heartbreaking conversations well. Her older sister Sarah had been ravaged with cancer at the time, unwilling to take chemo or radiation while pregnant. By the time Alex had been born the tumors were too far gone and Sarah had passed on less than six months later. The only thing Mika could do for her sister was promise to raise Alex as her own. She hoped that she had succeeded these last eight years.
“Love isn’t always enough to make things right. He needed to go and I needed to stay.”
“He said he’d do the long distance thing.”
Mika carefully placed the glass down on the table and tried to keep a hold of her emotions. The memories she’d pushed away for so long were coming back one by one. Deeply painful, they sliced at her heart and abdomen, almost making her double over. All these years later her heart still ached as she remembered the earnest young man she’d loved so deeply. He’d been hell bent to make something of his life. Ambitious, smart, and hardworking, she always knew he’d be successful. She’d just fooled herself to think it would be in Applewood.
He was born to excel. To achieve. An excellent student. Star athlete. He’d blinded her with his movie star good looks and hefty doses of charm. He’d been her own personal prince except that she didn’t get a happily ever after with him. She was left behind while he chased rainbows. She’d tried to make it work but in the end the fabric of their relationship slowly shredded until they were hanging by a string.
He’d been climbing the ladder of success while she’d been changing diapers and warming bottles, worlds apart from one another.
“And it was a huge disaster. He wanted the big city and excitement. I needed to stay here and take care of Sarah—then when she died I became Alex’s mother. It was a mess and it’s my own fault. He never made any secret of what he wanted.”
She’d thought she could somehow change his mind if she’d loved him enough. But young women often believed what they wanted to when they were in love.
And she had loved Caleb. So very much. But she had loved her sister and Alex too.
“He’s back. Maybe he’ll stay.”
Fiddling with her fork, Mika shook her head. “He’s got a three month lease on that house. He’s here because his mother is sick from what I heard. When she feels better he’ll leave again.”
Alice Faulkner had recently had a mild stroke and was recovering well. But it was nice to see Caleb spending more time with his family. He’d barely been back to Applewood since he left for good almost eight years ago.
“Maybe he’s changed.”
That statement made Mika laugh. “Charlotte Williams, you’re a married woman with three children and you of all people should know how often men change. It’s a myth perpetuated by women’s magazines and hopeless romantics.”
Charlotte sighed and then grinned. “I can’t even get Ron to change the empty toilet paper roll so I guess you have a point.”
“I plan to stay far away from Caleb Faulkner,” Mika declared, that familiar ache in her heart making her want to curl up and cry. “Nothing good can come from spending any time with him.”
Charlotte never had a chance to reply as the bell over the diner door chimed announcing a new customer. Caleb and his father Abe stood in the doorway, scanning the crowded restaurant for an empty table.
Cal looked the same although older. His dark hair was clipped short and she could see just a touch of gray at his temples. His skin was tan but his jaw was still just as square and his face just as handsome. He’d put on muscle in the intervening years, his shoulders wide and imposing although he moved gracefully for a man that large. A memory of the two of them dancing at the senior prom flitted unbidden through her mind and she had to squeeze her eyes shut for a moment as what felt like a knife pierced her chest.
So much for her plan. Looks like she had to face him whether she liked it or not.
Right now she didn’t like it one bit. She simply wasn’t ready to see him again.
* * *
CAL’S LUCK HAD held for almost seven straight days.
All week he’d managed to somehow avoid running into Michaela despite the fact that the town was small and everyone knew everyone else. He’d assumed she was avoiding him and could only feel grateful. She was saving them both an awkward encounter.
But now here she was, sitting in a booth near the back of the diner with her friend Charlotte. They’d been friends since grade school and had even double dated with Cal and Michaela on more occasions than he could count. He’d heard she’d married Ron Williams, her high school sweetheart, and lived in that new housing development that had sprung up on the edge of town.
Abe Faulkner nudged Cal’s elbow. “There’s an empty table near the back, son.”
Right next to Mika.
She’d grown more beautiful in the years since he’d last seen her. There was a maturity to her face that hadn’t been there before. Her eyes were still that amber color that darkened when she was angry and turned almost pure gold when she was aroused. Her auburn hair still hung in waves down her back and Cal couldn’t help the rush of relief that she hadn’t cut it short like so many women as they grew older. He could vividly remember running his fingers through those silky strands before tracing her high cheekbones, her skin like satin under his palms.
His heart racing and his stomach twisting, all Cal wanted to do was turn around and get the hell out of there. He wasn’t ready for this. He might never be.
How Cal felt at the moment apparently didn’t matter because his father had brushed past him and was striding toward the booth, sliding onto the vinyl seat before picking up a menu. Sucking air into his lungs, Cal had no choice but to trail behind, his gaze firmly on the old black and white tile floor and not on the woman who had broken his heart years ago. He couldn’t let a chance encounter with her upend the peace he’d fought so hard for. He’d finally moved on with his life.
He already knew she had.
Cal barely glanced at the menu, his appetite gone. His chest ached and he couldn’t seem to catch his breath. Even though he’d been home for a week he still wasn’t prepared for the punch in the gut he’d felt the moment he laid eyes on her. He’d been shot in the leg and it hadn’t hurt this badly.
“You gonna puke?”
Abe’s slightly dry tone snagged Cal’s attention. The older man was looking at his only son with a mixture of sympathy and impatience. He’d mentioned Michaela once this week and Cal had quickly shut him down.
There was an “I told you so” in Cal’s not too distant future.
“No, are you?” Cal quirked an eyebrow at his father who chuckled and studied the menu. Knowing Abe Faulkner wasn’t done, Cal waited quietly. There was no point in moving on to another topic when the patriarch of the family wasn’t finished with this one.
“Did you think you would see her and it wouldn’t mean anything?” Abe finally asked, not unkindly. “Did you think it wouldn’t hurt or that you wouldn’t think about the past?”
Cal didn’t want to talk to his father about…feelings, for fuck’s sake. He’d go hunting with him or shoot hoops or even sit and watch a football game, but talk about how he’d gone out and gotten himself drunk as a skunk the day she’d told him she wasn’t coming to Chicago after all?
Not going to happen.
“I don’t feel anything and it was bound to happen sooner or later. I told you we’ve both moved on.”
Abe nodded absently and set the menu down on the table. “I’m glad to hear that, son, because I’ve volunteered both of us to help out building the attractions for the town haunted house. It’s for a very good cause and I assist every year.”
Son of a bitch. The wily fox had easily cornered Cal and from the grin on his face had immensely enjoyed doing it.
Assuming nothing had changed, Michaela volunteered to help create and run the annual haunted house for the local children’s charity. Her grandmother and mother had both done it and Michaela joined in when she was quite young. If Cal kicked up a fuss about this it would look damn selfish.
Time to man up and deal with his past.
“Of course I’ll help out. Like you said, it’s for a good cause.”
Cal would make a point to put as much distance between them as possible. The worksite was large and perhaps he could keep his head down and avoid a confrontation.
Abe rubbed his chin, a smile still playing on his lips. “The best that could happen would be for the two of you to talk this out.” Cal’s father leaned forward, his expression turning grave. “She’s been through a lot since you left, with Sarah passing on and then both her parents a few years later. Those are things no one should have to deal with. She’s all alone now raising that boy and she sure doesn’t need the extra stress of you and her scowling at each other for the next three months. Think about her for once, son. Put her first.”
Cal reared back at his father’s plain speech. “What do you mean ‘think about her for once’? Are you saying I’ve never put her first? I loved her, Dad. More than you can imagine.”
Cal had started this conversation not wanting to talk about his feelings and here he sat…talking about them.
“I think you loved her as much as you were capable of. But you didn’t love her enough.”
“What’s enough?” Cal shot back, anger making the back of his neck hot.
“Enough to stay,” Abe said calmly. “Enough to put her needs first. Just don’t make her life difficult. She’s had more heartache than anyone should have.”
With a sigh of defeat Cal slumped in the booth. He didn’t want to cause Michaela any more pain. He’d hurt her when he left but in the end he’d hurt himself more. Still, she didn’t deserve even one moment of discomfort because of his presence. She’d stayed in Applewood for good reasons.
“I’ll stay out of her way,” Cal stated firmly. “I don’t want to interfere in her life either.”
“That’s not what I meant, son. Not at all. But I can see you aren’t ready to listen to what I have to say. Why don’t we just figure out what we’re going to order and eat? The sooner we can get back to your mother the sooner her sister can leave and drive her own husband crazy.”
His mother’s sister Beatrice liked to talk. She liked an audience for it as well and had a flair for drama. She could drive Abe crazy within ten minutes of stepping into the house.
“Mom’s going to be okay.”
Abe opened the menu, effectively shielding himself from Cal’s gaze. He acted like he wasn’t worried but Cal knew better. His father would be lost without Alice Faulkner. “Well, of course she is. It’s good that you’re here though. She’s always saying you don’t come home often.”