Heartbreak Cove (Sanctuary Island) (RE8) (19 page)

BOOK: Heartbreak Cove (Sanctuary Island) (RE8)
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“The new owner,” Andie guessed.

Sam nodded, his bittersweet chocolate eyes opaque. “Richard Mountbatten.”

“Mountbatten.” Andie frowned at the uncommon name. “Like the cruise line?”

“His family owns it. Ricky had a window seat at the company headquarters, but he spent most of his time and his inherited millions at the racetrack. When I went to my boss with my suspicions, he told me to keep my mouth shut. The barn couldn’t afford to lose Rick Mountbatten and his cronies. So I went to the authorities on my own.”

“The police?” Andie clarified.

Sam’s mouth flattened into a grim line. “Turned out the local police chief was in Ricky’s pocket. They tipped him off about me and he staged a botched kidnapping to explain the injuries I’d found on Sultan.”

“And framed you for it.” Andie’s stomach heaved but she bit back bile and forced herself to hear Sam out. She had to know it all, or they were never going to get past this.

“It was easy.” Sam shrugged, but the motion was so jerky it looked as if it physically hurt. “The Mountbattens are seriously connected in California. The tourist dollars their cruise line brings in, the years they’ve spent making backdoor deals and slicking the palms of all the right people … there was no way a Mountbatten was going down for animal cruelty based on the say so of a no-name kid with no money and no education. They sent in a swarm of flesh-eating lawyers who chewed up my public defendant and spit her out again, and before I knew it, I was doing hard time.”

“Four years.” The number was burned onto Andie’s brain the way the injustice of Sam’s story was burning through her heart and her stomach lining.

“I was lucky,” Sam said grimly, as if in answer to the questions Andie couldn’t bring herself to ask. “I’ve always been big for my age. Not a lot of guys want to mess with someone as big as me. I got a job in the library, kept my head down, did my time, and got out on my twenty-third birthday.”

“And instead of letting what happened drag you down into a spiral of crime and punishment,” Andie finished, sliding off the mattress and dragging the sheet with her like a toga, “you went out and started a horse rescue organization.”

“The next time I found a horse like Sultan’s Dream, I wanted to be able to actually save him.” The muscle below his ear ticked as he ground his teeth on the memory of helplessness. “He died while I was inside. Sultan. It was ruled natural causes, but I know Mountbatten was dosing him with something to numb pain and make him race even with injuries. It happens all the time in racing.”

Andie’s mind seethed with all this new information as puzzle pieces slotted into place. Sam had learned, early and well, that the law would not protect him. He’d been on the other side of the power struggle between justice and corruption—it made perfect sense that he would trust no one but himself. “So many of our conversations, starting with that very first night when I busted your cousin, Matt, and Taylor McNamara for underage drinking, make sense now.”

She approached Sam from the side, the way she’d seen him do with the young wild stallion. “The only thing that doesn’t make sense is how you ever got far enough past all that to give me the time of day.”

Sam’s mouth twisted, but he raised his arm and made space for her to nestle against him. She tucked her head on his shoulder and slotted her fingers along the grooves of his ribcage, taking comfort in the solid thud of his heart. “I never saw a lot of evidence, before, that you law enforcement types were interested in actually helping people. Until I met you.”

“Not just people,” Andie felt compelled to point out. “If anyone on Sanctuary Island ever did a thing to hurt the wild horses, I’d come down on them like the hammer of the gods. I promise you that.”

He squeezed her tighter and pressed a kiss to the crown of her head. “I believe it. You’re good at your job. This island needs you.”

A chill of dread rushed down Andie’s spine. She lifted her head to fix him with a stare. “Maybe so. But that doesn’t mean you should get any crazy ideas about skipping town. The voters can deal with the fact that I’m dating an ex-con, or not. It’s up to them.”

“I’ve never told my side of the story,” Sam said reluctantly. “Didn’t get the chance in court, and afterward, well, I never saw the point. But if it would help, I could contact that newspaper guy and offer him an interview.”

Gratitude and affection swelled up from Andie’s chest so fast she almost choked on it. “I love that you’d do that for me,” she said softly. “But I’m not going to ask you to give up your privacy. It’s no one’s business what I do when I’m off the clock. I knew you were innocent of those charges. I knew the minute Wyatt read them to me.”

“How did you know? It’s not like it’s impossible I would’ve done what they said and taken that horse.”

“But it was impossible that you would’ve harmed him.”

That got her a kiss on the lips, warm and soft, almost shy. “You’re amazing,” Sam told her.

“I am,” Andie agreed, smiling up at his handsome, troubled face and wishing she could erase the worry from his eyes. “And have some faith in the Sanctuary Island voters that they know it, too! The election will work itself out and I’ll be fine either way … as long as you don’t leave town in some attempt to reverse the damage.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll stick around.” Sam smiled, but it didn’t reach his dark eyes. “I’ve never been a hero. Why start now?”

 

Chapter Eighteen

Sam wasn’t used to thinking of himself as a coward. He couldn’t say he was enjoying the experience.

That day in Andie’s house, in her bedroom, he simply hadn’t been able to make himself confess the whole truth. Because while he hadn’t been guilty of stealing Sultan, he was absolutely guilty of stealing Queenie. And as much as he despised what he was doing to Andie, Sam was stuck. He couldn’t take the chance that Andie’s faith in the legal system would force her to send Queenie back to the owner who’d nearly killed her.

Sam was responsible for Queenie’s life, her health. She had no voice, no rights, no way to protect herself. All she had was Sam. Which meant that Sam had to put Queenie first, before himself … even before Andie. No matter how much he hated it.

All of that was bad enough. But there was also the fact that Andie had told him she’d fallen for him … and he hadn’t said it back. Every day since then as they spent more and more time together volunteering at the therapeutic riding center, making dinner for Caitlin, stealing moments of hushed, intense passion in each other’s arms … he still hadn’t told her the whole truth.

He hadn’t told her that he loved her, too. More than he’d ever thought he could love another human being.

To be fair, she hadn’t said it again either. Not that he was hoping to hear it at least one more time before this all inevitably fell apart, or anything.

Because despite what he’d told her that day, Sam knew he should still be thinking about moving on. He wasn’t sure where else he could take Queenie and hope to help the mare and keep her safe, but this fantasy he was living out with Andie had to stop. If he was any kind of a man, he’d already be gone.

The trouble was, every time he made up his mind to pack Queenie’s things and bundle them both onto the next ferry off the island, something stopped him. For one thing, Queenie and the wild colt, Lucky, had basically turned into a matched set. Where one went, the other followed instantly. Any separation, even the bare minimum of time it took to restrain them in crossties to be hosed down after a long day of romping in the muddy fields, led to loud, frantic whinnying and straining toward one another. Sam was genuinely concerned that if he took Queenie away from Lucky, both horses would pine to death.

He knew the feeling.

There was also the matter of Queenie’s health to consider. She didn’t do well with travel, couldn’t be sedated, and he’d just gotten her back up to speed after her dangerous brush with colic. When Dr. Ben examined her afterward, he’d warned Sam about the dangers of even the smallest change in Queenie’s routine—different food, different bedding, stress—like the stress of leaving her best friend—could set off another attack. Sam could only imagine how the veterinarian would react if Sam tried to load Queenie onto the ferry and whisk her away from the place where she’d grown comfortable.

And then there was Matt’s high school graduation coming up in a couple of weeks. Sam knew the kid wanted him to be there. He’d mentioned it more than once, always with this air of agitation and nerves that was pretty unusual for such a solid, down-to-earth boy.

Sam found out why when his cousin Penny took him aside and asked if he could get Andie’s help in filing a restraining order against her ex-husband. Apparently Taylor had let Penny know about Matt’s communications with the guy, and the two women were determined to keep Trent Little’s violent tendencies away from Matt.

In fact, they didn’t even want Matt to know his dad had ever hit his mom—apparently, they’d decided it would be better if Trent simply failed to show up for graduation, thereby breaking his promise and hopefully making Matt think twice about contacting him again.

In Sam’s view, they were likely only going to be delaying the inevitable, but when he’d argued that point with Penny, her sweet round face had suddenly gone all stubborn angles. Jaw jutting and eyes narrowed, she’d poked her finger into Sam’s chest and glared up at him as if he didn’t tower over her by more than a foot.

“Have you been talking to Dylan?” she’d demanded.

Sam held up his hands in self defense, and also to remind her he wasn’t armed. “Slow your roll, cuz, I don’t talk to your hubby about much beyond how the Nats are doing.”

Sam was pretty sure he and the former Bad Boy Billionaire didn’t have a lot common. Except, apparently, the crazy notion that Matt was almost a grown man and could handle hearing the truth about dear old dad.

“Maybe it’s a mistake,” Penny allowed, standing down slightly. “But it’s my mistake to make, and Matt is my kid. So I’ll thank you to stay out of it.”

“Penny, come on. Don’t cry. That’s not fighting fair.”

“I don’t want to fight with you at all,” she said thickly, swiping at her eyes with an impatient slice of her hand.

“I know,” Sam soothed, wrapping his favorite cousin up in a bear hug. “You just want me to fall in line and do exactly as you say.”

“Is that so much to ask?” Penny sniffled and pulled far enough back to see Sam’s reluctant smile. She made a face at herself. “Sorry, I hate blubbing. It’s just, so much is going on, with one baby about to leave home…”

Almost unconsciously, one of her hands fluttered up to rest on the gentle curve of her belly, and Sam’s heart jumped into his throat. “And another baby on the way?” he guessed hoarsely.

Penny’s gaze flew to his. “Don’t say anything,” she pleaded. “Especially not to Matt. It’s too soon to tell people, and at my age—well, at any age—anything can happen in the first trimester.”

“At your age,” Sam scoffed, bending down to give her another, softer hug. “What are you, thirty-five?”

“If you can’t remember, I’m certainly not going to tell you. And for your information, when the mother is thirty-five or older, the doctors start using the charming phrase ‘geriatric pregnancy.’ Which is not designed to make you feel like a spring chicken.”

“Congrats anyway, old-timer,” Sam said, ducking a half-hearted swat. “Seriously, I’m happy for you and Dylan. And you know Matt will be happy too, right?”

“You really think so?” Horrifyingly, Penny’s eyes filled with tears again. She scrubbed at her face and grimaced. “Ugh. These hormone surges are driving me bananas. I don’t remember having them with Matty.”

“But then,” Sam pointed out, “that was eighteen years ago. Your memory probably isn’t what it used to be.”

To his everlasting relief, Penny laughed. “Oh Sam. I love having you here. Say you’ll at least stay through graduation. Please?”

So that was that. He’d promised Penny, and then he’d promised Matt, who was about to get stood up by his father. To Sam, that was as good as a blood oath. He settled in for another couple of weeks, determined to use the time to get Queenie as healthy as she could be, in case they needed to leave town in a hurry to save Andie’s career.

Those two weeks passed in a haze of loving, laughing, teaching Caitlin to ride, and enjoying watching her come out of her shell and latch onto Andie. Sam cherished every huge grin and relieved sigh Andie gave. He stored up every brush of her fingers and casual kiss good-bye in his memory, alongside the unforgettable moments of entwined limbs and breathless desire. Sam stockpiled sidelong glances and the downward sweep of Andie’s lashes like they were all he’d have to live on—and one day, they might be.

He told himself that he could afford the time, that he could give those days to Andie and Caitlin—and himself—without risking more hurt. He couldn’t leave the island until Queenie was more stable, and he’d worked out a way to bring Lucky with them. Maybe it would have been kinder in the long run to distance himself from Andie, but she’d opened up to him, more than to anyone in her life, Sam knew, and he couldn’t run out on her after that.

Maybe it made him a bastard, but he couldn’t let Andie believe her love meant nothing to him. And in a deep, secret part of his heart, Sam had hope that he still might be able to figure out a way through this mess. A way to keep Andie safe, and Queenie too. A way to have the kind of life he’d never even dared to dream of before.

It was possible. The same laws that gave horses no more status than livestock also tended to keep law enforcement from expending precious resources on an extended hunt for the stolen property. He had to assume the only reason the cops had been so persistent on this case was the high-profile “victim.”

If Queenie had been stolen from a regular family by some criminal bent on selling her for profit, the cops wouldn’t have done much more than file a report.

So if Sam and Queenie could stay hidden away on Sanctuary Island until the search was called off and the cops quit hassling Luke, there was a good chance he could actually get away with this. They just needed to hold out a little longer.

But then, the night before Matt’s pre-graduation party, Andie got a call that changed everything.

*   *   *

Andie tucked Caitlin into bed, with the good-night kiss they were both coming to count on, as well as their traditional exchange: “When is my dad coming home?” Caitlin would ask sleepily. “Tomorrow?”

“Maybe,” Andie told her, as she did every night. “Go to sleep and when you wake up, we’ll find out.”

She closed Caitlin’s door softly behind her and padded barefoot down the hallway to the living room, where Sam was watching a baseball game with the volume turned low. Andie slid onto the couch next to him like a key into a lock, with Sam instantly making room for her and welcoming her body close to his.

“Who’s winning?” she asked sleepily, her head falling heavy onto the back sofa cushion.

“The Nationals, in red.”

“They’re the good guys, right?” Andie smiled at the rumble of near-silent laughter she felt vibrating through the ridged muscles of Sam’s abdomen.

“Yep. The Nats are the good guys. I love that you know that.”

“Hey, I know how it goes.” Andie’s eyes drifted shut. “Love me, love my team.”

Sam went so quiet next to her, it startled her awake. Replaying her last sentence in her head, Andie flinched. “I mean, when you date a guy…”

“I know what you meant.” His voice was low, strained. Andie forced her muscles to stay lax and pliant against Sam’s side.

The loud
b-r-r-r-ring
of the phone mounted on the kitchen wall split the silence and launched Andie into motion. She jumped off the couch wondering who would be calling on her almost unused landline and prayed she could get to it before it woke Caitlin up.

Grabbing the receiver, Andie sent Sam a small, apologetic smile. “Hello?”

There was a pause on the other end. Then, “Andrea Shepard?”

It was a woman’s voice, vaguely familiar, but Andie couldn’t place it right away. “Yes, speaking. May I ask who’s calling?”

“This is Loretta Phelps, Army chaplain at Fort Benning.”

The woman who used her own meager time off to transport Caitlin over to Sanctuary Island. “Of course,” Andie said warmly. “Lieutenant Phelps! It’s so nice of you to call and check in. Caitlin is doing well, I’ve got her enrolled in school, although the year’s almost over, of course.”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” Lt. Phelps replied. Something in her slow, careful voice made the smile drop off Andie’s face.

Gripping the phone more tightly, Andie said, “I’m pretty sure I gave you my cell number in case you needed to contact me.”

The dread coiling in her guts rolled over when Lt. Phelps hesitated. “Yes. You did. Well, for this kind of call I’m afraid the army requires that we use a landline. I have an important message to deliver from the Secretary of the Army.”

White noise buzzed in Andie’s ears. She didn’t know what kind of sound she made, but it must have been bad because Sam was instantly at her side. His strong, sturdy presence gave Andie the courage to stand up straight and say, “All right. I’m ready, Lieutenant.”

The chaplain took a deep audible breath. “Andrea Shepard, the secretary has asked me to express his deep regret that on the sixteenth of May, your brother, Sergeant First Class Owen Shepard, went missing in action.”

There was more, but Andie heard it all distorted, broken by the static of the Army chaplain’s sympathy and the shocked grief beating at her own heart. Wounded, presumed dead, body not recovered, so sorry …

“Wait,” Andie rasped, breaking into Lt. Phelps’ halting condolences. “Presumed dead. So you don’t know for sure.”

“That’s correct. But I wouldn’t want to give you false hope, Andie.”

“Owen is strong,” Andie insisted, reminding herself as much as arguing with the chaplain. “He’s smart and fast—if he’s still alive…”

“That’s a big if,” Lt. Phelps said softly. “His team was ambushed. There were a lot of casualties.”

Andie wanted to press the point, to shout down the line and make Lt. Phelps agree with her, but she heard the subtle catch in the other woman’s breath. Like a suppressed sob. And she knew Lt. Phelps wanted to believe it, too, as much as Andie did—but she couldn’t say it aloud.

Rather than torture them both, Andie took a shuddering breath and said, “Thank you for calling, Lieutenant Phelps. You volunteered to notify us, didn’t you?”

“Owen’s C.O. is still OCONUS, that is, outside the continental U.S., but he authorized me to go ahead with the notification. Up until today, they were still working to discover Owen’s whereabouts but…”

“The search has been called off,” Andie finished, her lungs squeezing down until her voice was a faint thread. “Okay.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss.” The lieutenant had steadied herself and was back on script, but Andie could hear the genuine regret and sorrow throbbing through Loretta’s voice.

“I’m sorry for your loss, too,” Andie told her. “I know you were friends.”

Maybe more than friends, judging by the fragile silence on the other end of the line. Or maybe Loretta had simply loved Owen like a sister—that was enough cause for pain, as Andie knew all too well.

They said their good-byes and after extracting a promise that she’d be notified if there was any new information, Andie hung up. Her feet felt leaden, too heavy to lift, but she was afraid if she didn’t walk over to the couch and sit down, she’d collapse in a heap on the kitchen floor. She couldn’t collapse. She had to hold it together.

BOOK: Heartbreak Cove (Sanctuary Island) (RE8)
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