It’s release day for Book 15 in The O’Connells romantic suspense series! THE GIRL NEXT DOOR is now available at your favorite eRetailers. Plus, don’t miss your FREE bonus short story below!
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.More info →
“Why are we here, again?”
Luke pulled his arms over his chest and took in his brother Marcus, who was still wearing his sheriff’s uniform, having just pulled in in his cruiser. The dust settled in the parking lot of the concrete building surrounded by wire fencing. He heard barking from the back.
“Trying to make something right,” he said.
Marcus pulled off his shades and joined Luke beside his old pickup. He’d called Marcus and told him to get his ass down there because he needed his help, and now his brother was staring at him as if he’d lost his mind. He gestured toward the building. “This is an animal shelter. I don’t understand—making what right? Again, why am I here?”
Luke gestured to the front glass doors, but Marcus just stood there as if he had no intention of moving. “I need your help. That I have a sheriff for a brother means they’ll waive the adoption period, so I can walk out of this shelter with a dog today instead of waiting.”
He thought his brother was going to laugh for a moment. Then Marcus shook his head. “What the hell do you want with a dog? You’re never here. You can’t have a dog, because someone else will end up looking after it. And if you tell my kids, they’ll want one. No, seriously. Get in your truck. Let’s get out of here.”
He finally reached out and slapped Marcus on the shoulder. “It’s not for me, it’s for Chloe, so stop worrying. You’ll have no responsibility here.”
His brother fell in beside him as he started walking to the door, but again he was shaking his head. “You’re getting Chloe a dog? Seriously, there are better presents, ones that don’t lift a leg on your furniture.”
He only angled his head to Marcus as they walked into the shelter.
The lady behind the front desk tossed them an easy smile. “What can I do for you?” she said as she stood up. Her cheeks were round and her hair dark and short.
Marcus said nothing, only gestured to Luke with his thumb.
“Can I see the dogs you have up for adoption?” Luke said.
“Sure thing! We have quite a few. They’re all out back. Just head through those doors there and follow the noise. Are you looking for any particular breed of dog?” She dragged her gaze from Luke to Marcus, who just lifted his hands, though at least he hadn’t walked out. Luke knew his brother was still furious over how the Wyoming sheriff had made him look like a fool.
“Nope, just want to see what you have,” Luke said, then tapped the counter and started walking to the back.
He pushed open the door and took in the line of kennels outside. There were so many of them, a little beagle who was sitting, staring up, shaking, and one that looked like a big Malamute back in the shade.
“I thought you were going to take her to dinner?” Marcus said as Luke walked, continuing to look at the dogs.
“I am. I plan on it,” he said. He would show up with a dog and then ask her out that night.
“So why the dog? Seems overkill to me.” Marcus walked behind him as he looked in each kennel. He could hear in his voice that he thought this was a bad idea.
“She had hers taken away in Wyoming over the Randall thing. She had a mutt, some little terrier. I had to Google it to figure out what it was. She loved that dog, and watching her talk about it, I just figured I could try to fix some of what was done to her—what I did, and you too.”
His brother’s smile was gone. He just stared at the cages and dogs before dragging those blue eyes over to Luke. There it was, the guilt. “Look, I feel horrible over what happened when Sheriff Kolter showed up with that warrant. That was the first time I’ve ever had to deal with that kind of underhandedness. I’m still kicking myself, because I know what a legitimate interstate warrant looks like, and I wish I could go back and have a second look now. You can be damn sure that’ll never happen again. If there’s ever a next time, I’ll be picking up the phone and questioning the legality of every dotted i and crossed t.”
Luke could hear the regret in his brother’s voice. He wanted to remind him that even Karen had said someone would have to really look to see the difference. Evidently, Sheriff Kolter had known what he was doing. “Well, that’s the reason you’re here, because you can help make it up to her. I’ll make sure you get some credit so you’re not in the doghouse, so to speak. That you went all official on her, turning from friendly Marcus to the sheriff who saw her as a criminal, it has her feeling about you the way Mom still feels about Harold.”
His brother flinched. Even though Harold had been doing his job, personal was personal, and Luke could see it in the shadows of his mom’s face. She was trying to tell herself she had to forgive him, that he’d done it only so things wouldn’t have been worse for her.
His brother glanced away, then shook his head. “Charlotte went over to see Chloe. We’re still trying to wrap our heads around her not being Misty. Just saying, it seems we as a family attract this. But Charlotte was adamant that we have to have her over to the house with everyone so the family can show her that nothing has changed. Then there’s Suzanne. Harold said she wants Chloe to file a formal complaint about that sheriff.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
Marcus dragged his gaze over to him. “I’ll even help her start the paperwork. If we want anything to change in this country, then people like Sheriff Kolter have to go. It’s all I can think to do to tell her I’m sorry.”
Luke realized Marcus held on to so much frustration and anger, something he suspected he was feeling more and more, having to wade in and deal with the truly ugly parts of humanity, the lying, the cheating, the taking. But not on the level that Luke did, and he hoped his brother never had to.
He made himself look away. “So I heard Suzanne is still giving you the gears about working for the sheriff’s office.” He took another step, walking past each of the cages, seeing all the dogs no one wanted.
Marcus let out a sigh. “She’s not joining. She can push all she wants to, but it’s not happening. Told Harold to figure out a way to steer her in another direction. Planning on moving Therese, too—you know, the lady who took over Charlotte’s job? Well, she’s good, so I plan to send her for some training and give her the open deputy job that used to be Lonnie’s.” Marcus angled his head as they took in a group of little bulldog puppies, four of them yipping away, climbing over each other with their stocky bodies and huge paws.
“So is that your way of giving your wife her job back?”
Marcus dragged his gaze over to him again, unsmiling. “Even though Therese is really good, the way she got the job was wrong, with the council overstepping because Charlotte had a baby. Charlotte swallowed it and didn’t complain because she knew I was having to deal with all the overreach from the council and mayor. Well, not this time. Even though I love that she’s home with Cameron and Eva, and being there for me, her job was a part of herself that she loved. So yeah, she’s getting her job back.” Marcus gestured to the pups. “You should get her the gray one.”
Luke stared at the little bulldog pup, which would grow into a powerhouse. There was something about those eyes, the way it was pawing at the fence where his brother was standing, looking down at it.
“A puppy,” Luke said. “He looks like a scrapper.”
All Marcus did was grunt. “He’s perfect—for you and her.”
His truck rumbled before he parked and turned off the engine, taking in the bungalow, its curtains drawn and blinds closed. He wondered how long it would be before Chloe felt comfortable again, considering hiding for so long had likely become second nature to her.
The puppy was climbing on the seat, and he lifted the little guy—or, rather, girl.
“Well, too late to take you back, so she’d better like you.”
The puppy licked his face as he closed the door and held the wriggling bundle up the walkway. He pulled open the screen and knocked, then waited one second and then another. There it was, the slight flutter of the curtains, then the footsteps. He listened to the two deadbolts being unlocked, and then the door opened. He took in her wide eyes as she pulled the door open further.
“Luke, what the…?” She gasped as he held the puppy out.
He didn’t have to ask to come in. She just stepped back, and he let the door close behind him as he handed the puppy to her. “She’s yours. I stopped at the pound and picked her up, so if you decide you don’t want her, it’s too late to take her back, so I’ll be stuck with her—and Marcus has already pointed out that I can’t have a dog because I’m gone at a moment’s notice and someone else will end up looking after her.”
She was laughing, and the puppy was licking her face, tail wagging. Her amber eyes reached out to him without the shadow of hurt he realized had likely always been there. “You got me a puppy? Why? How? This is crazy…”
Damn, those dimples of hers eased the tightness in his chest that had been there from the moment he’d walked out of the shelter with the pup, leaving Marcus to deal with the lady and see to it that the waiting period was waived.
“I’ll never forget your face when you talked about BJ, the way he was taken from you. I know she can’t replace your other dog, but…” He shrugged.
She put the puppy down and walked over to Luke, one step, two, then rose on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips. She pulled back slowly, and for a moment he didn’t know what to say, remembering what it was like to have her touch him, kiss him. He watched as the puppy squatted on the floor.
“Oh, no you don’t!” Chloe ran after the puppy.
Luke took in the hardwood and the old carpet in the living room, remembering what Marcus had said.
Chloe was already holding the dog, and she strode into the kitchen and tossed him a roll of paper towels. “Clean it up for me, and I’ll take her outside. What’s her name?” She was scratching the puppy, who was licking her face again. She grimaced. “Oh, we’re going to have to work on that.”
Luke ripped off several sheets and tossed them on the ground. “It’s up to you to name her,” he said as he squatted down, wiping up the mess. He stood and walked into the kitchen.
“Garbage is under the sink,” she said. “I guess I’m washing my floor again, aren’t I…Lucy? How about Lucy?”
She strode to the back door as he tossed the paper towel in the garbage and then washed his hands. The back door closed, and he could hear her encouraging the puppy and clapping. Yeah, he’d scored big time there.
He walked to the door, taking in the sparseness of the house and how dark it seemed, all closed up. Looking out the back, he watched as Chloe checked the gate at the side of the fence. The puppy was running around the yard.
“I guess that needs to be secured better,” Luke called out. “I’ll walk the perimeter and find any holes, seal them up for you so Lucy can’t get out.”
“You know, Luke, I’m not really angry with you, if that’s what this is about,” she said.
He didn’t know what to say for a moment. As he took in the redhead, awkwardness lingered. Having been with her on her worst day, he sensed all pretense was gone between them.
“I’m responsible for what happened,” he said. “As has been pointed out to me, I don’t know how to be happy. I’ve been fighting for so long, seeing the bad in everyone, that I see shadows where there aren’t any.”
Chloe pulled in a breath and glanced away, uncomfortable. “You said I was hiding something, and you were right. I was. But it was my secret, and you just wouldn’t let up. So yeah, you pushed when you shouldn’t have, and I’m angry about that, considering you have secrets too, Luke. Should I push with you, or do you have a right to them?”
She didn’t pull her gaze. He didn’t know how to explain to her that she was right to a point.
“Should I apologize?” he said. “Maybe I should, for how I went about it, but I can’t apologize for the outcome. You don’t have to hide anymore. You don’t need to have your blinds and curtains closed so no one can see in. You don’t have a sheriff and a county coming after you anymore just because you did the right thing. You don’t have to pretend to be someone else—and take it from me, that isn’t easy. You’re right about me, though. I went into the special forces to make a difference, and I never know where I’m going to be sent with my team. I’ll be gone at a moment’s notice for months at a time, with no idea when I’ll be home. I’m not the family guy my brothers are. I never will be.”
He wasn’t sure what to make of her expression.
“What are you doing, Luke? Sounds to me if you’re pointing out all the reasons you can’t be, as you said, happy. Is that what you’re doing?” She angled her head.
“No, I’m just…” He stopped talking when she lifted a brow. He remembered the deal with his mom, the fact that his family would never stop trying to find a way for him to have his own kind of happiness. “Sorry, maybe I am. This is unchartered territory for me. There’s something about you, Chloe. Considering we’ve already had a weekend with no strings and I’ve seen you naked, maybe I’m going about this all wrong.”
She rested her hand on his bare arm and slid it up to the sleeve of his navy shirt. “How about dinner here?” she said. “You can help me secure the yard so Lucy can’t get out, and you’ll let me ask you all about the Luke that hides himself from everyone.”
Maybe that was what he feared more than anything. He lifted his gaze and let out a rough laugh, knowing he could walk out the door and keep pushing her away, but he’d never be able to stop thinking of her and wondering what if. And that terrified him.
“You may decide I’m too much, you know. There are some things I can’t share, not even with my family.”
She seemed to consider, then nodded. “Fair enough. So how about this? National security is off the table, but anything else is fair game.”
He wondered whether she had any idea what she was asking. “You may not like what you hear. I’m not a squeaky-clean choir boy.”
She only inclined her head as she picked up the puppy, which was pawing at her. “If I was interested in a choir boy, Luke, I wouldn’t have invited you in.”
Her lips quirked, and he spotted the teasing light he’d seen in her eyes during that weekend he’d spent with her. He couldn’t help himself from leaning in and kissing her.
When the puppy pawed at him and licked his face, he pulled back. At Chloe’s soft laughter as he ran his hand over the puppy, he wanted to thank his family for putting her right in his path.
“Elaborate,” Suzanne said, “because I’ve known Chloe as Misty for so long, yet I swear I’ve never seen her so happy. We know you’ve been staying over, so does this mean…?”
Luke was pouring a glass of wine for Chloe, and he could hear her laughter from the living room. Suzanne groaned and rested her hand on her lower back as she strode over to him, wearing an oversized yellow sundress, her hair pulled back.
“You okay there?” he said.
“Yeah, just the baby, the joys of being pregnant. Everything hurts. But don’t change the subject. We’re talking about you and Chloe.” She angled her head and then smacked his chest when he laughed softly under his breath.
“Ow! Geez, Suzanne, dial back the aggression. Or is this how you keep Harold in line?”
His sister had always been tomboyish, and he was having trouble picturing her as a mom—which she would soon be, considering how their own mother was fussing over her.
“Harold is fine,” Suzanne said. “You’re the only one I do that to, because you like it.” She shrugged.
“Sure, with guys, when I can hit back, but you’re my sister.” He screwed the cap back on the wine.
“I remember well the black eye you gave me…”
“You were twelve, and I wasn’t much older,” he said. “Besides, isn’t this about you having your nose in my business, spying on me, really?”
Suzanne made a rude noise. “I wasn’t spying. I was doing my due diligence, driving past Owen and Tessa’s, and I just happen to have seen your truck parked there every morning. Combined with the fact that Mom says you haven’t been home, I guess that means I can put you and Chloe down as officially together. You two will continue showing up for family night, and Mom will finally get you out of the house, and we won’t have to find someone else for you, because we rather like Chloe. You’re perfect for each other.”
What was he supposed to say to that? Whenever he was with Chloe, he didn’t want to leave. He couldn’t not touch her, not kiss her, and he thought he could listen to her voice all night. Now it was him checking the windows and pulling the curtains closed again, because he was the one still seeing ghosts. There were just too many bad things out there.
But that was one secret he knew Chloe understood, and he figured she wouldn’t share it. His family had some idea, but if they had only known what haunted him in his head, he wondered whether they still would have put Chloe in his path.
“It’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” he said. “So give yourself a pat on the back and take the win, but you’re not getting a blow by blow, because I don’t kiss and tell.”
“Chloe said you rebuilt the entire back fence in her yard.”
He lifted a brow, as his sister didn’t appear to have heard him. “Lucy needed a safe place that she couldn’t get out of. Considering I gave Chloe the puppy, it was my responsibility to make sure she had a secure yard.”
He could hear the laughter in Marcus’s own yard out back, knowing the puppy was a source of entertainment for the kids and half the family. He’d already heard the kids pleading with Marcus too many times that they needed their own puppy.
“You’re being domesticated, Luke.”
He lifted the glass of wine and reached for his own beer. That was word for word what his mom had said, along with instructions not to blow it.
He heard Chloe, Charlotte, and Jenny talking as they stepped into the kitchen. Luke handed Chloe her glass of wine and couldn’t resist leaning in and kissing her. Everyone was suddenly quiet, and when he pulled back, he could see them all watching.
“Okay, show’s over,” he said. “Who’s barbecuing tonight, anyway, since Owen’s not here?”
Then he heard a car door and voices.
“It’s Owen and Tessa. They’re back!” Jenny said. She was already walking to the front door along with Suzanne and Charlotte.
Chloe suddenly appeared nervous, as she hadn’t moved.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
She flicked her amber eyes up to him. Her peach halter sundress looked stunning on her, and he realized something about being with her centered him. “You know that Owen and Tessa still know me as Misty. They don’t know about anything that happened…”
“Oh, I see. You’re worried about what they’re going to think.”
She only shrugged, a motion he’d seen too many times over the past week. There were so many things she hadn’t been able to shake, and he wondered how long it would take for her not to immediately worry about people thinking the worst of her.
“Did anyone here tell you to get out, or did everyone stand behind you?” he said.
She frowned and furrowed her brow. “So you think I’m silly for worrying.”
He settled his beer on the island, then took her wine from her hand to rest beside it. Out front, his family was laughing. He rested both his hands on her bare arms, running them down and pulling her closer to him.
“No, not me, not ever me, but if I have to keep telling you, I think everyone here has already shown you they’re in your corner. What happened to you in Cody will never happen again.”
He could tell by the flicker of worry in those amber eyes that she was likely trying to convince herself of what he was saying.
“You know what I’ve wondered, Luke?” She settled into his arms, pressing all that softness against him as she looked up to him.
“Bessie, the old woman next door. I know you told me she moved to Jackson Hole, where her son is, but you never told me how you found out or how she’s doing. I don’t know. Even after everything that happened, she crosses my mind every now and then.”
Luke pulled in a breath, thinking of the call from Jess the day after they’d gotten back. The old woman had been taken out of her house by the sheriff’s deputies while the bulldozers pulled in, and her son had driven all night to pick her up. She’d been given a court-ordered settlement for her property, only eighty cents on the dollar, and the TX Group had wasted no time in laying down the cement.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine with her family,” Luke said, “just like you are here with us. A new start, a new beginning. Just think: Sometimes bad things have to happen to get you to something good.”
By the way her brows knit, she didn’t agree. She went to pull back when he heard the squeak of the door and the voices of his family.
“So you’re saying everything I went through was a good thing?” Chloe said.
He was treading in dangerous territory. He ran his hands over her arms again. “Well, if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have been in Greece, we wouldn’t have met, and you wouldn’t be standing in my arms right now.”
There were those dimples he loved.
“Well, Mr. O’Connell, that was a good save,” she said.
He couldn’t resist leaning in and kissing her.
The puppy had fallen asleep about the same time Cameron had, Luke thought.
As he sat outside in Marcus’s backyard, the sun had already set, and he could hear the soft voices of his family drifting from the house. His dad had pulled out a patio chair and sat down beside Owen, who had taken a minute to get his head around what had happened while he was gone on his honeymoon.
Marcus handed Luke another beer and sat in one of the other chairs between Harold and Ryan. As Jack reclined in the padded lounger with Karen leaning against him, Luke could just make out the state trooper standing off by the side.
“So are we going to talk about the elephant in the room?” Owen said. “You’ve had all this time to wrap your heads around what happened and ask questions, yet here I am, trying to understand how I didn’t know Chloe was hiding something. I mean, now, as I look back, the signs are there. First there was the way she reacted when Tessa encouraged her to take that admin job at the high school, which had better pay and was practically being handed to her. And maybe I did wonder about how closed-up her house was, with the double locks, the blinds, the curtains, even when Tessa went over. I called out to her a few times when I saw her at the store, and she didn’t turn around. Now I can see, even though it was—”
“Explained away?” Luke jumped in before Owen could continue down the road of trying to see every clue he’d missed.
“Yeah, I guess that’s it. I just can’t believe it.”
Luke could feel his dad watching him and knew he understood more about everything that had happened, just as he did.
“What about the fire and the family who were killed?” Owen said. “I know you said Dirk Randall got off and won’t be charged, but does that mean the case is…?”
“He can’t be charged, Owen, because he was acquitted,” Karen said, jumping in. “But I guess, like you, I thought it never made sense, why he did it or what happened in that house. I mean, don’t you all want to know? Because I do. A man like Dirk Randall with a company the size of TX behind him, what was he doing, walking into a house and burning it down? That makes no sense. He’d have people to do that for him. Am I not right?” Her head was resting against Jack’s chest, and it wasn’t lost on Luke the way Jack had been fussing over her. The man really loved his sister, and he’d been rather quiet that night.
“I did some digging,” Marcus started as he leaned forward, his forearms on his knees, a beer dangling from his hand. “Sal Miller wasn’t as squeaky clean as people thought. I guess because he died in that fire with his kids and his wife, no one was looking at him, but I did find a sealed juvie record on him. He started a fire when he was thirteen, burned down a barn in the place he grew up outside Dixon. The old man inside died. Then, in his early twenties, Sal became a volunteer firefighter in Plympton, where he met his wife before they moved to Cody. The thing is that when I started looking at the dates and records, it seems Sal Miller lived in four different counties in a six-year period, and each of those counties had unsolved arsons.”
Everyone was staring at Marcus. He’d had no idea his brother had been looking.
“You’re saying Sal Miller burned down his own house and killed himself and his family?” Harold said, looking at Marcus as if he’d lost his mind. “Is that what you’ve been doing for the last week, all this research?”
Marcus only pulled his hand over the back of his neck, exhaled, and sat up. “From the beginning, from the moment this all went sideways, it was on me. The minute Sheriff Kolter called me, I drove him right to Chloe to cuff her and let him take her across state lines. I was angry she’d lied, but I didn’t know there was an entire backstory with a lot of players. I didn’t take the time to vet that warrant or, worse, to think for a moment that she could be innocent.
“That case, as I look at it, had so many holes. There are only three ways to solve a crime: You catch someone in the act, you have a witness, or you find evidence. Unfortunately, in Chloe’s case, as in many, the first thing the defense did was poke holes, destroy the witness’s credibility. So that left no witness. And what was the evidence? An accelerant and a head injury to the wife. No one bothered to look into the fact that Deanna Miller had consulted a divorce lawyer, and she was going after half of everything Sal owned. The sheriff conveniently left out that she had also been seeking a restraining order against Sal. This was not a happy couple.
“Luke, when you told me about the incidents with Sal looking in Chloe’s bedroom window, taking photos, I have to tell you, I wouldn’t have given him a pass just because he owned the house. No, there was a lot of evidence against Sal.”
“You think Sal burned down his own house? That he killed his wife?” Owen said as if on the verge of laughing because of how ridiculous it sounded.
“I think the kids got trapped, and he couldn’t get them out. He had screwed up, so he died with his kids. I do think he killed his wife. It may sound crazy, but think about it. But, at the same time, what was Dirk really doing there, and what did he see? Smoke was spotted shortly after, then a fire. Was he there about buying out Sal, and his timing was just off? Maybe. Or maybe Sal was planning on pointing the finger at him too, and it backfired. I did find that the TX Group made several offers to buy out Sal Miller and the houses he owned on that block. Dirk was turned down six times.”
“You didn’t hear this from me,” Jack started, and Karen only turned her head, resting it against his chest. “Dirk Randall is currently being investigated by the securities commission for fraud. As for the sheriff, a video is going to be leaked this week documenting a bad shooting on the highway, a man who was trying to put down a bull. Sheriff Kolter is on video shooting the man in the back…”
“Bessie’s husband,” Luke said.
Jack looked over to him. He wondered how he’d found out, but then, this was Jack.
“So she gets her justice, does she?” Luke said. “But not her property back.”
Jack said nothing else.
By the way Karen settled against her husband, she knew more. “Nope, that big goliath, the TX Group, gets its development,” she said.
“It’s not my state, Karen,” Jack said, having likely heard an earful from her already.
“So how is it that the securities commission is investigating Dirk Randall?” Ryan asked.
Luke realized Jack had been making more than a few phone calls.
“I suspect they had a tip to point them in the right direction. He’ll have to announce his resignation from the TX Group and will walk away disgraced but not impoverished.”
Raymond stood up and looked down at all of them. “So it seems you made some justice happen,” he said. “Marcus, let yourself off the hook. You’re a good sheriff. Jack, you pulled some strings so Dirk loses the TX Group, but you’re right that the development can’t stop. Sheriff Kolter will likely face some charges, but no one will really know what went on in that house before it burned down. There will always be more goliaths out there, but one thing I know well is having to hide, and Chloe won’t have to do that now. You make me damn proud every
day, every one of you, because each of you in your own way is making a little corner of this world better. That’s what I see. It’s what I know.”
Luke didn’t know what to say. He’d never considered that.
His dad was staring down at Karen, who was still resting against her husband. Jack had wrapped his arms around her and pressed a kiss to her head, and by the way Raymond smiled at the two of them, Luke realized there was something else.
“You know,” his dad said, “we could all use a little more good news. You told your mom and me earlier…”
Karen looked up at them all. “Jack and I are having a baby.”
Jack gave a proud papa’s smile as he kissed Karen’s cheek again, and Luke looked over to his feisty, fiery sister as everyone shouted their congratulations. He stood and strode over, then bent down and kissed her on the cheek before tapping Jack on the shoulder.
“That’s great, you two,” he said. “You know what? I think I’m going to grab Chloe and that sleeping pup and head out.”
As he strode across Marcus’s backyard toward the house, hearing the laughter behind him, he realized his dad was right. In their own ways, they really were trying to make things right.