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FREE preview Friday

Get a SNEAK PEEK of my upcoming O’Connells novel!

 April 16, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Happy weekend, all!  It’s Preview Friday, and I’ve got your first peek at the next O’Connells novel, THE GIRL NEXT DOOR!  This upcoming release is due out at the end of this month, but you can read Chapter 1 here today.  And check out THE MISSING FATHER, now in audio format with FREE Audible codes, plus a BookSweeps giveaway.  Have a wonderful weekend!  –Lorhainne 

The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door

Romance and suspense collide in this haunting romantic thriller. When special forces operator Luke O’Connell meets a woman he never expected to see again, he uncovers the dangerous secret she is hiding and realizes the lengths someone will go to stop him from uncovering the truth.

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Chapter 1

Small and intimate was how Luke would have described Tessa and Owen’s backyard, with its flowers, garden, and privacy. The wedding had been for just close friends and family. He had never seen his brother so happy, and as he leaned on the bar and watched a family he was finding it harder and harder to feel part of, he had to remind himself that his being alone wasn’t his brother’s fault.

“You’re pretty quiet over here, drinking your beer, saying nothing, watching everyone.”

He turned to take in Jack, his brother-in-law, who was now the governor of Montana. Four state troopers were present, one at the back gate, another in the yard over by Karen, and two in the small house. He knew that had to be giving the neighbors a lot to talk about. Jack lifted his hand as one of the troopers walked out of the house and over to him, then whispered something.

Jack wore his black suit as if it had been made for him. If Luke had been a girl, he’d have given his brother-in-law a second and third look, too. Jack wasn’t as tall as he was, but he thought he might be prettier.

“Just enjoying a beer, Jack,” he said.

Jack pulled his gaze, wincing into the sun. By the tug at the corners of his lips, Luke wasn’t sure whether he was trying not to laugh or had something else on his mind, likely some humor at his expense. The trooper had walked off and now stood at the back door.

“I see you came alone, no girl on your arm,” Jack said. He held a tumbler of bourbon, he thought. His one drink of the night, evidently, or maybe he’d live it up and have two.

Luke didn’t even grunt, and he didn’t pull his gaze. “Nope.” He lifted his beer and downed the rest before putting the bottle on the bar and reaching behind it to pull another from a bucket of ice. He twisted off the cap and heard the sigh from Jack.

“You know everyone feels bad over what happened with Rosemary…”

There it was, that feeling, that sense of discomfort that settled right in the pit of his stomach. No one would let it go, yet he had. He allowed his gaze to settle on Jack with the practiced warning he gave to anyone who risked ending up on his wrong side.

“Is that why you came over, to counsel me about coming solo today?” Luke said. “All my siblings are now married, so should I have dragged some woman along with me? At least then you’d all be happy. Sure, I could have brought a plus one, but there would’ve been questions, a lot of questions, from my nosy family, and the poor girl doing me a favor would have been running before Owen and Tessa even said ‘I do.’ I’m not seeing anyone, am not involved, and don’t plan on being so anytime soon. Rosemary couldn’t have worked, anyway, so you just tell everyone to back off and let themselves off the hook. That was a momentary lapse, thinking someone like me could have something that resembled normal. Being a team guy, I know I can’t have a girl waiting at home.”

He let the words hang. Did the amusement on Jack’s face mean he wasn’t buying any of what Luke was saying or something else? That had been the most words Luke had strung together in a conversation with anyone in a long time.

“You know, you can keep telling everyone you’re not meant for a relationship, but I know better than anyone that’s not true,” Jack said. “You should know that your sisters are likely going to take matters into their own hands. Just a heads-up.”

He just stared at Jack, who was now leaning on the bar, staring into his tumbler. Something about the way he said it sounded like a warning. He knew something.

“And what matters would those be?”

From across the garden, his sister Suzanne was making a beeline over to them. Her long dirty-blond hair was wavy and styled, and her swelling belly in her gold and white maternity dress meant she was closer to having the baby than not. Harold, her husband of forty-five days, was following her .

“Oh, they figure they need to help you along toward happiness,” Jack said. “You know your sisters.”

Suzanne slid up beside him, linked her arm in his, and looked at his beer fondly. “You know, being pregnant, I absolutely miss that ice-cold beer. The taste…”

Luke just lifted a brow and glanced over to Harold. The man had been summoned and was evidently following orders, having reluctantly walked over for a friendly chat. His little sister did have a habit of getting her way.

“Well, you can just live vicariously through me as I enjoy this,” Luke said. “So Jack was just giving me a heads-up that you and Karen are up to something, planning on sticking your noses into my life and doing something I’m not going to like. You know my life is my life. Don’t be thinking you can fix me or—”

“Jack, you weren’t supposed to say anything,” Suzanne said. “Anyway, she’s a nice girl. You’ll like her. And it was Marcus who brought it up, so you can’t give me and Karen all the credit. In fact, I think it was Jenny who mentioned it to Ryan first, or was it Tessa?”

His sister looked over to Harold. Now he knew why the man seemed so uncomfortable. He only lifted his gaze in a way that made Luke feel positive he didn’t want to answer. “No idea, Suzanne. But Luke is right. You can’t be trying to set your brother up. I told you before that this will backfire. Sorry, Luke. I told her. I’m just a bystander.” He was holding a beer, his suit jacket gone and his white dress shirt sleeves rolled up.

Luke took in the wedding ring on his sister’s finger, remembering the courthouse ceremony, five minutes to say “I do,” sign the certificate, and walk out of City Hall. It had been quick, efficient, and nothing like the super romantic backyard celebration of his big brother. He hadn’t expected this from Owen, but then, he really was head over heels for Tessa. Apparently, a guy would do anything for the girl he loved.

“I don’t need you to find me a girl, Suzanne.” Luke lifted his beer and took a swallow, then spotted Karen in a silky red dress that showed off all her curves. He didn’t know who she was talking to, but her laughter drifted his way. His mom and dad were across the yard, too, with Alison and Bennett. The rest of the family and a handful of friends had turned this small and intimate event into the kind of party that should have made him happy. And he was happy—for Owen.

Suzanne was still holding his arm. “No, I’m sure you don’t, but humor us, okay? Because sometimes we just know better. I think you’ll agree when you meet her, and you’ll actually thank us for sticking our noses into your life and wanting to fix you up.” She fisted her hand and punched his arm playfully in that way of hers, though she really could pack a punch if she wanted to.

Harold lifted his gaze as if he’d already heard this, whereas Jack, he thought, was doing his best not to laugh at his expense. Luke stared down at his sister again, thinking she had too much time on her hands.

“You think you know what I need in my life more than I do? If we’re sticking our noses into each other’s lives, when is it my turn? I mean, you’re due in a few weeks, and then what? Are you staying home to raise the baby? I guess that would be a win-win for Harold, wouldn’t it? Kind of every guy’s dream, having a barefoot housewife who’ll have dinner ready for him when he gets home, keep his house clean, fetch his slippers, and not talk back.”

Suzanne was staring daggers back at him. He knew full well which buttons to push and exactly what to say. Harold said nothing, though alarm flashed in his eyes, and he lifted his hands and stepped back as if wanting to take cover before the sparks flew.

Suzanne hissed, giving him a snarl that wiped her smile away. “You’re such an asshole sometimes,” she snapped.

“You know what?” Harold said. “I think I hear Marcus calling me.” Apparently, he had been smart enough not to wade into that dangerous territory with Suzanne, and he stepped back farther as if he couldn’t believe Luke had brought it up.

Jack still appeared amused and was now shaking his head.

“Don’t try spinning this back on me,” Suzanne said. “You think I’m not used to how you fight, low and dirty? You toss out fighting words that you know will get under my skin and have me wanting to scratch your eyes out, except you know I’m more likely to slug you… Are you trying to mess with my head? Seriously, Luke, I’m not biting, not today. Tomorrow is a different story, though. Now I’m even more determined to mess with your life.

“And just FYI, after the baby is born, Mom and Charlotte have both said they’re willing to step in and help out when I get back to work. And I will, because I’ve talked to Marcus several times about joining the department. He brushed me off the first three times, saying he can’t hire me because I’m family, and Harold and I are married, but I pointed out to him that Charlotte worked there even after he and she were married. There’s always the option of being a paramedic, or I could get back my job as a firefighter…”

Luke couldn’t believe she’d said that. “The fire department you were fired from is not going to take you back, Suzanne,” he said.

Even Jack, who was a master of not showing what he was thinking, seemed surprised. He was now leaning on the bar and hadn’t pulled his gaze from Suzanne. Luke could see his sister was still figuring things out. She’d really loved being a firefighter, but the politics had already decided she had to go.

“Look, I’ve heard over and over from Harold that there’s no chance they’ll take me back, but I’m persistent, and there is always a way. Yes, they scapegoated me, but I’m made of stronger stuff, persistence. I’ll work the next department over. I’ve already reached out to the chief, and I still know people there, so I’m not about to take no for an answer. You can stop pushing my buttons with this 1950s ‘back to the kitchen’ thing. You think I don’t know what you’re doing, Luke, trying to spin this back on me so I’m not fixing you up? Well, it won’t work, because she’s already here.”

He knew he was frowning, and he realized Jack wasn’t surprised. He seemed to already know what was up. A smile had inched its way back into Suzanne’s expression as if she was going to make this suddenly painful for him…

“She’s here—like, in this backyard, at this wedding?”

Suzanne was really smiling now. She only nodded. Another glance to Jack, and he could see he knew who the girl in question was.

Luke found himself scanning the people, his family, Owen and Tessa’s friends, then looked back to Suzanne. “And you…what, want to introduce me and expect some happily ever after? I’ll pass.”

She tapped his arm and then was somehow pulling him. Damn! For a pregnant woman, she was strong.

“Suzanne, what the hell…?” was all he said, letting his sister lead him across the yard. He spotted Marcus, the best man, dressed in a dark suit, his tie loosened, smiling as if he knew, too. So was Charlotte, wearing a frilly sleeveless blue dress.

“Oh, you just hush up and be nice,” Suzanne said.

Ahead of them, Ryan wore a navy suit, standing beside Jenny, with her long dark hair hanging in soft curls. He stepped back to reveal the woman they were talking with, who had short red hair.

“Misty, this is my brother Luke, the one I was telling you about,” Suzanne said as they approached.

She looked up, slender, short, wearing a soft green short-sleeved dress that hugged her curves. Luke felt that off feeling he’d had too many times before, taking in those full lips, her oval face, and those eyes, honey gold, a color he’d never forget. Her smile was there one minute, gone the next.

He just stared at her, remembering well the weekend they’d shared together. He felt someone slap his back, one of his brothers, and knew everyone was watching them.

“This is Misty Bates, Tessa and Owen’s neighbor and friend,” Jenny said.

Luke hadn’t looked away. Misty hesitated and then seemed to pull herself together, holding out her delicate small hand. There was that smile again, with those dimples he remembered fondly.

“Hi, Luke. I’ve heard a lot about you from your family. It’s nice to meet you.”

So she was playing the game, not wanting anyone to catch on that they had already met. He could call her out or play along. He touched her hand, holding it, and hesitated, feeling the warmth and the unease. Evidently, she wasn’t about to come clean.

“Since my family doesn’t know how to stay out of my business, how about we get a drink and exchange numbers?” he said.

He thought it was Marcus who made a rude noise. Luke somehow manoeuvred Misty back to the bar, where Jack was no longer standing, holding out his arm as he walked with her. She wore killer heels, which showed off legs he remembered well.

One, two, three… He had counted their footsteps in his head until they were far enough away from everyone. The tall, lanky bartender was opening a bottle of red wine and glanced at her, saying, “What can I get you?”

“I’ll have a glass of that red,” she said.

Luke waited for the bartender to pour it. “You know what I remember, Misty, about the last time I saw you?”

She stood so stiffly, lifting her chin as she flicked those eyes at him. He swore he could get lost in them. She said nothing for a moment as she took the glass from the bartender and sipped. “Okay, I’ll bite,” she replied. “What?”

Luke waited for the bartender to walk away, well aware that everyone in his family was watching them. “One of the best no-strings weekends of my life. But I never expected to see you again. Small world, Misty. Greece is a long way from Livingston.”

She only nodded. “It is, at that. So tell me, Luke, when did you join the military? Because I’m pretty sure that when we spent the weekend together, I knew you as a man named Henry who worked for a software company in California, not as Luke O’Connell.”

It had been during one of his missions on the other side of the world, when he played the role of someone else. He really hadn’t expected to see her again.

“Well, I guess you know I lied. Should I apologize?” He knew he sounded like an asshole.

She lifted a brow. “For lying about who you were or for the no-strings weekend? If I recall, we both agreed. Sure, I could be angry, but instead, let’s stand here for a few more minutes and pretend to talk while I drink my wine, and then I’ll make my way back over to your family and make my excuses, tell them I’m not interested, that you’re not my type or something like that.” She was so damn matter of fact.

And she was giving him an out. But there was just something about her, something that seemed different from the woman he had spent that weekend with in Plaka.

“Does that mean you’re not up for another no-strings weekend?” he said.

She could have slapped him. Instead, she pulled in a breath and seemed to consider something, lifting her glass to her lips.

Suzanne strode over and slid her hand over Misty’s arm before she could answer him. “So are you two hitting it off?” she said.

Of course his sister couldn’t leave it alone. The smile was pasted back on Misty’s face now, the one that reminded him of a nice girl, but he realized that easy smile was only a front.

She let out a soft laugh. “Luke is great. It was really nice to put a face to the name after all I’ve heard. But I’m going to make my way back…” She gestured behind her to where Ryan, Jenny, Charlotte, and Marcus were, then lowered her wine and started walking away.

That left him and Suzanne, who was now staring daggers his way again. “What did you say to her, Luke?”

He just took in his sister, then lifted his beer, watching as Misty talked with Jenny and Charlotte. When she looked his way, he realized maybe there was a reason she didn’t want anyone to know they’d already met. There was just something about her…

“We just chatted for a minute, Suzanne, until you interrupted,” he said.

Suzanne frowned and tapped his arm. “Do you need me to drag you back over there?”

He only shook his head and looked back over to Misty, who was laughing at something Charlotte had said. He knew when a woman was avoiding looking his way. What was it about her? It seemed secrets and lies were just what he attracted.

“Nope,” he said. “I already told you I’m not looking for a relationship, Suzanne, and she’s not really my type.” He hoped she would drop it.

“So what exactly is your type, Luke?”

There it was, the million-dollar question. All he did was lift his beer and take another swallow as he realized Misty Bates was looking right at him.


Now on Audio

THE MISSING FATHER

Narrated by John Mo

Luke’s questions have brought trouble back with him onto US soil, all the way to his hometown—and ultimately, his quest might put his family in the line of fire.

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