Authors: Pamela Clare
Tags: #horses, #extreme exposure, #hard evidence, #redemption, #romantic suspense, #veteran, #pamela clare, #sweet release, #law enforcement, #naked edge, #crime, #Romance, #unlawful contact, #iteam, #Suspense, #rape victim, #carnal gift, #colorado setting, #breaking point, #sensual romance, #us marine
Published by Pamela Anne Clare, 2012
Cover image by Jenn LeBlanc
Cover text design by Jennifer Johnson of Sapphire Dreams
Copyright © 2012 by Pamela Clare
All rights reserved by the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and cannot be resold or shared. No part of this book may be reproduced, copied, or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, email, or recording or by any information storage or retrieval system, including online storage (torrent website, etc.) without prior written permission of the author.
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Hey, I-Team fans, this one is for you…
athaniel West ignored the pain in his right arm and shoulder as he carried the case of frozen ground beef through the community kitchen’s back door. He felt a tug of disappointment when he saw she wasn’t there. Tall and willowy with creamy skin, bright green eyes, and thick auburn hair that hung in glossy waves down her back, she often volunteered in the kitchen in the afternoons.
Nate didn’t know her name.
“Hey, man.” Rev. Marshall hurried toward Nate. He looked more like a retired pro wrestler than a preacher, his clerical collar and flour-specked apron seeming at odds with his big, muscular body. “Thanks! I’ll take that.”
Nate handed over the case of beef. “How’s it going, Reverend?”
“We’re getting by, thanks to good folks like you.” Rev. Marshall lugged the heavy box toward the walk-in freezer.
“Happy to help.” Donating ground beef from the family’s herd of black Angus cattle to community shelters and soup kitchens was a West family tradition.
Rev. Marshall disappeared inside the freezer, his voice calling back to Nate. “We’re up to two hundred fifty for both lunch and supper, and it’s growing. There’s a lot of folks out of work these days. But with Thanksgiving coming, donations are picking up. The good Lord provides. Praise Jesus!”
The reverend’s words set off a round of “amens” from volunteers, one of whom looked up, caught a glimpse of Nate’s face, then looked quickly away, her smile now strained.
Nate turned and walked outside to the delivery truck, a cold wind whistling through the alley, carrying with it the mingled scents of car exhaust and snow. He opened the truck’s back door, grabbed the next case of meat, carrying the remaining three boxes into the kitchen one at a time. He could’ve gotten a dolly and made a single trip—each case weighed exactly fifty pounds—but that would have defeated the purpose of making the delivery himself.
Though he was a good two years beyond the explosion that had nearly killed him, he was still far from the man he’d been, his right arm weak, the tendons in his elbow and shoulder stiff, his scarred muscles constricted. He needed to exercise his arm and chest as much as he could. And, although he didn’t much care for coming into town, he had to get off the ranch once in a while and spend time with people other than his old man.
Or so his old man said.
It was getting easier—the stares, the whispers, the shock and revulsion on people’s faces. The way people tried not to look, averting their gazes, only to sneak a covert glance as he passed. The honest curiosity and fear of children, pointing and asking, “Mommy, what happened to that man’s face?”
An IED—improvised explosive device—is what had happened.
He and the rest of his fourteen-man MSOT—Marine Special Operations Team—had been traveling with a four-man team of Navy SEALs on their way back from a joint mission in Afghanistan when their convoy was hit by an IED. One moment he’d been talking with Max about the sheer quantity of heroin produced in Kandahar Province and the next...
A pop. A hiss.
A deafening blast.
Blinding light. Searing pain.
Nate’s helmet and combat goggles had protected his scalp, eyes and right ear, but the right side of his upper body, including his face, had been a mess of second- and third-degree burns. The surgeons had done what they could, saving his fingers, replacing charred flesh with skin grafts, giving him a new right nostril that almost looked real. But even after more than twenty surgeries, the right side of his face still looked like someone had painted his skin on with sloppy strokes of a putty knife.
Nate had been lucky.
Of the eighteen men in that convoy, three had been killed and six seriously maimed. Max had died instantly, blown to bits. Cruz had lost both legs AK—above the knee—along with his dick and right testicle. O’Malley’s arms had been burned so badly that his fingers were gone, his hands misshapen stumps. Garcia had lost an eye and part of his brain to shrapnel.
As an officer, Nate had tried to focus on his men, encouraging them through phone calls and emails, holding it together for their sake. They were Marines. More than that, they were elite operators—the best the Marines had to offer. They would show the world what real strength and courage were by getting strong again and finding new ways to serve their country.
Only it hadn’t been quite that simple.
The body recovered as best it could, but the spirit…
Cruz hadn’t been able to face life without a real penis and had eaten a bullet. O’Malley had been hospitalized twice for prescription drug overdoses that Nate doubted were accidental. Garcia could barely talk and would never live independently again.
As for Nate, he wasn’t a vain man, or he didn’t think he was. As soon as the tubes had been taken out of his throat, he’d asked the nurses to bring him a mirror. While the nurse had held it, he’d stared himself right in the face, bandages off, and decided that he could live with what he saw.
Rachel hadn’t felt the same.
She’d broken off their relationship with a tearful apology, unable even to look at him. “I can’t do this, Nate. I can’t do this.”
She’d liked seeing him in uniform, but she’d never truly supported his decision to re-up. Still, her betrayal had hit him with the force of a second IED blast.
He’d put her out of his heart, out of his mind, doing his best to stay positive through months of agony—excruciating debriding treatments that had left him fighting not to scream despite high doses of morphine, repeated surgeries, incessant itching beneath pressure bandages. But the more he’d healed on the outside, the deader he’d become inside.
Post-traumatic stress, his therapist had said. Give yourself time, she’d said.
Yeah, well, no shit. It didn’t take a PhD to figure that out.
Nate had come home to Colorado, hoping the mountain air and working with horses again would help him get his head on straight and regain strength in his arm, chest and shoulder. He
getting stronger. But inside he was numb. He rarely left the ranch, and when it came to women—hell, he couldn’t even begin to go there.
Nate had just handed the last case of beef over to Rev. Marshall, when the door from the dining area opened and
Her auburn hair was drawn back in a ponytail, her cheeks flushed from working at the steam table out front, an apron tied around her slender waist. “We’re almost out of mashed potatoes. Sorry to run out on you, but I need to pick up Emily from preschool before six.”
“You go get that sweet baby girl.” Rev. Marshall disappeared into the freezer once again. “We’ll see you next week.”
“Good night!” a volunteer called.
“See you, Megan.”
So her name was Megan.
She untied her apron, tossed it into a nearby laundry bin, then reached beneath the counter for her purse and jacket, her gaze meeting Nate’s.
A strange awareness passed through him, like sunlight warming his skin.
She smiled, not a hint of revulsion on her pretty face as she slipped into her jacket and zipped it up to her chin. “Good night!”
As she hurried past him and out the back door, Nate found his gaze following her.
# # #
Megan Hunter hurried across the street toward the parking lot, holding the collar of her jacket shut against the wind, the cold seeming to pass right through her. Teeth chattering, she took out her keys and double-clicked the button that unlocked the doors to her little blue Honda Civic. She’d no sooner sat in the driver’s seat and shut her door, than he was there in the passenger seat beside her.
Her heart gave a hard knock. “Wh-what are you doing here? Get out! Go before I call the police! If they find out you’ve violated the restraining order again—”
“Shut the hell up, Megan.” Bony fingers closed around her wrist, preventing her from reaching into her purse for her cell phone. “I don’t give a goddamn about the restraining order. I’m hurting for money, and I know you got plenty.”
Donny had aged since she’d last seen him almost a year ago, his face haggard, his skin sallow, his teeth rotting in his mouth. He’d lost weight, too. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and there was an agitated glint in his eyes.
She’d been scared before. Now she was terrified.
Not wanting to provoke him, she did her best to hide her fear. “H-hand me my purse. I’ll give you everything I have.”
As if seeing her handbag for the first time, he dumped its contents onto his lap and grabbed her wallet, searching through it, taking whatever cash she’d had. He shook the money in her face. “Twelve bucks? All you got is a lousy twelve bucks? Where’s all the fucking money you got from the settlement?”
That’s why he’d come after her. He’d read about the court settlement in the papers.
But Megan wasn’t going to let him bully her. She wasn’t the woman she’d been those years ago when she’d met him. She was stronger now, smarter. She had her life back, and she wasn’t going to let him hurt her. “I don’t have the money with—”
“Listen, bitch, you don’t understand.” He leaned forward and glared into her eyes, the stench of his breath overpowering. “I’ve fallen in with a rough crowd, and if I don’t get them their money real soon, I’m in deep shit.”
It was then Megan noticed the other car, the one that had pulled up behind her, blocking her. She was trapped. Chills slid down her spine that had nothing to do with the cold.
Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!
“Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to drive to the bank and withdraw five grand for me. Better make it ten. If you don’t…” He plucked out a photo of Emily and threw it in Megan’s face. “Cute kid.”
Megan’s blood turned to ice. “Y-you wouldn’t hurt her.”
“I might not, but those guys?” He pointed toward the other car with a jerk of his head.
“I-I’ll go get your money and meet you back here.”
Donny slapped her, the blow taking her by surprise, making her cheek burn. “You think I’m stupid? Me and you are going together. I’m not giving you a chance to call that asshole brother of yours or his cop frien—”
The passenger door opened and hands shot inside, grabbing Donny by the throat and dragging him backward out of the car. For one terrible moment, Megan feared the men in the other car had lost patience with her and were making a move. A scream welled up in her throat—then died when she recognized the scarred face of the man from the community kitchen.
He flung Donny aside, a look of fury contorting his damaged features, his expression softening when his gaze met Megan’s. “Are you okay?”
She tried to warn him. “Y-yes, but the men in the other car—”
“Get down!” He dropped to one knee, a gun appearing in his hand.
Megan ducked down, covering her ears, unable to hold back a scream as gunshots split the icy air.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
Tires squealed. Another shot.
“Damn it!” The man swore. “Shit! Well, they’re gone.”
She opened her eyes to see her rescuer rubbing his left shoulder with his scarred right hand, no sign of Donny or the other car. “Are you… Are you okay?”
The man nodded. “Yeah.”
And then sheer panic kicked in.
“Emily!” Megan searched frantically on the floor of her car for her keys which she must have dropped. “Oh, my God! Emily! They’re going to try to get my little girl!”
“Call the cops. They’ll get to her faster than you can, and they’ll be able to protect her.”
Something in his voice calmed the hammering of her heart, taking the sharpest edge off her fear. She looked up into dark blue eyes and took in his appearance all at once—short brown hair, dark eyebrows, strong jaw, firm mouth, high cheekbones. The right side of his face and neck were scarred from what could only have been burns, while the left was unhurt. But what struck her most was the concern in his eyes.