THE HOMETOWN HERO will be released this week, but you can read Chapters 3 and 4 today!
In this shocking O’Connell family novel, a brother’s secret is exposed, opening up old wounds and creating a scandal that could rock the community.
Big brother Owen O’Connell was only sixteen when his father mysteriously disappeared, forcing him to become a father figure to his five younger siblings. If you were to ask them, they’d say Owen is the perfect older brother with the perfect life: He’s single, a plumber, working his own hours in a close-knit community. Owen, though, knows that appearances are often deceiving.
When he is called to a plumbing emergency at the local high school after a grad prank goes wrong, he finds his old rival Tessa Brooks, now a teacher, holding a broken pipe in the middle of the flood, thinking she can fix the problem. However, the two soon make a horrifying discovery: the body of a student tucked away in a closet.
The event brings authorities flocking in, and in the ensuing chaos, Owen realizes that someone knows too much about his family. Having carefully held the family together since his father disappeared, he is determined to keep their secrets right where they are, dead and buried. But sometimes, secrets get revealed in the most scandalous of ways.
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Did you miss Chapters 1 & 2? If so, click here.
“Look, I have no idea what the hell happened,” Owen said to Marcus, his brother, the sheriff, as he took in the scene at the school. “I was called to a plumbing emergency. There was water everywhere.”
He’d pulled out his phone and called Marcus after making the discovery, which had brought in what seemed like everyone. Tessa was talking with one of the crime scene techs, and Harold, his brother’s lead deputy and Suzanne’s partner, was speaking with Rita Mae. He took in the body, which had been photographed and was now in a body bag, being wheeled away. Another deputy, Lonnie, was in the bathroom, and the kid deputy, Colby, was directing the emergency workers to move the body down the stairs.
Owen was still having a hard time shaking the fact that he’d found a kid in a closet, dead. It was surreal, the entire scene.
“Any idea who the kid is?” Owen said. His arms were crossed, and he glanced around, taking in everyone. Tessa ran her hand over the back of her neck, strong and confident but shaken as all hell. He could see it only because he knew her better than he was comfortable with. Tessa had a difficult independent personality, and anyone else would’ve had to look real hard to see it.
“Jackson Moore,” Marcus said. “You know the Moore family? He’s one of Susan’s four kids. A hard call that’ll be.”
Owen winced. The Moores had been in Livingston as long as his family had—longer, maybe. He could see this was the part of the job his brother didn’t like. Who would want to face parents and tell them their kid was dead? This was the kind of thing that just didn’t happen in their town.
“You said the water’s off?” Marcus said. “We’re going to have to shut this down for now, so you won’t be fixing anything for a bit. We need to investigate, find out what happened. With all the kids and everyone in the school, it’s going to be like finding a needle in a haystack—or we could get lucky.”
From the way his brother said it, he knew that was wishful thinking. But then, someone had to have seen something.
“Fine, I get it,” Owen said. “School will be out too, then. I’ll fix it when you give the all clear. How old was Jackson, anyway?” He didn’t know why he needed to ask. It was irrelevant now, but he just wanted to know.
“Pretty sure he’s Alison’s age,” Marcus said. “What a waste. He never even had a chance at life, at screwing up or choosing something or creating something… Shit!”
The door was still open, and Owen took in the small closet, how dark it would’ve been, still filled with cleaning supplies, brooms, mops, and janitorial equipment. He didn’t know what to think.
“So was he murdered?” Owen said. He knew he’d never get the sightless eyes of the young man out of his mind. It was never supposed to happen this way—a wasted life. What the hell had happened?
The look from Marcus was one he knew well. “You know I can’t talk about that. It’s too early, anyway. Coroner will need to figure it out. Couldn’t see anything, any visible marks to give us a clue. How the hell did he get into that closet? Why was he there?”
There was a lot to figure out. He looked around, seeing how upset Rita Mae was. Harold was walking over toward them, calm, collected, together, one of his brother’s best deputies. Marcus reached out and touched his shoulder. “I’ll have someone grab your tools, but this is a crime scene now. Let me know if you hear of something. Keep your ear to the ground, and let me know if you think of anything that could help.”
He watched as his brother moved away with Harold, discussing crime-scene things that he knew had nothing to do with him. He took in Tessa, for the first time realizing she was completely out of sorts. It took her another second before she realized he was walking right toward her. He could hear Rita Mae crying, but he kept walking.
“You okay?” was all he said as he stopped in front of Tessa, whose shirt was still damp and indecent. He gestured helplessly. He didn’t even have a jacket to give her.
“Sure. Seriously? Of course I’m not. That was Jackson Moore. He was one of my students. How is it possible that he’s dead? It’s wrong, so wrong that this could happen. What the hell was he doing in that closet, anyways?” She lifted her hands and then let them fall helplessly to her sides. “Any idea what happened, how he died?”
The more he looked, the more he saw something in her blue eyes that made him not want to walk away. She didn’t show this side of herself to just anyone. There was just something about her. He sensed her vulnerability.
He shook his head. He knew she was asking the same questions he was. “Where’re your things?” he said. “We should grab them and then go.”
She lifted her hand in a gesture and started to one of the classrooms down the hall. Inside, he took in the empty desks, the old chalkboard, the same as when he’d gone to school. She opened a drawer and pulled out her purse, then tucked a laptop from the desk into a case. He took in the cream-colored sweater looped around the back of the chair and reached for it.
“Here, put this on,” he said, holding it up, taking in those blue eyes that seemed to connect with him for just a second. Would she argue? “Tessa, your shirt. Come on, you have to be cold. You’re still wet.”
She must’ve known, as she slipped her arms into her sweater, and he rested his hands over her shoulders, feeling her tension and the stress of the moment. He let his hands linger. Of course she was upset. He could feel it.
There was something about her hair, that fine blond hair. He ran his fingers over the strands that fell here and there from her bun, then tucked a few strands behind her ear and let his hand fall away. He made himself step back.
She didn’t pull her questioning gaze. For a moment, he was positive she was fighting the urge to lean closer. He could see it. At the same time, she wouldn’t let herself. He gestured to the door behind him and then ran his hand over her shoulder again and around her back to steer her there.
“We should go,” he said. “I’ll walk you out.”
She was about to shake her head. He could just tell when a woman wanted something even though she denied it, but Tessa was a master of control, of making sure she would never have the one thing she wanted. She didn’t give in, and he was well aware he was as stubborn as she was.
“You don’t have to,” she said. “I’m a big girl, Owen. I can look after myself. Been doing it for years.”
At any other time, he’d have said fine and walked away, but something about the situation had him digging his heels in. “No,” he said. “I’m sure you’re capable of looking after yourself, Tessa, but seriously, a kid just died. Don’t be so damn stubborn. You’re upset, I’m upset. Be human for a second. This isn’t about that. Let’s go. I’ll walk you out.”
He could sense without her saying a word that she was happy he was insisting. Her hand was on her computer bag, and he reached for it and took it from her. He didn’t know how he did it, but he had her walking out of the room. He took in the cops, the crime scene, and Marcus, who was talking to one of them but gave Owen a look. Something passed between them as he led Tessa out to the stairs, where water was still running down in a thin stream.
“Careful on the stairs,” he said. “It’ll be slippery.” He just couldn’t help himself. He let her go first as she held the rail.
“You know, Owen, you don’t have to walk me out. I already told you…”
“You’ve said that already, Tessa. Just stop it, okay? This isn’t the time to be so stubborn.”
She stepped down off the last step and looked up to him, and for a moment, he could see she might be having trouble with something.
“Any idea of what happened?” she said. “I mean, Jackson was kind of a loner. He had a few friends in class, but he kept his head down. Why would he have been in that closet?” She lifted her hands, adjusting her purse over her shoulder. She was struggling and wasn’t about to leave it alone. Could he blame her? Hell, he needed a shot of something after this.
He somehow maneuvered her around and had her walking to the front door again. The questions kept circling in his mind, too. “Rita Mae said something about a prank, about how she was waiting for something. Know anything about that?”
“You mean the grad pranks from the seniors that happen every year around this time?” She was so close to him as she walked, and he opened the front door and gestured for Tessa to go first. She did, but she seemed to linger a bit as if waiting for him, then fell in beside him again, walking down the steps.
He took in the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles. She gestured to a light blue compact in the parking lot not far from his plumbing van.
“Yeah, those ones,” he said.
She sighed as she kept walking, and he pressed his hand to her lower back because he just couldn’t keep from touching her. “Honestly, I don’t know, Owen. With the deserted halls and the flooding, that was honestly my first thought, too. It seems as if someone knew something…”
She stopped at her car and let out a sigh, then reached into her purse and pulled out her keys. He watched the way she clutched them, then hesitated, looking over the roof of her car as if thinking some heavy thoughts.
“You good to drive? I can follow you home,” he added.
She gave him everything again. “What happened between us, Owen?”
There it was, the million-dollar question. He was too stubborn, and so was she. “Life, everything…nothing,” he said, then shrugged, knowing it wasn’t an answer. He didn’t know when it was that his feelings for her had changed, which single moment had had him walking away. She didn’t pull her gaze from him, and Owen didn’t step back.
He found himself nodding. “You want to grab a drink?”
She said nothing for a second, giving him everything. Her eyes, the blueness… No one could compete with her. He expected a no, hell no, but instead she clutched her keys and seemed to consider it. “Yeah, a drink seems appropriate. So where?”
“Pop your things in your car, and I’ll drive. The Lighthouse?”
She held her keys up, and he saw that part of her that never went quietly as she said, “The Lighthouse sounds great, but I’ll drive.”
“Never realized you were a gin and tonic woman,” Owen said, taking in Tessa as she sat on the bar stool beside him, leaning on the old dark wood bar top and swirling a plastic stir stick in her drink after squeezing in a lime.
“And I never expected you to just get in my car and let me drive,” she replied. She tapped the stick on the edge of her glass and set it on the bar counter, then lifted the glass and took a swallow.
Owen gripped his double shot of whiskey. A pint of beer wasn’t going to do it for him. He needed something stronger and with a bite.
“There you go, not answering,” she said. “Why do you do that? I don’t get it. This here…” She gestured between them.
He stood and leaned beside her, not missing the scent of lavender. Maybe it was her shampoo or soap, but it was one of the little things about her that unsettled him. “What don’t you get?” he said, though he knew damn well what she was getting at, and he didn’t need to be such a prick about it. He sensed the minute she was about to get up and leave, so he reached out and grabbed her arm before she could slip off the stool. “Sorry,” he said. “Look, I don’t know why I do that.” He did, but saying that was easier than answering, because sharing anything with anyone was something he never did.
She gave him everything, standing so close now that he could feel her.
He could have stepped back, but he didn’t want to. “Sit down and finish your drink,” he said. Any other woman would have sat down and finished, but there was something about Tessa that wasn’t easy or uncomplicated. He sighed. “Please, Tessa, come on.”
“You going to keep avoiding answering me and playing games? Because I have to say, Owen, it’s the quality I like the least about you.” It was so matter of fact, the way she said it, that for a minute he really took her in, and he didn’t miss the sincerity mixed in with all the annoyance.
“Sorry, it’s not deliberate. Just a habit, I guess.” He swirled his whiskey and took a swallow, looking around, seeing faces he knew. When he gave her everything again, he saw the confusion on her face, as if she were thinking. What he’d have given to know what was going on in that head of hers.
“It’s a damn annoying habit, Owen.”
He leaned on the bar beside her as she sat back on her stool, lifted her glass, and took a swallow of her drink.
“What do you want to know?” he said.
“As in, ask you anything?”
What was it about that question that had him wanting to roll his shoulders and shake off the feeling that was setting him on edge?
“Geez, you can’t even hide how uncomfortable you are at that simple question, as if there’s something you don’t want anyone to know.”
“No, seriously, ask me.” He knew it had come out rather sharply.
That brought a smile to the edges of her lips. “Fine. You never answered me about my car. I insisted on driving, and you didn’t argue. I half expected you to do that thing you do and walk away or say no, or take my keys, maybe.”
He couldn’t help the laugh that burst out. “Take your keys? That would be something, Tessa. You’d likely have decked me.”
She raised her brows. “There you go, not really answering. It’s as if you have this secret that you need to hide. Now I’m convinced there’s really something there. Do you have a secret, Owen?”
The way she asked had him finishing his whiskey and lifting his hand to the bartender. “No secret,” he said. “And, honestly, I don’t know why I just let you drive. With the shitshow we walked out of at the school, the bad scene, it didn’t feel right to argue. Evidently, you didn’t want to give up control by getting into my van and driving with me, so I let you have this one. So what about you, Tessa? Why are you so driven? Why the need to do it yourself? Everything about you, it seems, is a fight. If I say blue, I’m pretty sure you’d say red.”
The bartender strode over.
“You want another drink?” Owen said.
Tessa just shook her head. “I’m good.”
“I’ll take a pint of your ale,” Owen said. “Bring another gin and tonic, too,” he added, taking in the shock on Tessa’s face when the bartender walked away.
“I said no. What don’t you understand about that?”
He wanted to laugh at her, at the fire and fight. Anyone else would’ve likely taken the damn drink. “Force of habit, I guess—and I’m not drinking alone.”
Her lips twitched, and she inclined her head. “Okay, you’ll get a pass for today only, but I’m not getting drunk, so if that’s your plan…”
What was it about her? He could go back and forth with her all day. “No, not my plan, but if I recall, just a second ago, you were busting my balls about evading and not answering, yet here you are, doing the same thing.”
She stilled as she lifted her glass, and for a second, as she gave him everything, he could see how she hadn’t expected that.
“You’ve always been driven,” he said. “You’ve never been the kind of woman to sit back and be meek and go with things. I always expect a fight about everything with you, as if you can see only your way and think only you can do it. Why?” He wondered if she’d answer.
She lowered her gaze and then flicked those blue eyes up to him. “Okay. What if I say I don’t know, and it’s just who I am?”
He was shaking his head. “Bullshit,” he said just as a pint of ale appeared in front of him, along with a short glass of gin and tonic with a twist of lime on the side for Tessa.
“Thank you,” she said with a smile and a lift of her chin to the bartender. It faded as she gripped her glass and lifted it, finishing off her first drink and then sliding the glass away to reach for the second one. “I don’t want to be disappointed,” she said. “I just find it easier, and it hurts less to be the one deciding for myself. The moment I depend on anyone, I’m disappointed and hurt. I don’t like feeling that way, and yes, it’s about not being in control of things that affect me. I learned long ago to do things by myself, so if that’s what you’re seeing…” She gestured at herself. He could see how uncomfortable she was.
“So who hurt you? Who is it that disappointed you, Tessa?” he said, though he didn’t think she’d answer. For all the years he’d known her, there was still so much about her that he didn’t know.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I guess it was just my dad, all the times he said he’d do something and then wouldn’t, all the broken promises. To him, they were little things. Something always came up, from the trip he talked about, to the bike he promised me, or a game, an event, a show, dinner. There was always something, as far back as I can remember. I’d get excited about something and then wait all week for that one thing, and then he’d have a bad day at work, or something would happen, and my parents would say that was life and I needed to get over it. I learned the promises he made were just dreams that would never happen, so after that, with anything anyone said, I knew if I counted on someone, I’d be disappointed. So yeah, I did it myself, everything.” She was self-assured and unapologetic.
He took her in, considering the thing he’d never known about her. “So you automatically think everyone is out to disappoint you and can’t be trusted to follow through on something? You think you’re the only one who can do it right? Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s what it sounds like to me.”
She furrowed her brow, and for a moment, he thought she’d argue. “You make me sound horrible, Owen.” She lifted her chin to him, and he could see how she’d gone from semi-relaxed to overthinking.
“No, I don’t think you’re horrible by any means, Tessa. I never said that, so don’t put words in my mouth. I’m sorry your dad did that, but don’t you think by assuming everyone will let you down, that’s exactly the expectation you’re putting out there for everyone? Sometimes you can set standards so high, Tessa, that no one can meet them. Not everyone is your dad, but sometimes stuff does come up.”
He didn’t move from where he was, so close to her. He could see this topic was associated with hurts buried beneath so many layers, and getting to the bottom of it was like peeling an onion.
“I won’t apologize for who I am, Owen.” She gave him everything as she set her glass down. Was she considering leaving?
“I’m not sure why you think I expect an apology,” he said.
It was there in her face, her expression, as she shrugged. “Well, you just said you think my standards are too high.”
He made a rude noise. “Don’t think that’s what I said. I’m just questioning your motives, is all. That’s all that is, Tessa. I’m not in your head, but most folks are just doing the best they can.”
She pulled in a breath, and he didn’t miss the way her chest rose. He couldn’t pull his gaze from the curve of her breasts as he dragged his gaze back up to her face. She could never be lost, even in a sea of pretty women. None of the women he’d dated could hold a candle to Tessa in personality. He held her gaze and took in her gorgeous pink lips, her narrow nose, and the hairline scar on her cheekbone.
“So is that what you’re doing, Owen, your best?”
He didn’t know how to answer her, but he knew what she was asking. “It’s who I am, Tessa. I don’t know how to be any other way. May not be what you’re looking for, but it is what it is.” He lifted his ale and took a swallow, letting his gaze linger on her, taking in all of her.
“You have a lot of secrets, Owen.”
He said nothing for another second as he took in the two of them, the bar, and the fact that he hadn’t thought of the kid they’d found dead for a few minutes now.
“Don’t we all, Tessa?”
This time, she lifted her drink and didn’t bother to answer.
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