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FREE preview Friday

Read the first five chapters of THE GIRL NEXT DOOR!

 April 21, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

This Preview Friday, read the entire first FIVE chapters of upcoming release THE GIRL NEXT DOOR!  This newest O’Connells novel will be available next week, but you can pre-order your copy today.  Also be sure to grab some FREE Audible codes below and check out the latest Authors XP book giveaway, too.  Happy weekend!  Best & be well– 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.

Chapter 2

He knew nervousness.

He knew avoidance.

And he knew Misty Bates had displayed both since the moment Suzanne walked him over, the moment they’d met again.

He watched the redhead from a distance as the night settled and the party wound down. The bride and groom had now left for their honeymoon in Grand Turk, a gift from all of them. It was a place he’d been too many times to count, but his brother and his new wife would see the areas tourists did, not the real island, which Luke and his team understood.

He carried the last of the dishes into the house and took in his mom, Alison, and Cassie as they put some order back into the kitchen. Ryan, Harold, and Marcus were still outside, drinking a beer and talking, whereas Charlotte was carrying a tired Cameron and leading Eva to the back door.

“Getting ready to leave?” Luke said. “The kids look like they’re done.”

She shot him a look. “Oh, this one is past tired.” She patted Cameron’s back as he rubbed his eyes. “Just going to grab Marcus. Time to takes these ones home and put them to bed. Oh, and it’s not too late, you know. Misty is getting ready to leave. Jenny is there with her. You should walk her home. It’s the gentlemanly thing to do.”

Cassie and Alison glanced his way, smiling, teasing, and he knew they wanted to add something. Charlotte glanced past him to the door, where Misty and Jenny were, and her brow crooked. His sisters and sisters-in-law had become quite the pack, trying to arrange his love life. She laughed softly before walking out back, where he spotted his dad and Brady heading around the side of the house. He wondered what that was about, but then, he hadn’t really had a chance to catch up with anyone before the wedding.

He took one step and then another to the front door, which was now open. Jenny was hugging Misty goodbye. Too small a world, considering the woman he had never planned to see again after their weekend sex marathon was actually a hometown friend of his family. What were the odds? He was still trying to wrap his head around it, especially the fact that she hadn’t called him out for using a fake name and alias.

“I heard you were leaving,” he said as he came to a stop beside Jenny, who rested her arm on his suit jacket. “Why don’t I walk you home?”

Misty hesitated, shaking out the black sweater she had been holding over her arm and pulling it on.

“That’s a great idea, considering it’s now dark out,” Jenny said, jumping in before Misty could say no or Luke could add anything else to make this more awkward. “It will give you two a chance to talk.”

Misty only smiled and said nothing as he followed her out the door. She started down the gravel walkway, the only landscaping Owen and Tessa had done out front. He held his arm out to her, taking in those killer heels. He wondered at times how women could walk in them. She hesitated only a second before taking his arm.

“Well, you didn’t have to walk me. I live right here. In case I need to remind you, it was no strings, never seeing each other again. Please feel free to ignore me.”

“And what, pretend I’m not interested?” he said. “You forget I’ve seen you naked. Seems rather awkward, considering you’re now friends with the women in my family. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve gone to quite the lengths to push us together, and they’re going to keep sticking their noses in because they have it in their heads that we’re perfect for each other. What would they think if they only knew we’d already met? How many years has it been?”

He could feel her fist her hand on his arm as they walked down the sidewalk, past the overgrown hedges. He took in her single-story bungalow, which was almost identical to Tessa and Owen’s.

“You’re not saying anything. Should I be insulted?” he said. He didn’t know what to make of her, but he could feel when someone was uncomfortable.

“Oh, I remember how long ago it was. A little over three years, I think. But I’ll talk to Tessa when she’s back, and Jenny as well, and tell them we’re just too different or something along those lines, and it could never work. They’ll drop it, so don’t worry. And they’ll never push again. But then, I don’t think you want them knowing I was just one of your many conquests. A man like you, Luke, with a false name, a false identity… Pretty sure you play with a lot of women, don’t you? No strings.”

He could feel her shrug. He didn’t think he should answer her. He was by no means a saint, and there were only a few women he didn’t think he’d ever forget. Why was he seeing shadows around everyone now? It was likely because of what he did.

“So when we met at that outdoor café in Plaka, were you living here? Were you already friends with—”

“Tessa?” She jumped in before he could finish. “I’m friends with Tessa because she bought the house shortly after I bought this one. We met over the fence, chatted, talked, and we’ve been good friends ever since. Tessa introduced me to the rest of your family—and I have to say, you have a nice family, Luke. Now, as I said, I’ll make excuses, and you won’t have to worry about them pushing us together again. But I’m not interested in hooking up with a player. And you are a player, Luke.” She gestured toward him as they strode across the grass to the front door, where the outside light was off.

“You should leave a light on so you don’t come back in the dark,” he said.

She pulled her hand free from his arm as she stepped up on the stoop, pulled open the screen door, and grabbed her keys from her small purse. He took in the two deadbolts and the heavy front door, not something the average person would notice. She had two different keys, too. She shoved one in and unlocked the heavy door, then opened it just a bit and turned to him, the darkness lingering.

“Well, thank you, Luke, for walking me home.”

That was it. That was all she said. She stood there in the darkness, not even reaching inside to turn on the light, and that had him thinking she was hiding something.

“You never answered me before about another no-strings weekend,” he said. “You should invite me in.”

She didn’t smile, but there was something in her expression. She looked away for a second, hesitated, and shook her head. “No, Luke. Even though I was completely, one hundred percent complicit in our no-strings weekend, I will not have a repeat. It was all I wanted then. We were two strangers on the other side of the world, attracted to each other, but it was just sex. For a moment, it was what I needed, being someone else, doing something wild and crazy that I wouldn’t normally do. But here we are, back in reality, where I live. And I’m friends with your family, so if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to leave that moment in time, that weekend we shared, where it is. Let’s not mention it or talk about it. And, to be clear, it won’t ever happen again. Goodnight, Luke.”

She stepped inside while he held the screen, then closed the inside door in his face before he could add anything.

He listened to the sound of the deadbolts locking. As he stepped back, letting the screen door close, a faint light flicked on, and he dragged his gaze to the front window, where heavy curtains were drawn. The blinds were closed on the other windows, too.

Something wasn’t right here. Something was off. She had walked into a darkened house, heavily secured, with curtains drawn and blinds closed. No one did that unless she had something to hide, something inside that she didn’t want anyone to see.

Luke strode to the edge of the front yard, across the grass, and took in the side of the small house. Memories of his weekend with the redhead were coming back to him, every kiss, every touch, every moment they had spent together.

He wondered now what it was about her that had him seeing shadows and ghosts.

Chapter 3

“Thought I heard you out here,” said Raymond O’Connell, wearing an old T-shirt and sweats, his hair sticking up as he reached for the coffeepot. Surprisingly, his dad had managed to maintain his other identity, Jake from California, boyfriend to his mother, who had somehow convinced him to stay in Livingston because it was better for her.

Better for his mom meant not spending months away from her children and grandchildren. He’d never expected Raymond to give in the way he had, considering danger could always be one step away.

“It’s morning, quiet, just the way I like it,” Luke said.

The sun was just coming up, and the sound of the birds from the open kitchen window was the only thing he wanted to hear in the morning. He stared at his open laptop on the island in front of him, then took in his dad, whose dark hair was filled with more and more gray every day. Raymond took a swallow of coffee and leaned against the sink, not pulling his gaze. Apparently, he had something on his mind.

“I take it Mom is still asleep,” Luke said. Knowing his mom was happy now, no longer alone, made him unsettled in a way it shouldn’t have. Maybe it was because it seemed everyone had someone except him. That misery loves company was a fact he was becoming too familiar with, though he wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone.

“She is,” Raymond said. “You already know she’s made it clear she’s not leaving Livingston. I’m not sure how comfortable I am, but I’ll take it a day at a time, I guess, for your mom, at least for the foreseeable future. She has plans for today, wanting to drag me along to Suzanne’s to make sure she has everything she needs and to fuss over her. She’s counting down the days until Suzanne has the baby. Our baby having a baby…” His dad’s face softened as if he was sinking into his family happiness. “She’s really digging her heels in about not leaving. Then there are Eva and Cameron, and I think she’s made some plans with Alison today, too. She’ll likely also have some questions for you about that redheaded friend of Tessa’s everyone was convinced you needed to meet and settle down with.”

His dad gestured to the secure laptop. He was searching for Misty Bates, but that name wasn’t coming up anywhere. She had no social media or anything on the internet.

“You know, my private life is just that,” Luke said. “I’m not interested in being fixed up. When or if I meet someone, it will be on my terms, not because my nosy siblings want to set me up on a blind date. They’re trying to make me fit in, get me a wife and kids, but you know I’m not exactly the poster boy for domesticity.” He closed the laptop and slid his mug over, then gestured to the coffeepot. His dad must have understood, as he reached to pour him a cup just as he heard footsteps.

His mom appeared, wearing a housecoat. “What’s this about being a poster boy?”

So she had heard what he’d said. His dad had already reached for a mug and poured her a cup as well, and she settled in beside him. Luke could see how much they really loved each other from the way she was looking at him. Then she glanced at Luke. Her short dark hair was a mess, and tiny lines deepened around her eyes as she narrowed her gaze.

“Luke, you think I don’t know that you couldn’t take your eyes off that friend of Tessa’s? Did you ask her out after you walked her home? Very chivalrous, by the way.”

His dad only grunted in response. He could feel the scrutiny.

“What do you know about this Misty Bates?” Luke said. “I mean, she and Tessa are neighbors, friends, but how well do you all know her? Where’s she from? What skeletons are in her closet?”

His dad could hide everything he was thinking, but by the way he narrowed his gaze, not looking away, he had clearly figured out there was more to the situation than met the eye. “You seeing ghosts there, Luke? Sometimes a nice girl is just that.”

Maybe his mom realized what Raymond was getting at. She hesitated before saying, “Luke, I don’t know her that well, but I know Tessa, Jenny, and Charlotte are all friends with her, and your brothers too. They say she’s a nice lady, just a nice hometown girl. She’s never been in trouble and is always pleasant, with a great sense of humor. What is this? Why are you looking to dig up her skeletons? Sure, everyone has secrets of some kind, but it sounds as if you’re trying to find a reason you can’t like her. Is that what you’re doing, Luke, trying to find something on her to vindicate yourself? Maybe we should talk about you and everything you’ve done and still do for the military, the things you can’t and don’t talk about. Maybe the skeletons you’re worried about are your own.”

He had never expected his mom to go off on him like that, and he didn’t much like feeling the scrutiny. They were waiting for him to answer.

If he told them the truth of how they’d really met, their no-strings weekend, would his mom still say she was the nice girl next door? Or would she side with him and say he was right, that she was no good?

If she did the latter, he’d probably find a way to see her. He really was a sick bastard.

“I’m just saying, how well do you really know someone?” he said. “I mean, what does she do? Has she been in trouble? She’s not married, so are there crazy exes in the wings? What do you really know about her past, where she comes from, her parents, her family, where she grew up, and everything she’s done?”

His dad raised his brows, and Luke was pretty sure there was amusement there. Raymond gestured toward him. “Okay, now I’m starting to figure out what this is really about: Rosemary. You know, I can tell you’ve been doing what you do for so long that you automatically look for the darkness in someone now, believing deep, dark secrets are hiding everywhere. But not everyone has something to hide, son. You may be seeing ghosts and problems when there aren’t any—unless you know something about her that the rest of the family doesn’t. Is there something? Or are you trying to find the reasons you can’t be happy? Because I’m telling you from experience, if you look hard enough, you can find a reason with anyone. Don’t do that to yourself.”

His mom glanced to her dad and then back to Luke. He could see the questions she likely had, but he said nothing as she stepped forward and rested her mug on the island. “You know what, Luke? I would like to ask you to do something for me.”

The way she stood there, he could see the determination. For a moment, he didn’t want to agree, because it seemed he could be walking into something. Why was it that he suddenly felt as if his parents were trying to steer him in an unwanted direction?

“And what would that be?” he said.

“I want you to ask Misty out on a date. Tonight. And,” she continued with emphasis when he went to cut in, “I want you to just enjoy yourself, talk to her, have dinner, a beer, something. But it should be an honest to goodness date, where no one can tell you what to do. And you will stop this nonsense of trying to dig up something in her past.”

Maybe it was the way Iris and Raymond seemed to be tag-teaming him that had him wanting to roll his shoulders, to fidget, which he never did. His mom inclined her head, her lips firmed. He was seeing a new side of her, that determination.

“And then what?” he said. “If I ask her out on a date, you’ll drop this?”

A smile touched his mom’s lips, and she shrugged. “Just call her,” she said. She pulled open the drawer and produced an old address book, which she flipped open and set on top of his closed laptop. “There’s her number.” She pressed her finger to the page.

He wondered whether his mom might even pick up the phone for him and start dialing. It was just a feeling he had. He’d never expected this from her.

“On one condition,” he said. He could see amusement in the way his dad smiled.

“And that is?” His mom didn’t sound impressed.

“If I call her and take her out, you can’t ask about her, bring her up, or try to set me up again. And,” he added with emphasis, “you will make sure everyone in the family backs off. No asking how the date was, no working an angle, no pushing me about taking her out again or suddenly forcing her into my path. Nothing. You agree to all that, and I’ll call her.”

He actually pulled out his phone. His dad tried to hide his amusement by pulling his hand over his face, and he could hear the scratch of his whiskers. His mom, he could see, was having a lot of trouble with his terms. Maybe she hadn’t expected this.

She set a hand on her hip before looking over her shoulder to his dad, who only gestured toward Luke. When she looked back at him, he could see the determination. “You want to make that deal with me, with your brothers and sisters, then you have to be one hundred percent present on your date. No cutting the night short or making excuses or spending the night trying to spin theories about why she isn’t for you. You will not and cannot have it in your head that it isn’t going to work. You have to be open to her, talk to her, listen to her. You will be all in on your night out with Misty, or no deal.”

His mother wasn’t about to let him have the upper hand in this. For a second, he took in her extended hand, considering. He hesitated only a second before shaking it. “Fine. I agree. But have you ever thought that just maybe, Misty herself may not be interested in me?”

Chapter 4

He could have called, but showing up on her doorstep seemed like the wiser choice. He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was missing something about Misty Bates. He had questions, a lot of questions, as he stood on the sidewalk in front of her house.

His brother’s place seemed so quiet with Owen and Tessa gone, yet so did Misty’s house, where the curtains and heavy blinds were still closed. Was he just seeing ghosts? Maybe she liked her privacy. Maybe he needed there to be something wrong with her so he could justify to himself why he couldn’t be happy.

But then, wasn’t it true that the first thing someone did when hiding was close up everything, make sure no one could see in?

He took in the midday sun and heard the ding of his phone. When he pulled it from his pocket and checked the screen, there was a text from Jess.

Who is Misty Bates? What do you want to know, work or personal?

He smiled. His Googling had come up with nothing on the woman, yet it seemed everyone now plastered everything across social media: their photos, their personal lives, even things no one should ever see. But not Misty. She didn’t seem to exist.

He typed a quick text back. Everything you can find. She’s just a girl next door. Family is trying to do the matchmaking thing. Find out what she was doing in Plaka three years ago.

He glanced to the closed door and back to the phone when he saw the thumbs-up in reply, knowing Jess would dig and find things the average person couldn’t. At least his team leader wouldn’t accuse him of being paranoid and looking for ghosts. The rest of the team saw the same bad things, the same secrets, that he did. It meant expecting the worst in everyone, which was the one thing he couldn’t do if he wanted a healthy, happy relationship.

But then, Luke and his team didn’t have perfect all-American families waiting for them at home. He still wondered how his own dad managed it, after doing what he did and being who he was.

Luke walked up the front walkway, taking in the small paving stones that led to the house. The front was bare, with no flowers, nothing special that would draw attention. It was just a house with no personality. The door was closed, and he took a second to just listen, but he heard nothing.

He pulled open the screen, fisted his hand, and knocked. The seconds ticked by, and he thought he saw movement from inside. He knew the curtain had moved, but someone was being careful. Then he heard footsteps and the sound of the two deadbolts, and he couldn’t help wondering how his family hadn’t thought that was odd in any way.

The door opened a crack, and he spotted a bare hallway behind her. Her short red hair was damp and her face free of makeup, and she wore a black T-shirt and jean shorts. The day was warm, but by the way her honey-brown eyes flashed, she wasn’t happy to see him.

“Luke, what are you doing here?”

Her hand was on the door, and the motion told him she didn’t want him coming in. He wondered now whether Tessa or anyone from his family had ever been inside. For a second, he wished he’d called Ryan, Jenny, Marcus, Charlotte, or, better yet, nosy Suzanne and questioned them more about how Misty lived. Had they ever been over at her place? What did they know about her past?

“Are you just going to stand there, staring at me, or are you going to say something?” she said.

He let out a rough laugh under his breath, pulled off his sunglasses, and tucked them in the front of his gray T-shirt. “My family really wants us together, apparently, but it seems you’re the one I’m going to have to convince. I found myself roped into asking you out this morning, so how about it?”

She stared up at him in disbelief, and for a moment he wasn’t sure she’d answer. “No,” she finally said with emphasis. “First, that’s not how you ask a girl out. You were roped into it? Really, Luke?” She let out a soft laugh, but she still hadn’t moved, and he could see she wasn’t about to make this easy.

“You realize my family will keep pushing…”

“I told you last night that I would make sure your family understands I’m not interested, so you’re off the hook,” she said. Then she went to step back, and he knew the door was about to be closed in his face again. He slapped his hand to it.

“Hey, just wait a second,” he said. “I’m starting to pick up on something that has me wondering if there’s more to you than I would’ve thought. I don’t know. It just seems as if you’re trying to hide something.”

She let out a sigh. “And what would that be, Luke?”

“Well, that’s the thing. I don’t know. Are you hiding something, Misty? Because I’m wondering a lot of things as I look at you, at how you’re acting. Tell me, why is it that you have everything closed up here, curtains and blinds so no one can see in? Then there are the double deadbolts on the door. Are you scared of someone? Are you running, hiding?”

He could see her thinking. Her mouth opened as if she was going to say something, but then she didn’t. She was nervous. Something was off.

“What, because I’m not interested in a repeat of what happened with a man who couldn’t even use his real name, I’m suddenly hiding something? Maybe I should be asking you the same questions, Luke. I mean, why the fake name? Why the fake identity? You’re in the military—the army, is it? I don’t really know, because your family didn’t elaborate, which has me wondering what you were really doing in Plaka. I mean, look at you. You don’t look like some grunt. Maybe I should be asking what you’re hiding, what you’re really about.

“You know what, Luke? I’m not interested, so if you don’t mind, I’d really like it if you’d not show up again. I’m sure you don’t want your family knowing how we met and how you lied to me. So if it’s all the same to you, please take your hand off my door and go away. No is no. I will not go out with you, and I will not have you questioning me. Instead, maybe you should take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror.” She really was going off on him, going over the top in her anger.

“You’re deflecting, Misty, and your outrage is straying into defensiveness. You ever invite my family into your place? It’s not lost on me that you haven’t answered me about this Fort Knox thing you have going on. Yeah, I know hiding, and I know secrets. You know what I do? It’s the kind of job where a secret doesn’t stay secret for long. I can dig and find out all kinds of secrets about someone that the average person would never learn. The skeletons. Do you have skeletons lurking behind those curtains? Are you in trouble? Did you do something, or are you hiding from something?”

She paled, and her eyes flickered with emotion. When his phone dinged, he didn’t pull it from his pocket at first. He was standing in front of her, seeing the kind of fear on her face that told him he was treading right into something she didn’t want him to see.

When he finally glanced at his phone, keeping his hand on the open door, he saw a text from Jess.

You were right. Found something. Call me. Maybe ask her who Chloe Welch is.

But something about being right in these circumstances didn’t make him happy.

“Please go, Luke,” she said. Her voice was low, nervous.

“Sure. But first, tell me who Chloe Welch is.”

She let go of the door. For a moment, she looked as if the rug had been yanked out from under her. Whatever it was Jess had found, evidently, Chloe Welch was at the center of what Misty was hiding.

Chapter 5

“You’re an asshole,” Misty said.

Luke filled a glass with water and took in the sparse furnishings of the small older house. A sofa sat in the living room, with its dated brown paneling, and there was no table in the green and brown kitchen, only two bar stools at the island. Misty was perched on one, her elbows resting on the speckled brown laminate countertop, her head in her hands. He couldn’t see her face. She was hiding.

“Here, drink this.” He set the glass down, and she reached for it, then looked up at him. He shrugged. “You think I haven’t been called that and worse? The thing about me, though, is that I push and dig until I find what I’m looking for. I had a feeling you were hiding something. So who is this Chloe Welch? You want to tell me, or do I need to make a call and find out what you’re hiding?”

As he pulled his cell phone from his pocket, Misty glanced to it and sat stiffly. She lifted the glass and took a swallow of water, then took her time resting it back on the counter.

“Last chance.” He knew he was pushing.

“Chloe Welch is me,” she said.

Okay, that he hadn’t expected.

“Excuse me? You’re Chloe?”

She only nodded, then tilted her head. “You have someone digging into my life? Why?”

“Already told you I don’t like secrets, and I knew there was a big red flag with you. So you’re Chloe. Why the name change? What did you do? Who are you hiding from? Does anyone in my family know?”

She tensed, her jaw stiff, and for a moment he wondered whether he should just phone Jess and find out everything. It would be simpler, more to the point. He could walk out the door and be done there. And then what? He’d tell his family he was right?

For reasons he couldn’t have explained, he just couldn’t do that. Maybe it was the weekend he’d had, or his siblings’ fondness for her, or the fact that she was the nice girl next door, but he needed her to explain everything. He wanted her to come clean to him.

“As far as anyone knows, I’m Misty and have been for a long time. I mean, evidently, I don’t need to explain to you why a person changes her name.”

He held her gaze. How deeply was she steeped in trouble? “Did you do something? Are you hiding? Why would you change your name unless you’ve done something and need to hide?”

She pulled in a breath. “I don’t want to be found, if that’s what you’re asking. No, I didn’t do the kind of thing you’re thinking. Or maybe I did, because I don’t know what you’re thinking. The way you’re looking at me, I feel as if I’m the worst of the worst, as if I did something, when it was really the other way around. Let’s just say I saw something and tried to do the right thing, but I ended up coming forward about the wrong kind of person.

“No one here knows. That’s why I moved here for a fresh start when everything blew up in my face. Your family doesn’t know, and I’d rather they didn’t. I have a good life here, and I want it to stay that way. I like being happy, Luke, and I like being Misty. I don’t suppose you could just walk out that door and forget you heard that name?”

He realized she was serious. He shook his head. “No, sorry. I can’t, or I won’t. Tell me what happened. Start at the beginning.” He was still holding his phone, seeing another text from Jess.

You there??

He sent a quick text back: Yeah. Call you soon. With Chloe now.

Maybe she knew the message was about her, as she glanced away. He wondered what she was thinking. Had she been running when he met her in Plaka?

“I used to live in a small Wyoming town, and I saw something I wasn’t supposed to see,” she said. “Because I believed in doing the right thing, I came forward to the police, the small-town police, who I believed would see justice done. But the world doesn’t work that way, and I soon discovered that.

“I had seen a man running from a house before it caught fire. It was arson. The family was inside, and they all died. There were two little kids, four and six. That was what made me come forward. It should’ve been an open and shut case, but the man was a local hero by the name of Dirk Randall. He’d saved a kid from drowning when he was a teenager—and not just any kid but the son of a retired senator. So he was given a medal, you know, the ones towns and cities give out when you do something heroic for someone who matters. Do you want me to go on?”

He put his cell phone down on the island. It seemed she’d walked into the kind of situation that could’ve ended up with someone gunning for her. “Yes, go on.” He gestured toward her. “You came forward and said what no one wanted to hear, and you were run out of town.”

She only stared at him, confusion in her honey-brown eyes. Her brows knit. “No. The police, the sheriff, and the deputies were all over it. In fact, they arrested him, and I was the key witness for the DA. But having a senator in your corner, and the kind of political and legal power that comes with that, had the defence team coming at me. I mean, these were good lawyers, a dream team that could spin anything, the kind of lawyers I would never be able to afford.

“They were so good that if I hadn’t seen what I had, I’d likely have believed the story they spun. I was cross-examined on the stand in a courtroom, questioned for two days. My entire life was put on trial, my character assassinated, and every piece of dirt they could find on me was dug up, including the fact that I had stolen a pack of gum from the drug store when I was six. The owner caught me and I was grounded for, like, a year. Then there were the times in high school that I had tried pot or beer, or the time I punched the girl who’d been making eyes at my boyfriend in the face.

“I was basically made out to be a thief, a liar, a tramp, and don’t forget a drug addict. Even though I’d never met Dirk, my credibility was destroyed. It was alleged that I was jealous, trying to hurt a young man who had saved someone of importance. So who do you believe? I’m a good person. I can remember saying that over and over on the stand as everything about me was twisted. No one bothered to talk about how I volunteered at the animal shelter, or how I picked up the elderly during the election when they had no other way of getting to the polls to vote. I paid my taxes, paid all my bills, even ran after people who dropped money to give it back to them. I was happy. But that side of me, who I was, no one saw it.

“I had some of the best lawyers gunning for me, destroying my character. Every question they asked was spun in a way that it wouldn’t matter what I said, because for a moment, even I started to believe I was a horrible person.” She lifted her hands as if they were a scale. “So you have jurors watching the show and deciding who to believe, the lying tramp or the local hero who risked his life. Reasonable doubt was all they needed, and the small-town jury voted unanimously to acquit, without a doubt.

“When I came forward, I was treated like a hero for speaking up, but suddenly, all the protection the cops had promised disappeared. I was seen as the enemy. The town I grew up in turned hostile, and I was forced to leave. So yes, Luke, when you met me in Plaka, I had sold everything I owned and taken a trip as far away from that small town as I could, to a place where no one knew my name. And you know what I learned after that no-strings weekend? In becoming Misty Bates, I suddenly had a chance at a new life. No one saw me as the person who’d accused a local hero. I moved to Livingston, Montana, because it’s not Wyoming, and for the three years I’ve been here, I haven’t had any whispers behind my back.

“I haven’t been called a liar. I haven’t had my car tires slashed or had ‘whore’ written with a Sharpie on my car door. I haven’t had any notes left in my mailbox, threatening my life, threatening to violate me. I was scared, because when you’re suddenly seen as guilty, as a liar, you stop sleeping, stop eating. I didn’t know if I would walk into my house to find some crazy person waiting to exact justice. I was seen as someone who would lie about a man, a local hero, someone who had done more for the community than anyone…” She pulled in a breath.

His phone dinged again.

“What is it?” she said.

He picked it up and just shook his head.

Call me, Jess had written. It can’t wait, because the name was flagged.

He dialed and said, “Do you know why your name would be flagged in the system?”

She didn’t answer, but he didn’t miss the alarm in her expression.

Jess answered before the phone had finished ringing once. “It’s about time,” he said. “What the hell are you stepping into?”

“Well, you know me. What’s going on?”

“This Misty Bates used to be Chloe Welch. I found her through ViCAP. Her name was flagged, something about a fire, arson. A family perished. It’s pretty bad shit, and she’s wanted for questioning.”

He wondered, as he looked over to Misty—or was it Chloe?—whether she had any idea. “Who’s looking for her?” he said. “Is it a warrant?”

Maybe she understood, as her face paled again.

“Local cops in Cody, Wyoming,” Jess said. “You should have told me, because her name is flagged, so the moment I started looking, my inquiry triggered something. There’s nothing about a warrant, but you know that doesn’t mean anything. That she’s a person of interest means they have something. You said you’re with her? You know her? What do you want me to do?”

He only shook his head. “Find out why she’s a person of interest, what they have. Thanks for the heads-up,” he said.

He knew Jess would do more than that, anyway. As he rested his phone on the counter, he took in the redhead he’d spent the most incredible weekend with, who had ghosts and secrets that were very real.

If his family only knew the truth.

“Well, say something, please, Luke, because you’re scaring the hell out of me,” she said. “A person of interest? A warrant? What does that mean?”

He wondered for a moment what she wasn’t telling him. “I think you know what it means. It seems you’re in a hot mess, Chloe. Can I call you Chloe?”

She shut her eyes, and when she opened them, he could see the fury, the fear. “Seems we’re beyond that, aren’t we? So what is it, Luke? Level with me. What kind of trouble am I in? Because I don’t know.”

“Seems you’re wanted for questioning, so either you didn’t tell me everything, because it sounds like the cops are looking at you for the fire, or they’re coming after you because the local hero’s lawyers were so good that they’ve got the spotlight shining on you now. Or maybe you lied and made the whole thing up. So which is it, Chloe? Because as I see it, you’ve pissed off the wrong person.”


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