Authors: Roxie Rivera
Tags: #romantic suspense
By Roxie Rivera
Table of Contents
Stretching his aching neck, Special Warfare Operator Leland Gates blew out a tired breath and flexed his fingers off the steering wheel of the rental SUV he had picked up in Austin. His gaze drifted along the bluebonnets blanketing both sides of the two-lane road. God, how he'd missed those. Another twenty minutes and he would arrive at his family's quiet little cabin tucked away in the hill country. His throbbing knee screamed for a good stretch and a long walk.
Running his hand along the twinging muscles on his left side, he winced. Right in front of his eyes, the long stretch of Texas highway morphed into the tight confines of a shipping vessel as the slight pulse of pain brought back memories he would rather forget. As an elite SEAL team operator, he was used to danger and risk. Most missions went according to plan, but there were always the ones that were complete Charlie-Foxtrots. The recent rescue of an American crew aboard a hijacked shipping vessel off the coast of Africa had been one of those.
Shaking his head to clear the remembered sounds of muted gunfire and snapping ricochets, he concentrated on the highway. When the turnoff to the private road came into view, he eased off the gas and hit his blinker. He made the unmarked left and drove a few dozen yards to the locked gate. After punching in the code and watching the gate slide sideways, he rolled across the cattle guard and onto the property. A short time later, the small cabin appeared at the end of the single lane caliche path.
Always alert, Leland noticed the faint glow of light behind the wooden blinds and curtains. He lifted his foot from the gas and let the SUV crawl forward as his finely honed gaze swept the area. There was no vehicle that he could see. Was it a hitchhiker or possibly an illegal immigrant? It wouldn't have been the first time some poor soul had taken refuge at the cabin.
Not taking any chances, he reached for the weapon stowed safely away in the lock box tucked inside his small suitcase. Armed and ready, he parked his SUV at an angle that gave him some coverage and with enough space to maneuver if he needed to retreat hastily. Before he barged into the cabin, Leland decided to make sure his little sister hadn't given her key to someone.
"Leelee!" Peyton answered with her usual bright cheeriness.
His lips twitched at that awful nickname she had given him. He had hated it from the first time she had used it, but he hadn't had the heart to tell her no. At six years old, Peyton had been the scrawniest little thing, all big eyes and wobbling lips and terrified of everyone but him when his parents had brought her into their home as a foster child. He had been adopted by Jan and Dave Gates a few years earlier so he had understood Peyton's fear and had been willing to go along with that girlish nickname if it made her smile.
Trying not to be distracted by memories, he asked, "Peyton, did you give your cabin key to a friend?"
"Okay, look," she said quickly and in a tone that made his chest tighten. "Please don't flip out on me. She needed to get out of town for a couple of days, and I didn't know you were going to take leave and try to disappear out there."
He had a bad feeling about the identity of
. "Did you give the key to Jamie?"
Peyton hesitated. "Yes."
He pinched the bridge of his nose and exhaled roughly. It had to be
. It had to be the one woman in the whole wide world who got under his skin. It had to be the girl who made him want to break all his rules.
A sensation that felt suspiciously like anxiety gripped his gut. He had escaped out here to relax, not to be strung as tight as a tripwire. "I'll head into town and see if I can get a room at one of the bed and breakfasts, or that ratty little motel on the outskirts."
"No! Leland, please don't." She only used his full name when it was serious. His internal alarm clanged. "She's in trouble."
"She's always in trouble. Hell, Jamie
"Stop." Irritation edged into his sister's voice. "You're always so mean to her. What did she ever do to you?"
"Do you really want to start that list, Peyton? How about two years ago when she got you two locked up in a Mexican jail during spring break? How about the time she convinced you to sneak off to that concert in New Orleans? Do I need to remind you about the bikers who tried to turn you two into their old ladies at that rest stop on the Texas-Louisiana border?"
"To be fair, I don't think they actually wanted us as their old ladies. I think they wanted to make us their sweet butts."
"Like you've never done anything wild and the slightest bit stupid? Because if I start running down that list, we'll be on the phone all night."
"This isn't about me."
"Isn't it?" She waited for him to answer. When he didn't, she spoke again, her tone rough and irritated. "You know what? Go ahead. Tuck tail and run off to that motel."
"Watch it, Peyton." Now he was the one with a hardened edge to his voice. "I'm too old to be playing dare games with you."
Her end of the line remained silent for tense seconds. "Please stay, Leelee. I'm worried about her. This…this is different."
Though he didn't understand the unbreakable bond between those two young women, he knew he would never forgive himself if Jamie got hurt. Peyton would carry that guilt forever. Hating himself for caving so easily, he rubbed his forehead and growled. "Fine. I'll stay, but I swear on everything holy, if this is another one of her schemes—"
He narrowed his eyes. "What aren’t you telling me, Peyton?"
"That's Jamie's story to tell." A muffled rustling sound scratched at his ear. "I have to go. My study group is here. I'll touch base in the morning."
"Are you okay?"
She always asked him the same question, and he always answered it the same way. "I'm fine, little bit."
"I missed you. I'm really glad you're home."
For a few days
, he thought. "I should have come to see you first."
"I understand that you need to get away sometimes."
"I'll try to see you before I head back to Virginia."
"No worries if you can't. I'll be here whenever you have time."
When Peyton said that, she meant it. Between them, there had always been honesty and frankness. Their experiences as neglected and abandoned children had allowed them to bond quickly and deeply, despite their obvious differences. Where he was tall with blond hair and blue eyes, Peyton was short with dark hair, warm brown skin and coffee black eyes. They might not have been siblings by blood, but they were siblings in the ways that mattered most. He would do anything for her, and she would do the same for him.
"I've got to run, Leelee. I'll talk to you later. Love you."
"Love you, sis."
After the phone call ended, he tapped his phone on the steering wheel. James "Jamie" Pearson's mischievous smile flashed before him. Heat rolled through his lower belly at the mere thought of her lush mouth and tawny eyes. The wealthy heiress to the Lush & Luxe makeup empire had skin a shade darker than Peyton's, rich and silky and ever so tempting. He swallowed hard at the memory of running his hands along her arms and sliding them under her shirt to swipe the soft skin of her stomach and breasts.
Even now, five years later, his face burned with shame as he remembered how close he had come to crossing
line. At twenty-two, he had been a battle-hardened and weary man already. He had come home that Christmas for a reprieve from the hell of back-to-back tours and losing his closet friend in the unit. He had hoped that being surrounded by family and friends would soothe the raw wound in his chest, but he had only felt more disconnected and alone.
He had disappeared from the Christmas Eve revelry to seek refuge in his bedroom with a bottle of his father's favorite brandy. Jamie had sought him out and spoken so tenderly to him about losing her father in that climbing accident. She had understood what it was like to look into the eyes of a dying man and to carry the guilt of surviving.
Drunk and hurting, he had allowed Jamie to get too close. He had let her inside that wall he had erected after becoming a SEAL, the one that kept him from caring too much and the one that kept him safe from distraction. The explosive, passionate kiss they had shared in his childhood bedroom had obliterated that wall. The memory of it still made his heart race.
There had been so many kisses before Jamie and too many after her, but not a single one of them compared to that one. He told himself it was the heightened excitement of finally tasting the forbidden, but deep down inside, he knew better. He knew that there was something about Jamie, something special, that no other woman on the face of the earth could ever hope to possess.
But it had been wrong to kiss her.
The five year age difference between them wasn't a big deal now but back then? It had been hugely improper. Thankfully, he had come to his senses before things had grown too heated between them. He could still see the embarrassed and angry look on her beautiful face when he had shoved her into the hallway and locked the door. It had been a cold and callous thing to do, but he hadn't trusted himself to do right by her otherwise.
Before passing out drunk, he had silently vowed to find her the next day and explain why he had sent her away. She deserved to be treated properly, to have everything done by the book. Swearing to wait for her to finish high school and start college before he made his move, he had fallen asleep with the strongest sense of hope coursing through him.
But all that hope had been blown to shit early the next morning when he'd caught Jamie sneaking out of the guest room where his cousin Tanner had been sleeping. Her hair had been a wild mess, and she had run a quick hand over her rumpled dress while hopping into her heels. It hadn’t taken a genius to put together the pieces and solve that equation.
Even now, all these years later, his stomach clenched painfully. He massaged the center of his chest. The bitter burn of betrayal still raged hot inside him. He had trusted Jamie. He had flirted with danger for her—and she had run straight from his bedroom and right into the brawny arms of his high school football-star cousin.
Most galling of all had been the way Jamie had tried to flirt with and tease him that afternoon when she had stopped by with presents for the family. He had rebuffed her advances, and kept his answers clipped and to the point. For the rest of his short visit, Jamie had stayed away from the house.
Since then, he had seen her only a handful of times. Between his career in the SEALs and her jet-setting lifestyle, they weren't often in the same place at the same time. He liked it that way. It was easier to believe that she wasn’t the only woman who haunted his dreams. It was easier to forget how his traitorous body responded any time she was close.
He tried to pretend he didn't remember the exact date of the last time he had seen her, but he remembered, right down to the hour. Eight months, four days and—he glanced at his battered watch—nine hours. He had been heading out the door of his family home to catch a flight, and she had been barreling inside to share some juicy bit of gossip with Peyton. They had collided hard enough to send her flying right back out the door. He'd caught her hand in time to steady her, but she had shaken off his fingers as if his very touch disgusted her.
His jaw clenched. Would the next few days in the close quarters of the cabin be so torturous? Tired and aching, he wanted to shower, eat, and slide into bed. Except the mere thought of getting some much-needed sleep reminded him that the cabin had only one bed. Someone would have to bunk on the couch, and he had a sneaking suspicion Miss Lush & Luxe was going to expect him to be gallant and take the lumpy old thing.
Wiping a hand down his face, he snarled a few choice cuss words and killed the engine. He stuffed his weapon back in its carrying case and zipped up his luggage. Grasping the handle, he dragged it across the seat and out the door with him. He loudly slammed the door of the rental SUV, and stuffed his phone into the back pocket of his jeans.
Steeled for the worst, he strode toward the small cabin and up the stairs to the porch that ran the along the front. He fished his keys from his pocket, but a feeling made him try the handle, just to see if it was locked. When the knob turned easily and the deadbolt didn't engage, he growled with frustration. Didn't Jamie realize how reckless this was? She was a woman alone in the middle of nowhere. Someone dangerous could have pushed that door open and sauntered inside.