The Twisted Road to You

A Love From the Heartland Novel / Perfect, Indiana #4
October 20, 2015
Montlake Romance
ISBN-10: 1503948242
ISBN-13: 9781503948242
Available in: Audio, e-Book, Trade Size

The Twisted Road to You

Struggling with both PTSD and the trauma of his ex-wife’s infidelity, retired Marine Wesley Holt seeks a simple civilian life. His favorite waitress at the Perfect Diner secretly stirs his heart. Yet Wes—scarred by betrayal and racked by guilt over his fallen comrades in Afghanistan—stays quiet, convinced he can never love again…or be loved.

Waitress and single mother Carlie Stewart hides fear behind her smile. Her ex-husband has escaped from prison and wants their son—and revenge. When the fugitive arrives to wreak havoc, Wes insists Carlie and her son stay with him for protection. Finally daring to let her guard down, Carlie divulges her dark past to Wes, and to her surprise, Wes appreciates her strengths and longs to trust her with his tattered heart. The safer they feel with each other, the more trust and passion grow. But can they overcome the demons in their pasts—and the heartbreak they’ve carried into the present—to build a lasting future together?

Chapter 1 excerpt

Wesley set his broom aside and checked the wall clock. Almost the end of his shift. As soon as Langford & Lovejoy’s day crew arrived, he’d head to the Perfect Diner for his daily dose of Carlie, the diner’s pretty assistant manager. The food wasn’t bad, either. Anticipation thrummed through him, bringing a grin to his face.

“You do that every morning,” Ken grumbled. “It’s creepy.”

Wes’s smile widened. Ken was always grumpy at the end of his shift. He ought to know, since he’d been supervising the overnight crew of furniture finishers here in the small town of Perfect, Indiana, for a year and a half now. “Grinning is creepy?”

“It is when you do it every single morning at exactly the same time,” Ken groused. “Makes me think you’re up to something.”

“Naw, bro. It’s not creepy. That’s just your paranoia talkin’.” Miguel slapped Ken on the shoulder. “Wes is just smiling ’cause he’s gonna go see his girl soon.”

Wes walked over to his dog’s bed and scratched the old German shepherd behind the ears. Rex had already had his trip outside. He’d be fine here for a while. “I don’t have a girl.”

“Right. Have it your way.” Miguel chuckled and shook his head. “It takes a woman to put that stupid smile on most men’s faces. But I guess for you all it takes is eggs and bacon. How about I join you for breakfast this morning?”

“Sure, but won’t your wife be upset when you don’t come home for the breakfast she’ll have waiting for you?”

“Good point.” Miguel patted his flat belly. “Nobody cooks like my Celia. Guess I’ll head home after all.”

The back door swung wide, letting in a blast of early November air. “Morning,” Ted Lovejoy said, holding the door open for his fiancée, Cory.

“Hey, Ted, Cory.” Wes did his customary once-over on Cory to make sure everything was good with her. Her radiant expression said it all. She was doing well and continuing to heal from the trauma she’d suffered at the hands of her staff sergeant a couple of years ago.

He and Cory had grown up in the same trailer park on the south side of Evansville, and he’d always looked out for her. She and his youngest sister were best friends and had been since the day Cory and her mother moved into the park. “How are the wedding plans coming along?”

“I’m glad you brought it up,” she said, taking him by the arm. “Come with me. I have a favor to ask.”

His stomach rumbled, but this was Cory. Hunger could wait. She led him to the storefront, dropped his arm and fished around inside the purse she carried slung over her shoulder.

Pulling out a thick, butter-colored envelope, she turned a hopeful look his way. “This is your invitation to our wedding. I’ve talked it over with my mom, and she agrees. You’re like a brother to me, Bunny,” she said, reverting to his childhood nickname. “You’re the reason I have my job here. If it weren’t for you, Ted and I wouldn’t have met. I don’t know what I would’ve done without you in my life.” Her voice quavered.

“Will you walk me down the aisle?” She handed him the invitation. “Whoa, Squirrel. Didn’t see that coming.” Warmth spread through his chest. “I’d be honored.” He stared at the fancy script on the front of the envelope. Wesley Holt . . . and guest.

“Good.” Cory patted his forearm. “One more thing.” “What’s that?” He raised his gaze to hers.

“Bring a date.”

“Uh . . . no. I don’t think so.” He rubbed his forehead and shifted his weight, edging toward escape. “I’m not—”

“Ask Carlie. We’d like her to be there, but we don’t know her well enough to invite her.” Cory’s chin angled up a determined notch. “You and Carlie have chemistry. Neither one of you can keep your eyes off the other when you’re at the diner.” She poked him in the chest. “Ask her.”

Memories swamped him—an e-mail sent by his wife, now his ex, while he was deployed. Two short paragraphs. That’s all she wrote, but those two paragraphs had plunged him into a deep, dark well of misery and rage the night before a mission. His throat tightened, and a familiar image flashed into his brain. Wes forced the image of the young Marine’s face back into the far recesses of his mind, but then the anger and betrayal living in his gut like a parasitic worm raised its ugly head. He inhaled and exhaled slowly, while visualizing himself stomping the worm into the rocky desert with his Blackhawk Desert Ops combat boots.

He no longer risked getting involved. Who needed that kind of pain? Not him. His heart was no longer up for grabs. Coping with his PTSD was about all he could handle, thank you very much.

“It’s time, Wes.” Cory’s brown eyes filled with concern as she peered up at him. “Just because your heart was broken once doesn’t mean the same thing is going to happen again.”

It had been a struggle, a constant uphill climb, but he was content with his life and somewhat at peace. Admiring Carlie from a distance was all he could handle. What did he know about her, anyway? Sure, he lusted after her, but . . . nope. Not worth it. The dreams he’d had for a family of his own were long dead. Besides, he was almost forty—too late for a do-over. He’d gotten into the habit of sleeping during the day, because he had fewer nightmares then, and even though he’d come a long way in the past year and a half, he still experienced the occasional flashback. Irritability and paranoia still got the best of him sometimes, and he never could predict what might trigger a reaction. What kind of parent and partner would he make? “I’ll think about it.” No, I won’t.

“Good.” Cory nodded. “Think about it all the way down the street to the diner, and then ask her.”

He raised the invitation. “Consider me RSVP’d. I’d be honored to walk you down the aisle.”

“Thanks, Bunny.” Cory’s voice went shaky again. “My dad was a Marine, too, you know? Having you stand in his place means the world to me.”

The next thing he knew, she had him in a hammerlock hug. His heart melted, and he hugged her back. “Me, too,” he mumbled before disentangling himself. “Get to work, Squirrel. I’ve got to go get something to eat.”

“All right.” She glanced at him, her eyes bright. “While you’re at the diner, don’t forget to ask Carlie to be your date for our wedding.”

“Humph. Think I’ll head on out to the truck stop for breakfast this morning,” he teased.

Cory’s laughter brought his smile back. He handed her the invitation. “Put this in my in-box in the production room, would you? I’ll grab it when I get back.” His smile once more firmly fixed, Wesley headed the two blocks down the street to the local diner. Pancakes sounded mighty good this morning, or french toast with a side of thickcut bacon and extra-crispy hash browns with onions.

Half a block away from the diner, the air carried the scent of sausage, bacon and onions. He salivated, and not just for food. The sight of Carlie Stewart bustling around the retro fifties diner in her snug black jeans, equally snug white T-shirt and red apron did that to him.

In the summer, she’d worn shorts, giving him an eyeful of her shapely legs. Even better.

The small bell chimed as he opened the door. He looked around . . . and frowned. Someone was sitting at his corner table—the table Carlie always reserved for him. She was nowhere to be found. Disappointment fogged his brain.

Jenny Maurer, the diner’s owner, approached. “Good morning, Wes.” She motioned him toward a different table.

He didn’t budge. “Where’s Carlie?” Since he’d moved to Perfect, he’d never known her to miss work. His gaze roamed the interior of the diner, even though he knew he wouldn’t find her there. Her absence was a tangible force pressing him back against the wall. Overreact much? Nothing more than his PTSD acting up. Slow inhale. Slow exhale.

“We don’t know. She didn’t show up for work this morning, and she hasn’t called.” Jenny’s brow creased with worry.

That brought him up short. A prickle of unease raised the fine hairs at the back of his neck. “Did you call her?”

Jenny nodded. “Several times. She’s not answering.”

Twenty years of finely honed combat instincts flared to life. Something was wrong. He hadn’t overreacted. Images of Carlie trapped in the wreckage of her car somewhere along the highway flashed through his mind. What if she was unconscious in her house from a fall or a carbon monoxide leak? “Where does she live?”

“Do you know the McCurdy farm?” Jenny asked. “It’s about ten minutes west of Perfect. Carlie rents the little white house about a mile down the road from there. It’s the only other house on that stretch of road.”

“No.” He shook his head. “But if you have an address, I can put it in my GPS.”

“I don’t. You know how it is when you’ve lived your entire life in the same small town. I know where everything is, but I couldn’t give you more than a handful of addresses.” Jenny moved to the cash register. “Harlen, hand me a piece of paper and a pen. I’ll draw a map.”

“Way ahead of you, honey.” Harlen glanced at Wes. “I was about to head out to check on Carlie myself, but that would leave Jenny even more shorthanded here at the diner.” He handed Wes a piece of paper. “I drew a map while you two were talking. Sheriff Taylor’s personal cell phone number is at the bottom. I was going to give him a call just as you walked in. I still will, though at this point there’s no real reason to send him out to Carlie’s. Would you mind heading out that way to check on her?”

“No, I don’t mind. I have the time.” Wes caught something in Harlen’s expression as he took the map. The older man knew something he didn’t. Harlen was also a veteran. He’d been in the military police during the Vietnam War, plus he’d been sheriff of Warrick County for twenty-five years before he retired. Wes pulled out his cell phone and entered the sheriff’s number into his contacts before folding the map and stuffing it into his back pocket. “What do I need to know, Harlen?”

“Carlie has . . . history.” The retired sheriff glanced at his wife. Jenny nodded slightly. “It could be that her past has come looking for her. Then again, her absence might be nothing at all. Maybe she had car trouble this morning, and she’s on her way right now. She could have misplaced her cell phone, or her son might be sick.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “We’d appreciate your willingness to give her a hand if she needs one.”

Wesley frowned. He had a feeling her absence wasn’t as simple as a lost cell phone or a sick kid. Adrenaline flooded his system and he tensed, battle ready. “On my way.”

“Wait a minute,” Jenny called as she disappeared into the kitchen.

He didn’t want to wait. Worry for Carlie twisted his gut. “What kind of history are we talking here, Harlen?” he asked. Carlie was divorced and had a son named Tyler, that much he knew.

“I’m most concerned about her physically abusive ex-husband.” Harlen’s voice dropped to barely audible. “All we know about him is that he’s a real piece of work with a criminal record.”

Wes nodded. A bully he could handle. He rolled his shoulders and turned his head from side to side to loosen up, forcing himself to remain where he was until Jenny reappeared. She came back to the register, holding a white paper bag in one hand and a to-go coffee in the other.

“On the house,” she said, handing him the bag and the cup. “It’s a fried egg, bacon and cheese sandwich, and the coffee is just the way you like it. You can eat on the way.”

“Thanks.” He took the bag and the coffee from her. “I’ll call you when I find out what’s going on with Carlie.” In its current knotted state, his stomach couldn’t take food, but Rex would appreciate the treat. Sucking down the coffee on the fly, he hurried back to L&L.

Three sets of eyes turned to him the minute he burst through the back door. His boss, Noah Langford, glanced at the clock, and Ryan Malloy, L&L’s design genius, raised an eyebrow. Wes took the egg sandwich from the bag, unwrapped it and tossed it to Rex. The dog caught it midair and devoured the treat in seconds flat. The empty coffee cup and paper bag Wes tossed into the trash bin.

Ted Lovejoy, co-owner and business manager of L&L, straightened up from whatever furniture design the three of them were studying. “You’re back fast. Is everything OK at the diner? Is my aunt Jenny—”

“Jenny’s fine.” Not wanting to waste any more time, Wes took the stairs two at a time to his third-floor apartment. Once he was inside, he headed for the closet in his living room where he kept his handgun in a locked metal box. He unlocked the box and took out the handgun, its cold weight fitting against his palm familiar. Too familiar.

He loaded the M9 Beretta, put on the safety and shoved it into the back of his belt. Years of training and experience took over, and he went through the mental steps preparing himself for the job ahead. Rescue and protection. Carlie and her son, Tyler, were his mission. If her bully of an ex-husband had anything to do with her absence, he’d set the man straight. As he ran back down the stairs, he planned how he’d go about getting the job done. He crossed to the hooks on the wall where he kept one of Rex’s leashes.

“Why the gun, Wes?” Ryan followed him and blocked the back door.

Grabbing Rex’s leash from its hook, Wes shook his head. “We’ll talk later. Might be nothing.”

“Do you feel like it’s nothing?” Noah studied him.

Shortly after retiring from active service, Wes had met Noah through the VA center in Evansville. They’d gotten to talking, and the next thing Wes knew, he’d been offered a job in a growing furniture business that only hired veterans. Plus, Noah had offered him a place to live in the small, quiet town of Perfect.

If anyone understood the way battle-honed instincts acted upon a veteran, it would be Noah. They had both commanded a platoon during their military careers. They were both haunted by the loss of good soldiers under their command. Ever since that first meeting, they’d been in the same PTSD support group, along with Ryan Malloy and a couple of the other L&L employees.

“Carlie didn’t show up for work this morning.” Wes’s grip tightened on the leather leash. “Harlen and Jenny are worried. She never misses work, and she’s not answering her phone. They asked if I’d check it out, offer her a hand if she needs one. Harlen is worried her abusive ex-husband might have something to do with her absence. The gun is just a precaution.”

“You want backup?” Ryan asked.

“No, but thanks. Harlen already called Sheriff Taylor. He’s on standby.”

“All right.” Noah straightened. “Be careful, and call us if you need anything.”

“Roger that.” Wesley clipped the leash onto Rex’s collar and commanded the three-legged dog to heel. Pulling Harlen’s map out of his back pocket, he strode to his SUV. Rex’s right hind leg had been shattered beyond fixing by mortar fire in Afghanistan, and jumping into Wes’s vehicle was no longer easy for the retired explosives-detection dog. Like all military dogs, he’d undergone two trainings—explosives detection and bite-to-capture. Wes had been required to learn what the dog’s training entailed before he could adopt him. He needed to know the commands in order to avoid inadvertently causing Rex to go into attack mode around other people. He lifted the dog and placed him on the front seat. “Time to work, buddy.”

Rex’s tail thumped, and his ears stood up at full alert. Wesley ruffled the fur around the dog’s head for a second before circling around to the driver’s side and climbing in. He studied the map. Not too complicated. Not a whole lot of chance for error when it came to the few rural roads he’d have to navigate. He started his car, pulled out of his space and headed west.

Scanning the side of the two-lane road, he searched for any sign of a car accident. Relieved at not finding Carlie’s car in a ditch, he searched the side of the road for the green fire marker with the number Harlen had written down. There it was—the intersection with an oak tree on the west side, a winter-wheat field on the east and the McCurdys’ farmhouse set back at the end of the long gravel driveway. He turned left onto the narrow road. Carlie’s house would be a mile down on the right.

Trees and brush grew alongside the lane, and leaves still clung to some of the branches. Good. Cover was good. About a quarter of a mile from the small white house, he pulled over and parked his Chevy in the dry grass beside a gnarled blackberry thicket. If Carlie was in trouble, he didn’t want the bad guy to see him coming.

Carlie’s old Ford Escape was parked in the driveway, alongside a late-model sedan. Now he knew for certain she wasn’t alone. He gripped the steering wheel, and his mouth went dry. What if she’s with a lover and just forgot to set her alarm clock? His chest tightened, and the familiar burn of betrayal scorched him. What? Let it go. He had no business putting that on her. Carlie had every right to see whomever she wanted. It wasn’t like he’d ever made a move on her or even asked her out for coffee. Nope. Their association started and ended in the diner.

Wes helped his dog down and gripped the leash. Keeping close to the side of the road, taking cover where he could, he moved slowly toward the house. Once he was within range, he pulled out his cell phone, snapped a picture of the unfamiliar car and license plate and sent them in a text to Sheriff Taylor’s cell phone number. Just in case.

Using the parked vehicles for cover, he crouched low and made his way to the corner of the house. Then he crept along the foundation until he reached the bay window to the right of the front door. He heard an angry male voice on a rant.

Man, what he’d give right now for some of the high-tech surveillance gear he’d had access to while deployed. Holding his breath, he rose slowly and peered through the window. What he saw stopped his heart cold. Carlie and her little boy sat huddled together on the couch. A man paced in front of them, waving a wicked-looking combat knife in the air. Carlie’s right eye had swollen shut, and her lower lip bled where it had been split. Wes dropped back down, swore under his breath and focused on listening.

“You and the kid belong to me, Kara. We’re a family. You had no right to take my son from me. No. Right. You and Tyler can either come with me today or I end you now. After what you did to me, I should end you. Worthless bitch, with or without you, I’m not leaving this hellhole without my boy. You hear me? I’m taking my son.” Kara?

Carlie responded. Her voice was too low for him to hear what she said, but he could detect the note of pleading. Rage exploded in his chest. What kind of man beat a woman, threatened to end them and terrorized their kid?

Wesley unleashed Rex, gave him the hand signal to heel and circled around to the back of the house. He prayed he’d find the back door unlocked. Folks in Perfect rarely locked their houses, especially out in the country. If he was lucky, he could sneak in and capture the enemy before the guy even knew he and Rex were there.

Slowly, he pulled the screen door open and checked. Not his lucky day. Damn. The back door had been locked, probably by the asswipe terrorizing Carlie and her son. Stepping back, he drew his gun, undid the safety and sized up the door. One kick, and a resounding crack filled the air. The wood frame splintered around the piece-of-crap dead bolt, and the door swung wide.

“Get ’em, Rex,” he commanded. Growling, his dog shot through the house. Wes followed. “Drop your weapon,” he shouted, gun raised. Rex slipped on the polished wood floor. The dog went down and scrabbled to recover. The slip gave the bad guy the seconds he needed to sprint out the front door. Rex followed on his heels, and Wesley ran out after them. The guy managed to slide into his car, but Rex had him by the ankle, and he wasn’t letting go. The car started. The man put the sedan in reverse and gunned the engine, dragging Rex alongside the vehicle.

“Rex, out,” Wes called, aiming his Beretta. He didn’t want Rex getting caught under the tires—or by a bullet. Rex let go, and Wesley fired. He missed the tire, and the bullet pinged against the hubcap. He fired again—and missed. The car door slammed shut, and the car peeled off in a wave of gravel and dust.

“Heel,” Wes called. Rex trotted toward him, stiff legged, with his ruff still standing on end. His heart hammering against his rib cage, Wes put the Beretta’s safety back on and shoved the gun back into his belt. “Good dog,” he crooned, scratching the dog behind his ears, giving Rex the reward he sought for a job well done. The shepherd’s ruff settled, and his tail wagged. Wes snatched his cell phone from his pocket and called Sheriff Taylor. “This is Wesley Holt—”

“I ran the license plate. The vehicle is stolen,” Taylor said without preamble.

“Figures.” Wesley ran a hand over his buzz cut. “A man had Carlie and her son at knifepoint. He’s gone now. Took off in the stolen car. She’s been beat up, and I overheard the guy threaten to kill her and take her son.” He turned back to stare at the house.

“On my way,” Sheriff Taylor said. “I’ll put out an all-points bulletin with the vehicle description. Will you remain on site until I arrive?”

“Hell, yes.” Wesley eyed the open front door. “I’m not leaving.” For now, Carlie and her son were safe. Wesley planned to see that they stayed that way, no matter what it took. He and Rex headed for the house. He had no idea how to comfort Carlie and her boy after such a trauma, but he’d do his best. He just hoped his best was enough.

“Rex, drop.” The dog plopped to his belly on the rug inside the front door, his ears pricked up for any sign of danger. Wes couldn’t bear the hurt and fear he saw in Carlie’s pretty blue eyes, and seeing her lovely face so battered and bruised turned him inside out. His hands curled into fists. He wanted to inflict the same damage and worse on the scumbag who’d split her lip and put that frozen-in-fear look on her little boy’s face.

“Sheriff Taylor is on his way. I’ll be right back.” He went to the kitchen, opened the freezer and snatched a bag of frozen corn. He returned to the living room and handed it to her. “That man . . . he’s your ex?” Her eyes filled, and his gut tied itself into a painful twist.

Carlie nodded. She pressed the bag of frozen corn to her face and drew her son closer to her side with her free arm. “You saved my life, Wesley. If . . . if you hadn’t—”

“Glad to help.” Wes crouched down in front of the two of them, eye level with the kid. “Hey, I’m Wesley Holt, a friend of your mom’s. You OK there, buddy?” The little guy’s face had lost all color, and his eyes didn’t seem to focus until he spoke to him.

The boy glanced at Carlie and then at Wes. “I”—his chin quivered—“I had a accident.” Color rushed back into his face.

Wes patted the kid’s knee. “Happens to the best of us.” He reached out to touch Carlie’s cheek but stopped himself. He wanted to gather her up and hold her until she stopped trembling, until she knew she was safe in his arms, but they weren’t on a touching basis. Instead, he placed his hands on the couch on either side of the two, encircling them as closely as he dared. He met her eyes. “You OK?”

She shook her head. “No, but I will be, thanks to you. Come on, Tyler. Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Wes rose and reached down to help her up. She dropped the bag of corn on the couch and placed her hand in his. His breath hitched, and a frisson of heat coursed through him at the skin-on-skin contact. He steadied her once she was on her feet. Her tears had started in earnest, and helpless frustration stirred him to a froth. He needed something to do with his hands—something that would keep him from wrapping his arms around the woman who tugged at the ragged edges of his soul the way she did.

“You have accidents?” Tyler stared up at Wes, saucer eyed.

Grateful for the distraction, Wes nodded. “I’ve had one or two, sure. It’s natural to be afraid when you’re being threatened, and sometimes that fear causes a man to lose control.” The child’s face relaxed a little, and Wesley’s heart turned over in his chest.

“You coming with me and my mom to my room, Mr. Holt?” Tyler’s gaze turned to the shadowy hallway between the living room and the kitchen.

“You can call me Wes.” He peered down at the little boy whose blue eyes were so much like his mother’s. Tyler gripped Carlie’s hand with double-fisted tenacity, like he was afraid she might disappear if he let her go.

“I thought I’d stay here in the living room and keep an eye on things,” he told the kid.

Tyler’s face went pale again, and his eyes filled with panic. He couldn’t even imagine what it must be like for Carlie’s son right now.

He’d seen his mom get beaten up, and the little guy had heard his dad say he planned to end his mother’s life. Wes’s jaw tightened, and a lump clogged his throat. Not right. Not right at all.

Wes backpedaled. “On second thought, how about I stick close to you and your mom? You and I would make a pretty good team, don’t you think?”

Tyler nodded, and his shoulders unbunched a fraction. Wes followed the two down the hall to Tyler’s bedroom. Dark blue walls with glow-in-the-dark planets and stars appliquéd all over the surface greeted him. A matching bedspread covered the twin bed of the cozy, little-boy bedroom. He stood at the door so that he could keep the two of them in his sights.

“Get what you need, Ty. I’m going to go fill the tub.” Carlie gently pushed her son toward the dresser, and then she left for the bathroom.

Wes couldn’t tear his eyes from her. Petite and curvy, she was dressed in her snug black jeans—the best part of the uniform she wore for work—and a long-sleeved white T-shirt. He hated seeing her shoulders so slumped and defeated. He hated that her ex had stolen the smile from her pretty face and the light from those heart-stopping blue eyes of hers. The need to protect her had him itching once again to drag her into his arms.

Shoving his hands into his back pockets, he turned his attention back to Tyler’s room. A wide bookshelf crammed full with books and toys caught his eye. He imagined Carlie reading to her son at bedtime. Wesley’s mom had never read to him or his brothers and sisters. By the time she finished her day cleaning other people’s houses, she was exhausted. It was the same with his dad, who worked at a tool and die company.

His parents had worked long, hard hours to keep their large family afloat. They were good people, and he never doubted their love for each other, or for their six children, but it had never been easy. Still, as tough as it was, neither of his parents had ever raised a hand in anger against each other or their children. They’d always been a close, loving family, and he counted his blessings where they were concerned. As the oldest, Wes had been the one to read to his brothers and sisters, help with homework, clean and bandage scraped knees and dole out the PB&J sandwiches for lunch.

Tyler opened dresser drawers, pulled out clean jeans and a pair of briefs with some kind of superhero printed on them. Wes’s chest took on a whole new ache, this one churning with anger. The little guy’s sense of safety and security had been ripped to shreds. No child should have to live in fear, and when the source of that fear is one of the people you should be able to trust the most? Well, that just made it a thousand times worse. “All set?”


“Let’s go, partner.” He took the bundle of clean clothes from the boy and held out his hand. Tyler tucked his small hand in his, and again Wesley’s heart wrenched.

The sound of a siren grew close—Sheriff Taylor, no doubt. Carlie met Wesley and Tyler outside the bathroom. “That will be the sheriff.” He squeezed the little boy’s hand. “I have to go meet the sheriff, but I’ll be back.” He handed Carlie the clothes and left Tyler with his mother. Then he walked through the house and out the front door to wait.

The sheriff’s SUV raced down the country road, lights pulsing and the siren breaking the peace and quiet of the autumn rural landscape. The incongruence brought a frown to his face. The sound of a siren and the sight of flashing lights didn’t happen very often in Perfect, Indiana, and when they did, it was usually due to a car accident or some act of stupidity on the part of the local adolescents. Wes crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against Carlie’s Ford.

The vehicle barreled down the gravel driveway, coming to a sudden halt a scant few yards away from where he stood. Paul Taylor, the sheriff of Warrick County, climbed out, clipboard in hand. He shook Wesley’s hand. “Hey, Wes, I appreciate your help. Is everything secure here?” “For now.” Wesley gave him a description of Carlie’s ex and filled him in on the details of what he’d witnessed and heard. When he finished, the two of them walked toward the house together. They found Carlie waiting for them, with her son stuck to her side like he’d been fastened there with Velcro. Rex’s head came up from his paws, looking to him for direction. He motioned for him to stay, and the dog let out a long sigh and dropped his head to his paws again, clearly disappointed by the lack of action.

“Jared violated the restraining order I have against him,” Carlie said, slipping a legal-looking document from the manila folder she held against her chest. She handed it to the sheriff. “I . . . he shouldn’t be out of prison yet. He . . . he’s not eligible. No one notified me that he was out. They were supposed to let me know.” Her voice held an edge of fear.

Sheriff Taylor gestured toward the couch. “Let’s sit down, Ms. Stewart. We can start from the beginning.”

Nodding, Carlie and her boy moved to the couch. The sheriff took the chair in the corner, and Wes remained standing. Prison? Her ex had called her Kara. Was she in some kind of witness protection program or something? “So, violating a restraining order, assault with a weapon and car theft—if he is on parole, he’s pretty much blown it, right?” Wesley arched a brow in question.

“I have my deputies out looking for the stolen vehicle, and hopefully he’ll still be in it. I’ve also notified the neighboring counties. Now that I know who he is, we can issue a warrant, though I suspect there may already be one outstanding.”

Sheriff Taylor and Carlie got down to business, and Wesley scanned the yard from where he stood, looking for any movement in the surrounding fields and forest that might indicate the bad guy had circled back. The thought that Carlie’s ex might be out there watching and waiting sent a chill down his spine. Her place was too damned isolated—too far from help should she need it.

“Thank you for the picture, Ms. Stewart. This will help. I have everything I need for now.” The sheriff rose from his chair. “We’ll have a deputy parked in your yard tonight in case your ex returns.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it.” Carlie set the folder down on the couch and rose with the sheriff, walking with him to the door. “I didn’t have my house locked. I’ll keep both doors locked from now on—and the windows.”

Wes shook his head. “I wrecked the back door.” He pulled out his cell phone. “I’ll see that it’s replaced today, along with a better dead bolt than the one you had before. Do you have a tape measure?” “I do,” Carlie said before heading down the hall.        

The minute his mom left the room, Tyler moved to Wes’s side and reached for his hand. Wes took it and gave him a reassuring squeeze. “I’ve got it covered here, Sheriff. I’ll bring Carlie and Tyler with me when I go for a new door. They won’t be alone, and her ex knows I’m armed. I took a couple of shots at his tires.” He shrugged. “I’m out of practice. Missed both times.” He’d have to make a point to get to a shooting range to practice.

“I’m going to assume you have a permit for that handgun.” The sheriff’s brow lowered.

“Of course I do.”

“This is the moment where I have to tell you officially to stay out of police matters. Unofficially, though, the Warrick County sheriff’s department is undermanned and lacking resources. We don’t even have our own SWAT team anymore. I have to call on Evansville to have their team come out when we need it. I can’t really spare the manpower to keep a deputy here around the clock. I appreciate your willingness to keep an eye on Ms. Stewart and her son. Just don’t turn any more vigilante than you already have today. Got it?”

“Got it.” Not really. If Carlie’s ex crossed his path, he’d do what needed to be done to render the guy senseless until the sheriff could come and haul the piece of human garbage away.

The sheriff attached his pen to the clipboard. “I’ll be in touch.” He opened the door. “I’ll have a deputy parked in her drive by the time you get back. Call me on my cell if you catch sight of Carlie’s ex.”

“Will do.” Paul left, and Wes hit speed dial one-handed for L&L. Tyler still clung to him, and he wasn’t about to let go of the kid.

“Langford & Lovejoy,” Paige Malloy answered. “What can we build for you today?”

“Hey, Paige. This is Wes. I need to talk to Noah.”

“I heard Carlie is missing. Is everything all right?”

“For now.” He frowned. “Man, news travels fast in Perfect. How’d you hear?”

“Jenny called to talk to Noah. I just happened to be the one who answered the phone. She didn’t say much, only that Carlie was missing from work this morning and you were checking things out. We figured something might be wrong when the sheriff raced through town with his siren blasting.”

He glanced at the folder Carlie had set on the couch. “I need to talk to Noah—or Ted, if your brother isn’t available.”

“What’s going on? Did you find Carlie and her son?”

“I did. They’re fine for now, but I need some help with—”

“You’ve got it. I’ll get my brother. Hold on.”

Carlie returned to the living room with the tape measure. With the phone pressed between his ear and his shoulder, and Tyler’s hand in his, Wes headed for the door he’d busted. Noah came on the line, and Wes gave him the short version of what had happened. “I need to install a new door and dead bolt at Carlie’s, and I could use a hand.”

“I’ll help,” Noah said. “Do we need a new frame?”

Wesley eyed the mess he’d made. “Afraid so, and I don’t want to go the prehung route. The door she had on here before kicked in way too easily. I’d like to do some reinforcing with a new door and a good solid frame.”

“Hmm. We can come up with a plan for something sturdier.


“On it. Hold on.” He let go of Tyler and handed the phone to Carlie, trading it for the tape measure. “Tyler and I will measure; you relay the information to Noah. All right with you, partner?” He peered down at the boy.

The hint of a smile lit Tyler’s face, and he nodded. Carlie went to one of the kitchen drawers and pulled out a small pad of paper and a pen.

“OK.” He put the end of the tape measure on the outside of the broken frame. “Hold it here for me, Tyler.” It would’ve been much easier and faster to do the task himself, but he wanted to take the kid’s mind off the scary stuff. The two of them measured and gave the dimensions to Carlie, who wrote them down and relayed the information to Noah.

Once the task was completed, he took the phone back. “What do I need to get?” He listened while Noah gave him a list of supplies. “Got it. I’ll call you back when we have everything together. Later.” He hit End Call and took the pad and pen from Carlie to make a list. “Get jackets. We’re heading to Home Depot. You can call Jenny and Harlen on the way.”

“No, Wes.” Carlie averted her gaze. “I owe you an explanation first.

You have a right to know what you’ve stepped into.”

“No. I don’t.” A fresh surge of adrenaline fired up his nerves, sending his pulse skyrocketing. He sandbagged his heart and hunkered down behind the barricade. Knowing stuff about Carlie meant getting close. Too close. Too personal. “You don’t owe me a thing.” 

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