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Authors: Sara Jane Stone

Hero by Night

BOOK: Hero by Night
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Dedication

For Jill (aka the Best Agent Ever), thank you for your awesome advice and insights!

 

Acknowledgments

I
HAVE A
long list of ­people to thank, beginning with my wonderful readers! I deeply appreciate your enthusiasm for this series. Thank you for taking the time to read, review, and chat with me on Facebook! A special shout-­out to my Facebook friends who suggested names for the Independence Falls pizza place. I hope you like my final choice! And thank you to everyone who posted pictures of golden retrievers. You helped shape Hero's character!

I am fortunate to have a wonderful and supportive family. My mother and mother-­in-­law have spent countless hours babysitting while I write. On the weekends when I need to lose myself in the story for twenty-­four hours, my husband always offers to take the kids. And without the knowledge of my husband's stepfather and father, this book would not be the same! Thank you to Larry Blair for his insights into the helicopter logging industry. Robert Tormey, you have my heartfelt gratitude for sharing your knowledge about firearms and Oregon shooting ranges. Any mistakes are my own.

Thank you to Jill Marsal at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency for your continued support. Amanda Bergeron, I feel so blessed to work with such a talented editor. And to everyone at Avon—­thank you for your continued support!

While researching this story, I discovered the Women Veterans Interactive, a nonprofit founded to meet all women veterans at their specific points of need. The stories and statistics shared on their site inspired Lena's character. To learn more, please visit womenveteransinteractive.org. 

 

Chapter 1


T
HIRTY M
I
N
U
T
E
S
,

L
E
N
A
murmured. “That has to be a record.”

Lena Clark stared at the Cascade Mountains, the postcard-­perfect backdrop to the backyard barbecue on the verge of turning into a full-­blown party. Hero, her golden retriever, sat at her feet by the man-­made pond in Eric Moore's yard. Although the cleared field behind the sprawling timber-­framed structure, home to the owner of the largest timber operation in Oregon, could hardly be classified as a “yard.” Inside the Portland city limits, where she'd lived on and off for the past six years—­more off than on, really, due to training and deployments—­­people had the traditional postage stamp–size grassy areas behind their homes.

But she'd escaped Portland. And landed in Independence Falls, hoping to find her way to normal. Now she was thirty minutes closer.

“I talked to half the ­people here,” Lena continued, her fingers brushing her dog's golden fur. Hero's ears perked up, his head cocked to one side in what she'd come to think of as his I'm-­listening expression. A stuffed yellow duck, the doggie toy she'd bought to keep him from chewing on furniture, hung from his mouth. “I mingled without running away and hiding.”

She hadn't shaken a single hand, and Hero had been by her side the entire time, but she wasn't looking for major breakthroughs or big victories. At twenty-­eight, she knew a war was not won overnight. It took time, bravery, and determination. She possessed all of those things. Even if she had lost more than she liked to admit on the battlefield—­like the ability to let anyone get close to her.

“Hey, Lena. Are you OK?”

She turned at the sound of Katie Summers's voice, glancing past her friend to the crowd gathered on the blue stone patio. “Fine. I just needed some space from the party.”

And a chance to talk to her dog . . .

OK, so maybe normal was still out of reach.

“Georgia told me that you were looking for a place to stay,” Katie said.

“Just for a night, maybe two. I'm planning to find my own apartment soon.” Along with a job and her equilibrium. “But I wanted to give Georgia and Eric some space seeing as Nate is visiting his grandmother.”

“You think they might get down and dirty on the kitchen table while the three-­year-­old is out of town?”

“Yes. I do.” Lena looked up the hill. Eric stood behind Georgia, his arms wrapped around her waist, holding her close against his body. Georgia held a beer in one hand, her other reaching back, brushing against Eric's leg as if she had to touch him. The kitchen table would only be the beginning for those two—­if their home was free and clear of a guest who moved in for a ­couple of nights, and more than a week later, still hadn't left.

“The apartment over our barn is yours for as long as you need it,” Katie said.

“Your brothers won't mind?” Lena slipped her hands into the hidden pockets in her long halter dress. Katie still lived with her three older brothers on their family farm. Granted, Josh, the youngest of the three, was in the hospital right now recuperating from a logging accident that had landed him in a coma. But Chad and Brody might object to Katie lending out the apartment to an almost-­stranger. Lena hadn't met Chad yet, but she knew the family was close and the brothers were protective of their little sister.

Liam Trulane, Georgia's older brother and the man head-­over-­heels in love with Katie, might not like the idea either. “And you don't need it?”

“Liam and I have other plans,” Katie said. “Far away from my brothers' watchful eyes. There is a spare key under a rock to the left of the door. Once you're inside, move it to the right and take the key upstairs with you. That is the in-­use signal.”

“But Hero—­”

Katie's expression turned serious. “Lena, I would never ask you to leave Hero behind. He's welcome in the apartment too.”

Lena felt a rush of relief. The thought of leaving her golden retriever outside, even for a night, sent her barreling toward panic. “Thank you.”

“You're welcome. Maybe I'll see you tomorrow? Georgia and I were planning to take a hike. Nothing crazy. I made her promise.”

“Sure.” Lena knew all about Georgia's need for adventure, the drive that had followed Georgia home from a war zone. And Lena understood it too. Probably more than most, even if she didn't share the same pull. PTSD refused to follow a linear, predetermined path. Nightmares and survivor's guilt haunted Georgia. Those symptoms were on Lena's list, but anxiety topped the chart.

In Lena's shattered world, every little touch triggered fear. If her ex or one of her friends wrapped an arm around her, took her hand, or pulled her into a hug, she would brace for an attack. Fear would build until panic won. And afterward, once it receded, she'd sink further into depression, cutting herself off from the world around her.

Anxiety had become her constant companion, leading her to an isolated place. Until she'd decided to do something about it, entering therapy and finding the golden retriever lying at her feet, gnawing on a stuffed dog toy.

Katie turned to head up the hill. Lena watched, wondering if she should go back to the party and try for another thirty minutes. She scanned the group of ­people mingling and drinking—­and spotted him.

Jeans and a button-­down flannel shirt hugged his body, not too tight, but enough to suggest that this man had muscles begging to be touched. He raised a hand, running it through his short, wavy brown hair. Everything about him screamed for hands-­on exploration. That chiseled jaw, the light dusting of stubble as if he hadn't shaved in a day, the way he smiled . . .

Lena drew a sharp breath and tried to look away. But her brain short-­circuited and her eyes refused. His sex appeal flowed down the grassy slope like rushing water. And if she weren't careful it would sweep her off her feet, and leave her fighting for air. Looking at him, she wished the road to normal led straight to orgasms.

He turned his head and their gazes met across the empty space. And she swore his warm, I-­promise-­you'll-­like-­me-­if-­you-­get-­to-­know-­me grin touched his eyes.

Lena dropped her gaze to the ground, breaking the contact. He wasn't touching her, not even close. But that smile . . .

She turned to face the water. It was better not to look at what she couldn't have. And that man—­he was one giant step beyond thirty minutes of small talk.

S
O
M
E
T
IMES BEAUTY KNOCKED
a man on his ass, leaving him damn near desperate for a taste, a touch, and hopefully a round or two between the sheets—­or tied up in them. The knockout blonde with the large golden retriever at her feet took the word “beautiful” to a new level.

Chad Summers stared at her, unable to look away or dim the smile on his face. He usually masked his interest better, stopping short of looking like he was begging for it before learning a woman's name. But this mysterious beauty had special written all over her.

She stared at him, her gaze open and wanting. For a heartbeat. Then she turned away, her back to the party as she stared out at Eric Moore's pond.

Her hair flowed in long waves down her back. One look left him wishing he could wrap his hand around her shiny locks and pull. His gaze traveled over her back, taking in the outline of gentle curves beneath her flowing, and oh-­so-­feminine, floor-­length dress. Chad had nothing against jeans on a woman. But he loved clothes that offered access to a woman's legs. The thought of the beauty's long skirt decorating her waist propelled him into motion. Chad headed in her direction, moving away from the easy, quiet conversation about God-­knew-­what on the patio.

He appreciated the fact that Eric Moore—­who'd recently become his boss/business partner after Moore Timber bought the Summers Family Trucking business—­had decided to throw a party celebrating Chad's little brother's return to the land of awake and alert. But the laid-­back gathering lacked excitement. Music. Dancing. Something more than a small group of ­people he'd known most of his life—­three dozen at most—­drinking beers and eating burgers.

The blonde, a mysterious stranger in a sea of familiar faces, might be the spark this party needed. He was a few feet away when the dog abandoned his post at her side and cut Chad off. Either the golden retriever was protecting his owner, or the animal was in cahoots with the familiar voice calling his name.

“Chad Summers!”

The blonde turned at the sound, looking first at him, her blue eyes widening as if surprised at how close he stood, and then at her dog. From the other direction, a familiar face with short black hair—­Susan maybe?—­marched toward him.

Without a word, Maybe Susan stopped by his side and raised her glass. With a dog in front of him, trees to one side, and an angry woman on his other, there was no escape.

“Hi there.” He left off her name just in case he'd guessed wrong, but offered a warm, inviting smile. Most women fell for that grin, but if Maybe Susan had at one time—­and seeing her up close, she looked very familiar, though he could swear he'd never slept with her—­she wasn't falling for it today.

She poured the cool beer over his head, her mouth set in a firm line. “That was for my sister. Susan Lewis? You spent the night with her six months ago and never called.”

Chad nodded, silently grateful he hadn't addressed the pissed-­off woman by her sister's name. “My apologies, ma'am.”

“You're a dog,” Susan's sister announced. The animal at his feet stepped forward as if affronted by the comparison.

“For the past six months, my little sister has talked about you, saving every article about your family's company,” the angry woman continued.

Whoa . . . Yes, he'd taken Susan Lewis out once and they'd ended the night back at his place, but he could have sworn they were on the same page. Hell, he'd heard her say the words,
I'm not looking for anything serious
, and he'd believed her. It was one freaking night. He didn't think he needed signed documents that spelled out his intentions and hers.

“She's practically built a shrine to you,” she added, waving her empty beer cup. “Susan was ready to plan your wedding.”

“Again, I'm sorry, but it sounds like there was a miscommunication.” Chad withdrew a bandana from his back pocket, one that had belonged to his father, and wiped his brow. “But wedding bells are not in my future. At least not anytime soon.”

The angry sister shook her head, spun on her heels, and marched off.

Chad turned to the blonde and offered a grin. She looked curious, but not ready to run for the hills. “I guess I made one helluva first impression.”

“Hmm.” She glanced down at her dog as if seeking comfort in the fact that he stood between them.

“I'm Chad Summers.” He held out his hand—­the one part of his body not covered in beer.

“You're Katie's brother.” She glanced briefly at his extended hand, but didn't take it.

He lowered his arm, still smiling. “Guilty.”

“Lena.” She nodded to the dog. “That's Hero.”

“Nice to meet you both.” He looked up the hill. Country music drifted down from the house. Someone had finally added some life to the party. ­Couples moved to the beat on the blue stone patio, laughing and drinking under the clear Oregon night sky. In the corner, Liam Trulane tossed logs into a fire pit.

“After I dry off,” Chad said, turning back to the blonde, “how about a dance?”

“No.”

Chad waited for an excuse, expecting a lie—­her dog would be lonely or she had a boyfriend. That latter one, lie or not, would send him on his way. But she didn't say another word.

He stepped toward her, as close as the dog would allow. He was close enough to smell her floral scent. It was too faint for a perfume, most likely her soap. There was a hint of lavender and a touch of honey. As if the sight of her wasn't enough, the smell made him want to taste her. He leaned in, a fraction of an inch, nothing more. But the next thing he knew, her dog was pushing at his legs.

“Hero is protective of my space.” Lena's voice had a breathless quality that suggested maybe this time she wished her dog would butt out. Or maybe that was his imagination.

Chad moved back, looking at the golden retriever with renewed interest. For a breed with a reputation for being kind and friendly, this one looked as if he was debating dropping his chew toy and sinking his teeth into Chad's leg.

“So what brings you two to Independence Falls?” he asked, keeping one eye on Hero.

“Georgia offered me a place to stay. While I get back on my feet.”

“Between jobs?” The rest of the country might be headed toward recovery, but rural Oregon was still suffering high unemployment. A lot of ­people around here were doing their best to “get back on their feet.”

“I guess you could say that,” she said.

She didn't give an inch. And hell, he liked that. Rocking back on his heels, Chad pretended to think. “What did you do before? I might know someone who is looking.”

“It doesn't matter,” she said. “I can't go back to it.”

“Being a model is that tough?” He offered her a teasing look that he knew for a fact helped separate women from their panties.

Lena raised an eyebrow. “I wouldn't know. And you can drop the sweet-­talking act.”

“You'd prefer I talk dirty?” Chad cocked his head, studying her. There it was. A spark of interest in her blue eyes. But she hid it quickly.

“I've spent most of my life on army bases. I'm betting you don't have anything I haven't heard before.”

BOOK: Hero by Night
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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