Authors: Elle James
© 2016 by Elle James
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
his book is dedicated
to the all the men and women who separate from active duty and struggle to find meaning in the civilian world. Thank you for your service. We love you for all you did and do, and the sacrifices you made.
aka Myla Jackson
Enjoy other great books by Elle James
Brotherhood Protector Series
Take No Prisoners Series
for more titles and release dates
!” Phoebe Sinclair’s usual easy-going demeanor had taken a major hit. She checked the rearview mirror, couldn’t see anything past the train of her wedding dress flying out behind her. When she’d discovered her fiancé had skipped out on the wedding just seconds before she was due to walk down the aisle, she’d practically jumped into the convertible. He’d left the church, no explanation, no excuses. Which meant Phoebe would have had to face her parents and their guests to break the news alone. There wouldn’t be a wedding. The groom had run out on her.
Never mind she’d already been having extremely cold feet. Two hours earlier, she’d been a nervous bride, convinced she was making a huge mistake by marrying a man her father had selected as perfect husband material for his darling daughter. Her mother had argued that Ryan would help elevate her social status even more. Not that Phoebe cared two hoots about status.
Phoebe, the dutiful daughter who’d always done what her parents wanted, who never had anxiety issues, could have used one of her mother’s anti-anxiety pills. On the very verge of walking down the aisle of the church to promise to love, honor and cherish Ryan Bratton, a colleague of her father’s, she’d asked herself
Why was she marrying a man with whom she didn’t have much in common? Why was she allowing her parents to choose her husband? Why had she let herself be swept into the whole wedding experience?
The pathetic answer was that all of her Dallas debutante friends were either engaged or married. Some were pregnant with their first babies.
Tick tock, tick tock.
Her damned biological clock had been ticking pretty darned loud when her father proclaimed it was time to get married and produce heirs. He wasn’t getting any younger and he wanted to know he’d have someone to pass the oil speculation business to when he was gone.
Phoebe slowed behind a tractor hauling a large round hay bale. Wisps of straw flew over the top of the convertible’s windshield, tangling in her hair. Swerving toward the center of the road, she peered around the big green John Deere. The lane was clear and she sped past.
Her father could sell the damned business for all she cared. Phoebe had never had a head for business, preferring to hang out with the horses on their ranch. She hadn’t really been that interested in dating, finding most of the men in her parents’ circle either old like her father, greedy or lazy. When she went out on dates, many of the men were more interested in her father’s assets than in her own.
She’d stared into the full-length mirror, her heart pounding, perspiration popping out on her forehead and upper lip, after her mother had applied makeup to her face. Phoebe couldn’t do it. She didn’t love Ryan. Though her father thought highly of him, his opinion of Ryan wasn’t enough.
Sure, he’d had her grandmother’s locket professionally reworked by a jeweler, with a brand new chain and a picture of her grandmother inside. The extremely thoughtful gift had almost convinced her he was the man she needed. But standing in front of the mirror, staring at the stranger in the white dress, about to marry a man she really didn’t know, she’d started into a full-on panic attack.
Her mother had entered the room, slapped a paper bag into her hand and told her to breathe into the bag. Then her mother had straightened her veil, patted powder on her face and turned her toward the door with a parting comment, “Don’t embarrass me.” Her mother moved inside the sanctuary to take her seat.
Phoebe stood outside the door, waiting for the cue for her bridesmaids to make the long trip down the aisle ahead of her. Something had held up the ceremony. Five minutes turned to ten but her cue didn’t come.
One of the groomsmen ducked out of the sanctuary, spotted her and waved her back toward the anterooms.
Phoebe handed her bouquet to her maid of honor, a silly society girl her mother had chosen since Phoebe didn’t have many girlfriends suitable to wear the ridiculous bridesmaid gowns. “I’ll be a moment.” Phoebe hurriedly joined the groomsman.
He glanced over her shoulder at the others watching and then leaned close to whisper, “We have a problem.”
Her heart had fluttered, her stomach roiling. “What’s wrong?”
The man tugged at his collar as if the tie constricted his vocal cords.
Phoebe wanted to take a hold of the tie and tug on it herself. Hard. “Spit it out,” she finally said.
He took a deep breath and blurted, “Ryan disappeared.”
“What?” And her mother had been afraid
would embarrass her. “He ran out? Did he say anything before he disappeared?”
The young man’s face turned a bright red and he shook his head.
“You have got to be kidding.” Surely Ryan had only gone to the restroom or outside to catch a breath of fresh air. Phoebe stormed off toward the room the groom was supposed to use for wedding preparations. Flinging open the door, she marched in. “Ryan, you better get your scrawny ass up to the altar…”
The room was empty. Ryan and his tuxedo were gone.
“Really?” she cried. “
got cold feet?” Blood pounded in her ears. She stared around the room, hoping he was hiding somewhere and going to spring out and say
With a sanctuary full of five hundred of her parents’ closest friends waiting for the wedding to start, Phoebe didn’t know what to do. She’d agreed to marry Ryan, not because she particularly loved him, but because no one else had come along in her thirty-one years who inspired the soul-defining passion she had expected to come with falling in love. Ryan could kiss okay and he’d tried to please her when they’d been more intimate. Still…nothing. No sparks, no earth-shaking anything. Surely all those romance novels she’d read late into the night weren’t all pure fantasy.
Phoebe had begun to think she didn’t have the romantic gene in her body, so she’d settled for Ryan. Now, he’d skipped out. Jilted her at the altar and left her with the task of telling all the five hundred strangers her fiancé hadn’t wanted to marry her after all. “I could kill him,” she said.
“Excuse me?” a voice said behind her.
With a little scream, she spun to face Ryan’s best man, Warren Ledbetter. “Did you know he was thinking of backing out of this circus of a wedding?” she demanded.
He shook his head. “He told me to go on to the sanctuary, that he’d be there momentarily. That was fifteen minutes ago.”
“Well, I’m not telling all those people this event isn’t happening.” She waved a hand toward the church. “I’m not taking the rap for it. My father and mother will be livid after spending a small fortune on this show.”
Warren’s eyes widened. “What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” She glanced around the room and over her shoulder at the hallway. The choice had come down to either face her parents and the sanctuary full of people, or leave and hoping her parents didn’t hate her for eternity.
Phoebe’s feet, in the white satin pumps, took her toward the door. When the dutiful daughter should have turned left to go to the sanctuary, she turned right. Rather than face her parents, Phoebe opted to run. Yes, leaving was the coward’s way out, but she’d had enough of her parents running her life, choosing her clothes, her friends and her husband.
She’d run out the side door of the church nursery to a playground where she hurried past the swings and play fort. Out in the Texas sunshine, she lifted her skirts and ran, breathing in the fresh taste of freedom. If Ryan could skip out of a wedding neither of them really wanted, so could she.
Phoebe dared to dream of a life she chose to live. She could get a job, pay her own way, make her own friends and really live. The faster she ran, the better she felt until she kicked off her heels and sprinted toward the parking lot out front.
Before she reached it, Phoebe ground to a stop. She’d arrived in her parents’ chauffeur-driven town car. The church was off the usual routes of taxi drivers, and she didn’t have any money to pay a driver. Nor did she have a cell phone to call for a pick up. Her newfound freedom took a turn for the worst.
Then she spied the wedding car, a sleek black Cadillac convertible with specially decorated cans tied with silk ribbons beneath the bumper, parked outside the door to the church’s banquet hall where the reception was to be held after the wedding. A banner affixed to the trunk read JUST MARRIED. Daring to hope, she inched up to the driver’s side of the vehicle and looked inside.
Hope flared in her chest at the sight of the keys in the ignition.
Gathering her skirts, she jumped in, twisted the key and drove away from the church, leaving behind what would be her disappointed, embarrassed parents and a life she never seemed to fit into.
Thus started the great adventure.
Phoebe wore a wedding dress, didn’t have a penny tucked away on any part of her body, and had taken her fiancé’s convertible. Not until she’d left Dallas and put over a hundred miles between her and the wedding guests did the adrenaline wear off. She could be charged with grand theft auto. The car belonged to her delinquent fiancé, not her. At the moment that thought struck, she swerved to the side of the road and bumped over some trash on the shoulder. Her heart raced, and she tried to think. She could ditch the car and call the police to tell them where they could find it. Or she could just ditch the car in some backwater town and…and…what?
She couldn’t steal another. Without a dollar on her, she couldn’t buy a bus ticket or a rent a car. Damn. She should have thought this escape through a little more thoroughly. One thing was certain, she couldn’t stay on the side of the road. A sign a few miles back indicated a town was coming up. What was the name? Hellfire? A peculiar name for a town.
Her stomach rumbled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since the night before. Maybe she could stop there, find a job and work for food. With a little bit of a plan in mind, she drove toward the town. She hadn’t gone more than a quarter of a mile when a sharp pop sounded, and the car pulled to the right.
Phoebe steered off the road and got out. Wadding up her skirt, she folded it over her arm and padded around the front of the car, gravel and grass digging into her tender bare feet. As she’d suspected, the right front tire was flat. Great. Her shoulders slumped. She’d never changed a flat tire in her life and her father had never demonstrated the process. He’d whip out his cell phone, call for roadside assistance and wait until help arrived. Phoebe didn’t have that luxury, with neither a cell phone, nor a roadside assistance service that didn’t belong to her daddy. Not to mention, that wasn’t what independent women did. How the hell did one change a flat tire?
She walked back around to the driver’s side and pulled the keys from the ignition. When she’d seen movies where the characters had to change a tire, they always went to the trunk. The spare tire should be in the trunk. It stood to reason, the tools to change the flat would be in the trunk as well. Keys in hand, she walked to the back of the vehicle, and hit the button to pop open the trunk.
With her dress in hand, barefooted, broke and determined, she leaned over and studied the space. A blanket lay across a rather large lump in the back. Hopefully the spare tire. Phoebe grabbed the blanket and yanked it off.
She gasped and staggered backward, all the blood draining from her head. This couldn’t be happening.
No. No. No.
Phoebe pressed her hand to her lips and edged closer to look again, praying she’d imagined what she’d seen.
The lump beneath the blanket was none other than her missing groom, Ryan. Based on his waxy gray face and open eyes staring at nothing, the man was well and truly dead.
Sweet Jesus. Oh, sweet Jesus.
Phoebe bit down on her bottom lip. Had she checked the trunk before she’d gone one hundred miles, would he have been alive enough to resuscitate? She gulped. Had she killed him by not checking? Though she hadn’t really loved him, she never wished him dead.
The next thought hit her square in the gut. She’d stolen Ryan’s car, run out on the wedding, and now had his dead body in the back of the vehicle. To make it worse, she had a witness who could state he heard her say,
I’ll kill him
. The best man had been there when she’d gone to find Ryan.
When the cops caught up with her and Ryan’s car, they’d find his body, receive testimony from his best man and presume Phoebe had killed him. Her independence would come to a screeching halt when she was arrested, booked and thrown in jail for the rest of her life.
Her head spinning, Phoebe stood back, looking around at the rolling grasslands. Not a car was in sight. She couldn’t just walk away. Barefoot, no telling how far to the nearest town, she wouldn’t make it. Phoebe hadn’t planned to start a new life on the lam for a murder she didn’t commit.
Scrambling for something,
, she could do to get out of the mess she’d landed in, she slammed the trunk, hurried around the car and jumped into the driver’s seat. The wind chose that moment to pick up and her dress billowed around her as she pulled forward on the flat tire, bumping along the shoulder of the road. Her skirt flew up in her face. Trying to flatten it so that she could see, she shifted her foot to hit the brake, but she hit the accelerator instead. The convertible leaped forward, ran off the road and slammed into a fence post, throwing Phoebe forward, banging her forehead against the steering wheel. She saw stars that quickly changed to bright blue strobes. As her vision cleared, she realized the lights were attached to a police vehicle.
Could her day get any worse?
, we have a report of some teenagers drag racing on farm to market road 476 at the old Dunwitty grain silo.”
“10-4.” Deputy Nash Grayson slowed the sheriff’s deputy SUV, checked the road ahead leading into Hellfire, and glanced in his rearview mirror. No one coming. No one going. Quiet, placid, small-town Texas, where nothing much happened. He made a U-turn and headed back out into the countryside.