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Ryan's Story

Ryan Collins is ready for more. A more fulfilling career, a more permanent connection to his soulmate, a future brighter than his troubled past. But something is holding him back--and it's not just that he's a star witness in a court case against dangerous criminals. With so much change coming his way, and so many emotional scars to overcome, is he as ready for a happily ever after with Emily as he thought he was?


Damn if he knew, but putting a continent between himself and Emily might give him the answer.

Chapter 1


Ryan hunkered on the edge of the chintz-covered armchair, sliding his socked feet into his Chelsea boot’s burnished leather. Like most of the furnishings inside the home, he guessed the time-worn piece had experienced its glory days somewhere in the mid-seventies. His girlfriend, Emily, inherited the home from her aunt and had yet to do any remodeling, but personally, Ryan found the hominess of it oddly charming.

Outside, a palette of magnificent orange and gold spread on the horizon, indicating one of those summerlike days that could pop up in Kentucky in late September. His photographer’s eye couldn’t wait to get some scenery shots. The energetic backyard chatter of animated songbirds chirped and trilled through the open window, a much more appreciated sound than the buses and sirens of New York.

It was good to be home.

Across the hall, the bathroom door opened and slapped shut. About to thrust his right foot into the boot, he glanced up when Emily hobbled into the bedroom with her left leg in the clunky walking boot, a t-shirt bra, and boy short panties, her damp hair twisted up and kept together by a large clip.

Their eyes met in a muted exchange. Are you all right?

A slight rise of Emily’s eyebrows and a nod of her head acknowledged his unspoken question. Her gaze jumped to the open window.

“It’s going to be a gorgeous day.” She smiled. The gentle breeze of crisp morning air gave her goosebumps. She rubbed her arms as she moved toward the antique walnut dresser next to his chair.

Though she hadn’t responded directly to what rested on his mind, her full smile revealed she’d taken a giant step toward emotional healing.

Leaning into the chair, he gave her a mental high five. With a slow exhale, his pent-up tension released. Yes, Emily would be all right… eventually. Despite her lovely smile, he suspected it would take some time to close the emotional scars.

Just three days ago, Emily and Ryan had poked their noses into some hazardous dealings they had no business investigating, but as the old saying goes, desperate times called for desperate measures. Nipping on the heels of a dogfighting operation on Joseph Maynard’s property certainly fit the definition of desperate. In hindsight, staking out an old barn on the outskirts of town like a pair of seasoned sleuthhounds hadn’t been a bright idea. Of course, they had cooked up an exit plan should they have to break away in a hot minute. Only their strategy collapsed under a mountain of danger neither of them could have expected. In an instant, Emily had vanished.

Sucked into a black void.

Abducted.

Tucked inside in a single-wide trailer and tied to a ratty bed by her captor.

While Emily tried to escape her bonds, Ryan frantically searched every dip in the terrain for a clue that would aid in finding her. Fortunately, a police task force swooped in under the cover of darkness. After it was all over and the operation shut down, the police had apprehended a drug bust that shocked Oak Creek’s citizens to their root.

“Did you sleep all right?” Emily asked, carving through his pensive thoughts.

Threading his fingers behind his neck, Ryan offered her a pleasant smile.

“Well, babe, you didn’t hear that steam engine rolling through the room last night?”

“No, I didn’t,” Emily huffed, tossing him a blazing glare.

Last night, he’d shaken her out of a nightmare once, so when she sawed logs like a master woodcutter, he only tapped her shoulder and couldn’t bear to wake her up when she continued to snore.

He teased, expecting to draw a ha-ha out of her. Instead, when she reached into the dresser drawer and flung something at him, he ducked, barely escaping a soft rubber ball. Who in their right mind kept rubber balls in a dresser? The ball rebounded, and Bentley, Emily’s oversized Newfoundland, charged into the room.

“Of course. Only you have balls in a dresser.” He snickered.

“Watch it, mister.” Emily looked over her shoulder with her eyebrows pulled into a solid line, but a cheeky smile tugged at her mouth. “Tell me again the soft rhythm of my breathing sounds like a freight train, and I’ll be delighted to arrange your balls next to Bentley’s.”

“Ouch.” Ryan frowned, though he loved the lighthearted banter. “I go for keeping them right where they are, babe, and if you want me to stick around another night, we can’t have them hopping around in a drawer.”

Emily rolled her eyes.

He finger-combed his black waves, wiggling a brow. Yes, her sassy attitude was coming back, and it eased his mind.

Her back turned to Ryan, Emily rummaged through a drawer, plucked out a t-shirt, and held it up for inspection. I can & I will, the imprint read.

“Yep... this is perfect,” she said, looking at the shirt as if it held magic powers.

Ryan didn’t miss the pep zinging in her tone or the purpose ringing in her voice. He saw the steadfast resolution in the curve of her spine, and his rib cage melted with relief. This spunky woman slipped into his once die-hard bachelor heart just a little over a month ago. She’d been through a lot, and he wanted to support her any way he could.

He was falling fast.

“Excellent choice, baby,” he said when she turned her back to the dresser, then stepped away with the shirt in her hand. When she was next to his chair, his hands circled her waist and drew her onto his lap before the t-shirt slipped over her head.

“Ryan!” Emily shrieked, giving him a playful slap. “I need to get dressed.”

Destiny had given her one shitty hand on the heels of another, but this morning, Emily appeared determined to seize the day. This was a fork in the road, and something bright spiked his blood like an extra shot of oxygen. As she wiggled out of his grasp and bounced to her feet, the memories of what she’d encountered rushed into his mind and twisted his stomach anew.

Although her gutsy resilience astounded him, Emily went through hell and back at the hands of Joe Maynard—a gambling, wife-beating, and drug-dealing criminal. He had stalked and trapped her after catching her snooping on his farm. On top of the drug dealing, the creep regularly provided a secure place for local dogfighters—it was all quite surreal for the little town of Oak Creek.

Nightmares followed them both, Emily the most. Ryan had been at a loss, trying to figure out how to help her get past this ordeal. Did she want to talk about it? He’d probed, but she shook her head, not wanting to go there. He mentioned professional counseling, and she shut him down. Stubborn to a fault, Emily had stashed her feelings until last night—when the lid blew off and the veneer of her soul cracked. She’d broken down at last. The minute he understood what was taking place, his heart felt like a pincushion, pricked by thousands of needles at once.

They’d been watching TV, an old Friends episode, the one where a co-worker ate Ross’s sandwich, and Ross wasn’t happy about it. He hadn’t noticed the wetness on Emily’s cheek until she suddenly flung an arm around his waist and planted her face in his chest. Everything she’d tightly wrapped on the inside for two days gushed out in great, shaking sobs as streams of water flooded from her eyes.

Why or what in this episode had triggered the meltdown, he had no clue. Was it the drama Ross made about the sandwich? Not that Ryan cared what caused her to crash. The release was a balm to Emily’s fractured soul. Although he paid little attention to psychiatric babble, he perceived while she was coming unglued, she was also dealing with her darkest emotions.

He’d folded her into his arms and rubbed circles on her back until the hiccups abated and her body quit shaking. Never had he felt so powerless or so guilty. Christ, why had he even contemplated the harebrained notion of playing amateur sleuth? He admitted getting into a few stupid situations in his time, but he’d failed Emily, and that sat on his mind like a ton of bricks. Had he paid closer attention to his surroundings, Joe would have been a hurting son of a bitch before he had a chance to set his grubby hands on her.

Fuck… none of this should have happened.

After Emily had been examined at the ER, a nurse gave her a mild sedative. Once he took her home and she’d settled into bed, he’d made it clear until she was ready to boot him out, she wouldn’t have to spend a single night alone in the big house, but after three nights of getting little shuteye, Ryan was antsy to collapse in his own bed again. Like the chair he was sitting in, the mattress on Emily’s bed was as lumpy as a straw sack, and his back ached. Since her aunt had passed away in August, Emily had changed nothing inside the ancient farmhouse she’d inherited six weeks ago.

“You and Bentley could hang out at my house until—” he added, turning serious.

“No, Ry.” Emily whirled on her heels, cutting off his words. “I’ll be fine,” she smiled, softening her tone. I’m grateful you spent the last three days and nights with me, but I know you have things to do. Work for one. I understand it’s more difficult to work away from home, as you have.

“Don’t worry, Emily.”

“No, Ryan, I can’t let the memories of Joe get to me. I’ll be all right.” The striking deep hues of her cornflower eyes darkened as she clasped the t-shirt to her chest. Her gaze drilled into his.

Even though her voice carried strong, he sensed a vulnerability behind the declaration that sounded a little like a self-pep talk.

They’d been together since a car forced her off the road in late August, one week after she buried her aunt. He couldn’t have been prepared for the attraction he felt from the moment he carried her from the crashed vehicle. Maybe that was one reason he agreed to care for her dog while Emily recovered at the hospital. Afterward, their friendship grew, and instant chemistry blossomed. She rocked his world when mutual passion overrode his bachelor’s mind. For the past four weeks, they were inseparable. Filled with want, need, and the desire to spend all their time together, the romance was new, exciting, and intoxicating like a shot of fine bourbon. Although as close as they’d been, they were still testing boundaries, weighing the relationship.

“Emmy, you don’t have to be so tough on yourself.”

“Ryan.” Her voice was muffled as she pulled the shirt over her head. Tugging on the hem, Emily stepped to where Ryan sat with elbows on his thighs and propped her hand on her hip. “Honestly, I need to step out of this funk, so why not start today?”

He saw the conflicted emotions travel across her face, but she held her head at a defiant angle and jabbed a finger into the air.

“I can’t sneak around my home any longer, as if Joe wasn’t locked up.” With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed her hair behind her right ear. “I’d rather poke my eye out with an icepick than let this asshat slide under my skin

one more day… or night.” Damn right, Emily was coming back to her old self, stomping and kicking. Despite Joe’s savage abuse, the fear and pain hadn’t tamped out her fiercely independent spirit.

“All right, if you’re sure that’s what you want.” He gave her an encouraging smile. The image of Emily rising from the bottom of the emotional dumpster made him happy, though he was concerned this turnaround may be a bit too soon. Either way, it lifted the tension in his chest.

“Dang it, Ryan.” Heat colored her cheeks pink. “What happened at the barn can’t turn me into mush with fear. I won’t let it. Joe’s in jail, and I don’t want to think about him anymore. I won’t be a fearful, scared girl, afraid of her own shadow. I need to deal with this now before it gets the best of me.” As if to emphasize her point, she tossed a handful of hair over her shoulder. “Please, tell me you understand.”

“Emily, I understand, but maybe you should slow down a bit. I just want to be here for you, babe, if you need me.” Ryan guessed her fierce reaction came on the heels of his offer to stay another night. His warrior woman was captivating. With flames sputtering in her eyes, she looked so freaking sexy with her boy shorts peeking from under the t-shirt and the flush rising up her chest. She was driving him crazy.

Ryan wasn’t so sure he wanted to sleep without Emily snuggling into him tonight, but he accepted her need to mark a turning point.

Emily’s show of temper exhausted as swiftly as it had flared. With a lift of her chin, the beginning of a smile tipped the corners of her mouth.

“I’m sorry, Ry, I just lost it for a second. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me. Forgive me? I just want to get this nightmare behind me.” She nodded toward Bentley, who’d spread out in his corner spot. “I will admit, though, I feel better having my security guard sleeping right next to me.”

Ryan speculated whether she was trying to reassure him or herself.

“Okay, Ryan, what’s with the grin? What’s so funny?”

A gleam stole into his eyes. “You, babe.” Mindful of her bandaged wrists, he drew her back onto his lap with strong but gentle hands.

“Ry,” she yelped, but this time, she wiggled her bottom and coiled into his embrace.

“Seriously, Emmy? Let me get this right,” he said, nuzzling her neck. “You’d rather sleep next to your hairy bodyguard than with me? How can you be so heartless?” Drawing back, he searched her eyes and feigned shock.

With the tension dissipated, Emily chuckled at his antics.

“I’m okay. I’m truly sorry for snapping at you. I just think there’s no better time than the present to get back on track. Besides, I know you have a lot of work to catch up on.”

“You’ll call me if you change your mind.” His fingers tenderly strummed across her back. “It’s not a question, Emmy,” he said when she just hummed.

“Okay,” she muttered.

His lips grazed her eyelids, and the lemony perfume of her hair, the scent of her heated skin, the feel of her delightful butt in his lap thickened his blood.

Since Friday, she’d slept curled against him, reaching out to him when he shifted aside a fraction. Finding consolation in the closeness, he supposed. While it was inviting to let his hands explore every fold of her smooth skin, the whimpers of her nightmares meant he’d merely kept her safe in his embrace. After hearing what Joe had planned for her on that seedy bed in his rundown trailer, he let her take the lead in intimacy. Despite that, when one hand glided to the back of his neck, and the tip of her finger traced the seam of his lips, his boxers tightened with the awareness she still craved him as much as he craved her.

Her lips parted, and a husky groan rumbled from a place deep inside him. His lips closed over hers and drew her into a slow, tender kiss. Their mouths were a perfect fit. He scraped his teeth along the delicious column of her neck, and a thousand volts of electricity sizzled through his veins as her low moan shivered against his skin.

Ryan rose from the chair, lifting Emily with him, and took two long strides to the bed, settling her onto the disheveled sheets they left less than an hour ago. Kicking off his boots and losing his jeans, he peeled the scanty garments off her body. Slow and tender as the kisses they shared, he entered her, his gaze dropping into the meadows of her cornflower eyes. In the unspoken language of lovemaking, he let her know this time was all about her. When Emily’s body tensed and his name shuddered from her lips, the pleasure pulsing through her entire being no doubt erased everything else from her mind.

Two hours and a pot of coffee later, he left Emily, doubting he could ever keep away from this gorgeous, feisty, and headstrong woman or that he even wished to. He’d fallen in love with Emily, and the words he thought would never cross his lips had slipped out in an unguarded moment.

As he slid behind the wheel of his Range Rover, a snarky voice rose from the depths of his soul, and for one beat of his heart, he wondered if he was good enough for this amazing woman.

***

At ten-fifteen that morning, Ryan traveled the short distance to the courthouse.

Tom Henley’s arraignment had been scheduled for eleven o’clock, and he was eager to hear if the judge considered Tom a flight risk and held him in jail or if he’d grant bail.

Not only had the police busted a notorious local dogfighting ring, but in the larger context of the raid, they’d exposed Joe’s property as a distribution point that would flood the surrounding rural areas with heroin and other illegal substances. Even though the raid at Maynard’s farm had been the thunderstorm on the ground, it was the arrest of the distinguished CPA Tom Henley that rotated through Oak Creek like a funnel cloud.

Tom had been cuffed and hauled off to jail.

Though Oak Creek wasn’t that tiny anymore, it was the type of town folks described as tranquil, sleepy, and historical. The place where one could step back in time and soak up small-town traditions, but Friday night’s police raid had cracked the foundation of this charming southern town wide open, leaking a putrid stench of greed and corruption.

Caught in the center of a long-kept secret, the news of Tom’s money-laundering role in the sleazy drug business spread with the speed of a tornado. At the breakfast table over bacon and eggs and at offices, barbershops, and coffeehouses all across town, Tom’s fate was the main topic of gossip. Suspicion ran rampant. Everyone had a theory why Tom had crossed the line to the dark side, though no one knew for sure. Ryan had never cared for the pompous fellow, but Tom was an outstanding accountant, and Ryan knew firsthand since he’d been his client.

Being at the wrong place at the wrong time had made Ryan a witness to the biggest drug seizure in Oak County. He’d testify in Henley’s trial… hell, he wanted to testify against that pretentious son of a bitch.

As swiftly as the news of Henley’s, Maynard’s, and a guy known as Little C’s arrests had blazed through town, a false sense of security settled over Oak Creek once more.

Inside the Justice Center, Ryan located the courtroom and walked into the subdued chatter of spectators. Local and major affiliate newspaper reporters crowded the room. He’d expected it. Still, Oak Creek had been plunged beyond the local spotlight, and the attention this perturbing news garnered seemed surreal.

As the number of reporters confirmed, Tom’s engagement in the drug and money-laundering operations was a dramatic development and an aspiring news reporter’s wet dream.

Ryan let his gaze drift across the room as he picked a seat on the last row of wooden benches. Besides the newshounds, he recognized a few familiar townsfolk. Yep, the circus had rolled into town.

In front of him, two gangly fellows slouched in their seats, their voices held to a whisper. Regardless of the background noise, Ryan unintentionally picked up a few fragments of their discussion. Students, most likely criminal justice, these real-life proceedings about to start with Henley’s imminent arraignment provided a much greater lecture than any textbook studies could. Without a doubt, this was a compelling case to follow.

Behind the rectangular oak table at the front of the room, Henley’s lawyer appeared busy poring over a file. What could he be so intently looking for as he waited for the proceedings to start? The fellow was unreadable. Calm and dissociated, he leafed through sheets of notes, unimpressed by the crowd behind him. It wasn’t long before a uniformed law enforcement officer escorted Tom into the courtroom.

Holy cow, how three days in jail had altered the CPA’s appearance. Ryan nearly didn’t recognize him. Gray skin against the orange jumpsuit made the man look sickly, and his mousy brown hair—stripped of the daily use of pomade—clung in dull strands to his scalp. Far from his smart image mere days ago, Tom looked even slighter than his five-foot plus a few inches implied.

As the electrical current of anticipation zapped through the courtroom, Ryan thought of Emily and her tremendous spunk and moxie, speculating how she would emotionally handle being a witness in Joe’s trial. It would ultimately come to that, and he was sure she’d find the wherewithal to send the bastard to jail with her testimony.

The chatter ended suddenly when the bailiff raised her voice and announced the judge’s entrance. The chatter ended suddenly when the bailiff raised her voice and announced the judge’s entrance. Feet shuffled as the chamber door opened, and everyone stood.

Proceedings started promptly. Tom Henley and his attorney pushed to their feet, their facial expressions as animated as wax figures. The judge explained the charges, and his attorney responded with, “Not guilty, Your Honor.”

Contempt coiled in Ryan’s gut, but he cautioned himself; even Tom was innocent until found guilty, though Ryan knew different. He’d been at the site of the crime and had captured the man’s involvement with his camera. Ryan was one-thousand percent positive his pictures, along with his witness statement, would assist the prosecution in getting the maximum prison time for Tom. He almost felt something like pity for the accountant.

To Ryan, the entire court session was dry and seemed rehearsed. He guessed the procedures were much the same in all instances, no matter the extent of the crime. Surprise registered with a low-pitched gasp when the judge awarded bail and set the full cash bond at $100,000. Just like that, the hearing was over, and the police officer led Tom out of the room.

Drawing the key fob from his jeans pocket, Ryan passed through the automated glass doors of the courthouse. In the parking lot, someone bumped into him, causing him to stumble.

“Hey, watch it!” Ryan said, twisting around. Instinct immediately flashed bad news.

A dude, thin and wiry, his black eyes shifty, crowded his space. Whoa! No accident. Clad in all black, the stranger sported several tattoos on his shaved skull, scrawny neck, and left side of his face. Gang tattoos? Ryan knew little about that sort of thing, and although there had been no known groups of thugs in their small town, anything was possible. Coal-black eyes glinted and flicked ominously.

Had this guy been inside the courthouse? Ryan didn’t think so. He would have stuck out like a raven among a flock of sparrows. With Ryan’s mind on the indictment and not paying attention to others leaving the building with him, Tattoo Face had turned up out of nowhere.

“Eh, shutterbug, piece of advice—keep your trap shut.” The guy had the audacity to wink. “Know what I mean?”

He disappeared before Ryan got around to react, but not before he saw the coldness in the man’s dark, flickering eyes.

What the hell? Irritation spread like poison ivy, leaving Ryan baffled by the guy’s remarks. The muscles in his face tightened with anger. This dude had not smacked into him by mistake. Oh no, it was a clear warning concerning his testimony in Henley’s impending trial. Ryan’s witness statement would back up the prosecutor’s charges brought against Henley, and the photographs he’d taken would cement the case. Isn’t that what he’d thought less than two minutes ago? Awareness prickled his neck. This was an attempt to silence him—to keep him from testifying when Henley stood trial.

Ryan scanned the parking lot, but Tattoo Face had vanished.

Jesus, it wouldn’t have been difficult to identify Ryan as the guy who’d nearly blown the police raid. Damn the news outlets who’d named him and Emily in the same sentence with Joe and Tom. They’d put them in harm’s way unnecessarily. Ryan unlocked the Rover, puzzling over who the hell the tatted dude was and how he’d known Ryan would show up at court this morning.

Did it matter? Nope, but the strange encounter was beyond weird. Christ, Tom Henley didn’t even have a trial date yet. No two ways about it; when the prosecution called on him, he’d do his damnedest to help send Henley to a government-paid bed-and-breakfast. Emily flashed through his mind. Should he tell her? She’d testify in her own case against Joe Maynard, and sharing this incident with her would just scare her all over again.

No, the threat was directed at him—no sense worrying her when she’s just starting to feel back to herself. This was about Ryan and his case, so no, he wouldn’t bother Emily with it.

What people are saying

Others can tell you what the story is about. Here's what I have to say: OMG! I just wanted to get inside that story and slap some sense into Ryan! Get out of Africa already and go back to the woman you love.

— Gail Kamer

I love the down to earth dynamic in Ryan and Emily's storyline and love story. Interesting and believable, it was a fun read.

--Amazon Customer

— Louise

B. K. has taken so many elements of the real world and injected them into her book in such a way that you can imagine what happens the further you get into the story. Her characters pain and heartaches, their indecisions and determinations, the choices they make throughout everything they do pop off the page. We truly feel what they feel.

— N. Medina