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Join Luke and Hannah as they unravel the tangled web of deception surrounding them, exposing secrets that threaten not only their hearts but their very lives.
When Hannah Walker rolls into her new town on fumes, she doesn't expect her past to catch up to her so quickly. But the moment her card is declined for a lousy cup of coffee, she realizes nowhere is safe, and her life on the run has just gotten more complex.
Luke Fletcher has made it his mission in life to protect. When he meets Hannah Walker, she makes it clear that his services aren't needed and neither is he, but there's something in her eyes that tells another story. Once he begins investigating the woman with many names, he realizes one thing is clear. Whoever, she's running from won't stop until she's dead.
Determined to gain Hannah's trust and break down her walls, Luke begins to share his own history, but where that leads could cost them more than their hearts as the sins of others threatens to destroy them both.
- Private Security
- Happily Ever After
Emilia Hudson has never been one to consider arranged marriages, especially if it meant her fifty-five year old parents would have a say, but with her dismal love life, she’s almost reconsidering.
After her latest dating disaster, Emilia writes a simple blog post that goes viral. Worse yet, people start considering her a relationship expert, and all she feels like is a fraud.
As the emails and speaking engagements start rolling in, she realizes her only option is to take the bull by the horns and run with the unexpected fame.
What she doesn’t want to do is talk about the real reason why she won’t ever fall in love again.
However, when she gets an offer she can’t refuse from a major publisher, that’s all they want her to write about, but It isn’t until she meets the man behind the proposal that she realizes why…
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
I let out a sigh as I sat in the dusty, blue truck that had miraculously managed to make it across the country. Between the funny interior smell, the engine knocking at speeds over fifty miles-per-hour, and the tricky method for locking the driver’s door, I hadn’t even been sure I’d actually make it out of my hometown. I found a ’99 GMC Sonoma for only eight hundred dollars, and I bought my way out of a life that wasn’t my own. Or at least, I hoped I had. Only time would tell. I turned off the radio and watched a family wander into the Starbucks. My chest tightened as I thought about who I’d left behind. But it had to be done. I couldn’t second-guess my decisions now. There was no turning back.
I grabbed my wallet and slid out of the truck, feeling the warm California air kiss my skin as I slowly walked across the parking lot toward the coffee shop. I wasn’t used to temperatures like this in March, but I was certain I’d quickly learn to love the weather. From what I’d read, Southern California skipped over the entire winter season, which sounded perfect to me. New England winters were brutal and long—really long.
My stomach growled as I pulled the door open and smelled the aroma of coffee and pastries waft through the air. I hadn’t eaten anything since the night before and desperately wanted a big cup of coffee. I’d tried not to spend much money on the long road trip in case I needed any extra cash for emergencies. Lucky for me, I’d made it to my destination without one hiccup and could splurge on a measly cup of coffee.
The family from outside was still in front of me, placing their order as I stood in line. The mom’s latte order had so many components I lost track. It was no longer just a drink with coffee and milk. I watched her movements carefully, noticing every blonde hair was in place and her suit flawless. She seemed so in her element, and for some reason that made me feel completely out of mine. Her husband was put together just as impeccably, and I found myself running my hands along my sweatshirt to press out the wrinkles that had formed from the countless hours of driving. I was in yesterday’s yoga pants, which were now technically today’s, and my blonde hair desperately needed to be washed so it was piled on top of my head in a clip. I glanced around Starbucks and noticed that the family in front of me wasn’t the anomaly. Everyone looked put together and ready to conquer the world. I was the odd one with tired brown eyes.
There was a brunette in the far corner who wore Hollywood shades, and her khaki capris showed off her model legs. The guy at the next table over looked like he’d just stepped out of the pages of a Men’s Fitness magazine as he intently stared at his iPad. This had to be the best-dressed coffeehouse in America.
“Miss, I can take your order,” the male barista said, as the family walked to the drink counter.
I snapped my head to see a friendly guy about my age, motioning for me to step forward to the counter.
“Oh, sorry,” I said, nearly tripping to the register.
“Take your time.”
“I’d like a large coffee,” I said, smiling.
The guy’s blond hair was shaggy and his blue eyes playful as he grabbed the white cup. “Pike Place or French Roast?” he asked.
“Pike I guess,” I muttered, unzipping my wallet.
“A Venti Pike Place, and can I get your name?”
“Hannah,” I said, feeling a breeze from behind as the door swung open.
A wave of shivers ran across my skin, and I started to laugh at how quickly I became acclimated to the warm weather. The barista wrote my name on the cup and called out my drink as he rang it up.
“Two-eighty,” he said, as I felt someone come up behind me in line.
“Can I add a blueberry scone too?” I handed him my debit card as he nodded.
Taking my card, he quickly added the scone to the order and swiped the debit.
“So how’s your day been?” the barista asked, waiting for the transaction to complete.
“Really good. Yours?” Another wave of goose bumps ran along my body, and I glanced around, unsure of the source this time. There was no breeze.
“Been great.” His eyes landed on the screen, and I saw his jaw tense as he swiped the card again. “Do you by any chance have another form of payment?”
My heart sank and my body felt like it was on fire. I had no other cards, and there should be plenty of money to cover a scone and coffee.
“Can you try it again?” I barely squeaked out. “Third time’s a charm.”
The barista gave me a sympathetic grin and swiped the card once more.
“Sorry. Same result.” The barista handed the card back as my entire body turned into a hot mess. I was absolutely mortified. It wasn’t like I was trying to buy a television. I just wanted a lousy cup of coffee. And what was worse was that the money in the account needed to get me by until I could find a job in town. So where was the money?
“Umm. I’m sorry. Can you cancel my order,” I whispered. All I wanted to do was run out of the coffee shop and hide in my truck. I wasn’t supposed to meet my roommates for another hour, but maybe they wouldn’t mind if I showed up early.
Just as the barista was about to key in the cancellation, a male voice interrupted my mini-hell of humiliation.
“I’ve got it covered. Technology can be such a pain.” The guy from behind me took a step forward, and a surge of warmth flooded through me. His voice was gravelly, sexy, and didn’t relay a bit of sympathy for my predicament. His immediate dismissal of the crisis at hand actually made me feel immensely better, like this sort of thing happened all the time. And then I felt him, his energy, wrap around me.
He was intense.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said, turning to see the guy take a step next to me, handing the barista his card.
My heart nearly stopped when I saw how good-looking he was. All six-foot-something of him towered next to me and I felt abuzz with delight. He was dressed like everyone else in this mystical coffee house. But on him, the black suit stretched across his shoulders in such a way that I could almost imagine what lay under his jacket. After all, I was in the land of mirages. Men like this didn’t exist in my world. His wavy, dark brown hair framed his chiseled features, and his green eyes were beyond striking as he smiled at me briefly.
“Add a Venti Iced Coffee and an oatmeal cookie to the order,” the man said, ignoring my statement as he placed a hand on my shoulder, sending an impossible charge through me.
His eyes connected with mine, and my entire body responded to him in a way that I’d never experienced before. I dropped my gaze and felt a warmth swell deep inside me as he continued to watch me.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Anytime.” His hand slipped off my shoulder.
“I’m not sure what happened. I should…”
“No need to explain. Banks screw up all the time.” He smiled at me and I nodded, thankful for his ability to put me at ease.
“Well, thanks again,” I said, turning to walk toward the counter where the drinks were called.
I felt his gaze on me and didn’t know what to do. I felt extremely self-conscious as I thought about my day-old wardrobe and messy blond hair. I really didn’t fit in here, but I better start learning how to do so.
“Scone and Venti Pike Place for Hannah,” a female barista with red, spikey hair called out.
“Thank you,” I said, quickly grabbing my food and drink, hoping for a quick escape.
Reaching the door, I glanced behind me and saw the guy grabbing his own drink before looking over at me. My heart stopped as his eyes locked on mine, and I knew I needed to get out of here.
“Hannah,” his throaty voice stopped me in my tracks. “It was nice meeting you.”
He looked so damn charming, and it was really nice of him to cover my order, but I didn’t want to start calling attention to myself. Yet, I was doing that every moment I stood in the coffee house with a dopey smile on my face. I was counting on California to provide the anonymity I needed, and I was also counting on my bank account to be fuller than it was, which had me extremely concerned. I most certainly had enough funds in there to buy a cup of coffee. I couldn’t do what my heart wanted me to do so I waved with the hand holding my scone bag and left the coffee house in a dash.
My truck looked like a refuge as I neared the driver’s side. The fancy car next to me was parked incredibly close to my truck, and I found myself juggling the coffee and scone as I opened my door. Just as I snuck in between the door and seat, my coffee cup took a nosedive, spilling on the pavement below.
“Shoot.” I tossed my scone onto the console and sat in the driver’s seat, closing the door behind me. This wasn’t how I’d imagined rolling into my new town. It had to get better from here, right? Opening my window, I let the warm sea air fill the car as I munched on my scone. I’d have to wait until the car next to me left so I could clean up my mess outside before taking off. Thankfully, I had some water in my car to help wash down the somewhat dry scone that kept sticking in my throat. As I looked around the parking lot and over to the beach, a deep sense of loneliness crept through me. It was a familiar feeling, but this time it was different. I had nothing to hold onto in my new surroundings. There was no one to commiserate with. There was nothing around here that provided grounding or old memories for good or bad. There were palm trees dotting the edge of the parking lot and tiny orange flowers sprinkled along the curb. It was quite different than a foot of dirty snow. I could get used to this.
I heard footsteps behind my car and glanced in the rearview. My heart sped up as I spotted the guy from inside the coffee house. It was definitely my time to exit this parking lot. I quickly put the key into the ignition and turned it, hearing nothing more than a chug and a whir. No turn of the motor. No rev of the engine.
I saw movement out my driver’s window and saw the man walking along the driver’s side of the car that was parked next to me. So that was his car, seemed fitting. I didn’t even recognize what type of car it was. It just screamed expensive. I twisted the key in the ignition once more, and this time I was met with silence. I didn’t even get so much as a grunt from the engine.
Letting out a sigh, I thumped my forehead onto the steering wheel and began to laugh in disbelief.
“Excuse me, Hannah?” The man’s bold voice interrupted my internal comedy hour, and I lifted my head to see his concerned gaze.
“Hey,” I said, pressing my lips together.
“Do you need a ride somewhere?” he asked, placing his hands on his car roof.
“No. I’ve got it,” I said, smiling.
“Do you need me to call a tow truck?” he offered.
“Nah. I think that would go about as well as my coffee venture.”
“Oh, I see.” He glanced across the street toward the beach and back at me. “I saw your plates are from New Hampshire. Here on vacation?”
“Um. Kind of. No. Not really.”
I didn’t need to be having this conversation with him or anyone.
“Are you sure I can’t help get you to where you’re going? I don’t feel right about buying a woman a cup of coffee and then leaving her stranded in a parking lot.” His smile was dazzling and it was everything I could do not to take him up on his offer. But I couldn’t afford to owe anyone anything else, let alone having him know where I was going.
He walked around the front of his car and inched his way between our two vehicles before his eyes landed on my coffee on the pavement. He was now standing directly next to me, and the breeze carried the soft scent of his cologne into the car. God, he smelled good. It was like a mixture of ocean and something else wonderful.
“Today has not been your day, has it?” A slight smirk appeared on his lips as he reached into his suit jacket, grabbing his wallet. “Listen. Here’s my card. If you need anything, give me a call. California’s a huge state. One wrong turn and you’re in a place you really don’t want to be.”
I took the card from him and he smiled.
“Thanks,” I muttered, glancing at the card.
Private Security, Risk Management, and Counter Terrorism
“You know,” he began, bending over and picking up the empty cup. “I can’t, in good faith, let you leave here without a cup of coffee. I’ll be right back.”
“No,” I called, but it was too late. He was already out of earshot on his way back into the coffee shop.
I leaned my head against the headrest and let out a garbled groan as I thought about how screwed up things were. How could things go so wonderfully well over the last several days only to end up in the worst possible scenario, without a running car and no money? I needed to get out of here before he came back. He was too much. All of it was too much. I turned the key again and this time the engine almost turned over. I counted to ten and tried again.
“Come on,” I muttered.
“Trying to escape?” I heard Luke laughing as he brought me my cup of coffee.
“Uh, no. I mean,” I laughed. “Maybe. That was faster than I thought.”
“They remembered me and gave it to me free of charge.” He smiled.
I took the cup of coffee from him and placed it in the coffee holder. I might’ve been sheltered for the last twenty-two years of my life, but I wasn’t stupid. I wouldn’t be drinking something from some strange guy, no matter how appealing he was. The more I looked at him, the closer I felt to him, which was just as dangerous.
“I’ve got to get going,” I muttered, waving him away, but all I was met with was deep laughter.
“Are you planning on Flintstoning it out of here?” he asked, his brow arching. “I really don’t mind giving you a ride.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, glaring at him, but I couldn’t help but laugh. “But no thanks.”
“Oh, right. That was my cue. Listen, you have my business card. I don’t want to make your day any worse so I’ll let you do what you think you’ve gotta do, but if you change your mind… Call me and I’ll get a cab to come for you.”
I nodded and watched as he walked away from my window. He was distracting enough that the loneliness had somewhat dissipated until I realized he was leaving. Then it slowly seeped back in.
I was stranded in a parking lot twenty minutes away from where I needed to be. I had a debit card that was completely useless, and a guy who was willing to help me out. Was I determined to make my life difficult?
“Umm. Maybe, I’ll save the call and say I’d love a cab ride, and once I’m on my feet, I’ll be sure to—”
“You owe me nothing.” He shook his head and smiled, grabbing his phone out of his pants. I watched him as he called for a cab and wondered how I’d gotten so lucky to meet such a kind soul. I had flown past embarrassment a long time ago, and I was just hoping nothing more would go wrong.
“I’ll wait until the car shows up, and I’ll help you haul everything from your truck into the vehicle. You don’t want to leave anything in the open, even if it’s tied down. What we can’t fit in we’ll put in the cab of your truck,” he said, his eyes meeting mine.
“Thanks.” I bit my lip and thought about what to say to this stranger who’d shown me more kindness in the last thirty minutes than I’d encountered in a long time. “This is really nice of you.”
He shook his head, stripping off his jacket before walking over to the truck bed. I gently maneuvered between our two vehicles and stood next to him, my eyes dropping to his chest. I could literally see the ripple of the fabric from the definition of his muscles. I couldn’t even imagine what that must look like underneath.
He caught my gaze and a tiny curl of his lip surfaced before I turned away, feeling the flush roll up my body.
“You like to park close to things,” I teased, as I worked on untying one of the ropes.
“It’s a bad habit. I tend to get wrapped up in my own world.” He loosened a knot and began on another one.
“I find that incredibly hard to believe,” I said, glancing at him. His awareness and willingness to help me out of my predicament told me otherwise.
“Well, there’s always exceptions to the rule, I suppose,” he said, letting the first set of ropes fall to the side of the truck bed. “Especially if someone is as eye-catching as you.”
I laughed and shook my head. I knew he was only being kind, considering what I looked like compared to the rest of the microcosm. My cheeks warmed as I worked my fingers against the knot, finally loosening it enough to let it fall.
Luke was on the other side of the truck bed, untying the last of the rope when I saw a black Escalade come up behind him and park.
That was odd.
“Your chariot awaits,” Luke said, smiling from across the truck bed.
“That’s a cab?” I asked.
“It’s umm a car service I use and trust,” Luke corrected, his gaze dropping away from mine. “I thought we’d have a better chance of fitting everything inside. Less hassle for you that way.”
My chest constricted with the idea of leaving this kind stranger behind. His compassion was the first genuine gesture I’d experienced in a very long time. But maybe that was how it was in the real world. Maybe my new beginning would be full of Lukes.
“So it is,” I said, nodding. “Thank you.”
There were only five boxes and a suitcase in the truck bed, along with an old wooden chair I couldn’t part with, which in hindsight, seemed pretty odd.
Luke grabbed the first box I pointed to as the driver appeared, ready to help load his SUV with my belongings. The driver was a portly, older man with dark hair, graying around the edges, and he was dressed in a black suit.
I grabbed my suitcase and pushed it into the vehicle. I went back to the cab of my truck, grabbed everything off the seat and inside the console and shoved it into a bag. It felt odd leaving the truck behind. It had become home over the last week and it was mine; one of the few things that was. The moment I figured out what happened with my bank account, I’d get my truck, but for now, I needed to get to the house and internet. I shoved my bag and purse onto the floor of the front seat.
Everything had been transferred to the SUV and relief spread through me, knowing I wouldn’t have to leave anything behind in the truck. I climbed into the SUV as the driver did the same.
Luke walked over to me and stood next to the open door. “Remember, if anything else comes up, you have my number.”
“Why are you being so kind?” I asked softly.
His eyes locked on mine and he smiled.
“You looked like you could use a little kindness in your world. Welcome to California.” Luke closed the door and took a step back, waving as the driver turned on the ignition and stepped on the accelerator.
“Where to, Miss?” the driver asked.
I gave him the address and his jaw tensed. “Are you sure about that address?”
“That’s the one I was given. Why?” I asked.
“It’s not a good part of town. That’s all.”
“Oh. Well, that’s where I’m headed.”
“Very well,” the driver said, turning the vehicle onto the main road.
I looked out the window and saw Luke still following the vehicle with his gaze. I gave him a quick nod and prayed that whatever was waiting for me wouldn’t be worse than what I left back home.