Authors: Liliana Hart
First of all, if you haven’t read the beginning of Cooper’s story, then stop now and go download COOPER.
Now that we’ve got that business taken care of, I’m so excited to bring you the second part of Cooper and Claire’s story. I never planned on adding any more to the original MacKenzie brother novellas, but the response from readers has been overwhelming, and when readers ask for something, I try really hard to give it to them. So thank you all for loving the MacKenzies and asking for more.
When we last left Cooper and Claire, their relationship was still at the beginning stages, and though they’d learned a lot about each other, marriage takes some adjustment. Especially when you’re married to a cop. This story starts six months after the “I Do’s” are said, when “reality” starts to set in.
Thank you all so much for loving the MacKenzies as much as I do and wrapping up the finale of the MacKenzie Brothers Happily Ever After. I’ve got a lot of exciting news coming about the MacKenzies, so make sure you’re subscribed to my newsletter. And if you’re a SUPER MacKenzie fan, make sure you check out the MacKenzie Family Website at
Marriage changed a man.
Cooper MacKenzie’s stomach knotted as he reached the top of the hill that looked down over Surrender, Montana. He put his black Tahoe in park, teetering on the edge of the point of no return, and ran his hand through his thick length of black hair that was long overdue for a trim.
Nothing had changed in the sleepy town of Surrender for the past three days. It was still tucked safely in the hollow of rolling green hills and calm blue lakes. A narrow row of shops and businesses lined each side of the bricked street. It was postcard perfect, with wooden sidewalks, matching black awnings, and antique light posts already flickering with a yellow glow. Hand painted signs sat in the windows and little pots of bright flowers were arranged neatly by the doors.
Three thousand people—give or take a few—relied on him to keep them and their livestock safe. Depending on who was doing the talking, the livestock were often more important than the people. Ranching was a way of life, and most of his time was spent looking for bobcats, bears, and wolves searching for food. The rest of his time was spent dealing with drunk and disorderlies and the occasional domestic dispute. Long winters and blizzards made people do some awfully strange things.
Fall was hanging on by a thread—the air filled with a biting chill and the smell of the first snow on the horizon—but the orange and red leaves still clung to the trees with perseverance.
It was past four in the afternoon, and with the change of season came an early darkness. The clouds were full and gray and it wouldn’t surprise him if those first flakes of snow came within the next day or so.
His hands rested on the wheel and his foot hovered over the gas, but something kept him from moving forward.
“Shit,” he breathed out, disgusted with himself. And then he put the Tahoe in drive.
He’d only been gone three days, but thoughts of Claire had taken his mind off the mission and invaded his dreams at night. The lack of focus could’ve gotten him killed. Almost had.
It didn’t take a psychologist to tell him he felt guilty for lying to her. Or at least lying by omission.
But he’d taken his marriage vows seriously. He’d promised to love and protect her. And sometimes protecting her meant keeping the darker side of his life to himself. He had military skills that went unutilized as sheriff, but the DEA had found plenty of use for him. He was helping to cripple one of the most dangerous drug rings in the country. At least a small arm of it. He was the good guy. So there was no reason he should feel so guilty.
Except for Claire.
He’d spent his adult life never having to explain himself to anyone or account for his actions. Not even the voters who’d appointed him Sheriff had the privilege of knowing what he did on his own time or outside the office. That wasn’t to say they weren’t curious. But most of them were polite enough to keep the thoughts to themselves. He was a damned good sheriff. No one could argue that.
But his life had changed the moment Claire had slipped the simple gold band around his finger. He felt the weight of it there and the significance of what it meant. And he began to realize that coming home to Claire was a hell of a lot more important than taking reckless chances because he’d been bored for the past six years.
He beeped his horn and waved as he passed Charlie’s Automotive. His sister-in-law owned the place, a blue metal building with white awnings and big bays for the cars she and her mechanics worked on. The bays were open, and it looked as if things were still busy close to the end of the day.
Cooper turned down his police scanner—not that much was coming through anyway—so he could hear the rough crunch on brick beneath his tires. Something about the sound reminded him of his childhood. It was good to be home.
He noticed the little shops were closing up for the night. Lights dimmed and the streets emptied as people went home to their families and little league practices. He passed the Sheriff’s Office and saw the unit parked out front. He could see Lane, his deputy, through the front window sitting behind the desk doing paperwork, the little TV flickering from the top of the file cabinet.
But it wasn’t the sight of his office that made his heart pound faster in his chest. It was the sight of the little white compact car parked in front of the library across the street. Claire was still at work, and part of him thought it might be best to keep driving and meet her at home, but he pulled into the space beside her instead and got out of the car, locking it behind him.
The Surrender Public Library wasn’t a huge building, but it was pretty. The rest of the connected buildings in town were a mixture of brick and clapboard siding. But the library was two stories of stone built more than a hundred years before, though its original purpose had been as a bank.
The builder had carved faces along the roofline, and what Cooper’s grandmother had told him—as told to her by her mother—was that the builder had been wildly in love when he’d started the carvings. He eventually married the girl and continued work on the library, but as the years went on his love for her dimmed and turned to bitterness and hatred, as it was said that she was something of a shrew and quite difficult to get along with. So the face of his wife he’d been carving into the building once started as beautiful, but with each carving she became a little more haggard, until the last face he’d sculpted was nothing more than an unrecognizable monster.
Cooper’s boots scraped against the concrete of the steps leading to the front door and it creaked as he opened it, the wood swollen with age. The hush of quiet was overwhelming—almost smothering—and he breathed in the scent of books and the new carpet that had been laid over the weekend. He’d never felt at home in a library or school, and those old feelings of inadequacy came rushing back. He’d been a lot better with his fists than he’d ever been with a book. And after his parents had died and he’d been discharged from the army, it hadn’t taken him long to realize he’d better learn to be damned good with his hands if he wanted to keep the family homestead from falling down around his and his brothers’ ears.
The library was empty as far as he could see. The children’s area had already been picked up and everything was in its place. He passed by the front desk, thinking Claire might be finishing up in her office or cataloguing books, but she was nowhere to be seen.
And then he heard her humming and frowned.
They’d only been married for six months, but spending that much time with someone, you couldn’t help but pick up on little quirks or habits. And the only time Claire hummed was when she was worried about something. He wasn’t even sure she realized she did it. But it was always a nameless tune, slow and sad.
He breathed out a sigh of relief. Focusing on her gave him the reprieve he needed. There’d always be time later to confess his own sins.
Claire was a fool.
And it certainly wasn’t in her personality to not confront situations head on, but that’s exactly what she’d done with her husband. She knew he’d been lying to her. And yet each time she’d look at him, watching and waiting for the truth, but it never came.
She wasn’t so naïve to think that Cooper should share all his secrets with her. Being the wife of a cop was an adjustment, and she could see the burdens he carried, though she might not know the cause. And she didn’t expect to know. But she also hadn’t expected him to look her in the face and tell her he was going fishing when she knew damned good and well he didn’t need leather pants and his nipple rings to go fishing.
Which brought her to something else that was feeding her insecurities. Was Cooper working undercover in the BDSM clubs like he had when they’d first become involved? Or was she not enough for him—not giving him those desires he craved—and returning to the sexual lifestyle he’d always lived?
She’d never been a coward. It was time to confront him and get to the bottom of things. The only problem was he had to return home before she could do it.
Claire replaced the last book on the shelf and stepped down from the ladder, and then she slipped her feet into the wicked black heels she’d gotten in France on her honeymoon. Her back ached and she was more than ready to call it a day. There hadn’t been a library patron to come in for more than two hours, and she was thinking no one would mind if she closed up fifteen minutes early. The fall and winter months, especially when darkness fell earlier each night, weren’t exactly great for boosting her numbers and proving that the library was worth saving. And the budget cuts most definitely showed it. Thank God the city library also doubled as the school library or she’d be out of a job.
It was another problem for another day. She sighed and moved between the stacks of books to the stairs. Her heels echoed on the marble and the temperature cooled considerably since the heat hadn’t worked on the second floor since she’d been a child. Another one of those budget issues that was far down at the bottom of the list.
Despite the cooler temperature, the upstairs was her favorite part of the library. It was easy to imagine it as it had been a hundred years before. Six large columns that sat two by two like sentries dominated the large open room. The floors were marble, and the glass windows etched so the view to the outside world was slightly distorted. Two long mahogany tables that were battered with age were used as study areas for students and drop chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
The tables were clear of clutter and everything looked to be in order, so she crossed to the bank of light switches and began shutting them down, leaving on the two recessed lights over the tables so the room was cast in a softer glow.
Headlights cut through the window and then passed by, and she moved closer to get a better look at the outside. The clouds were so thick in the sky she couldn’t tell if there was any daylight left, and it looked as if the street was empty. Her heart heavy and missing Cooper more every minute he was gone, she sighed and turned back toward the stairs.
The only thing that kept her from screaming aloud was that it caught in her throat on the way out. Her heart thudded in her chest and her hand rested across her neck. She hadn’t heard anyone come in, but there he stood. Cooper always moved with an unnerving silence.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” he said.
His voice rasped across her skin and she shivered. One sound—one look—was all it took to make her go weak in the knees. He had such power over her. Up until recently, she thought it had been mutual.
Cooper was a big man, several inches over six feet, and broad through the shoulders. He wore a black long-sleeved t-shirt and olive green cargo pants, but even covered up it was impossible to miss the thick bulges of muscles in his arms and chest. His hair was thick and black, always a little too long, and his eyes were the purest blue she’d ever seen. He was the kind of man that made men take a step back and women get closer for a better look. And every inch of him screamed power.