Under the Stars: Bright Lights Duet #2, page 1
Under the Stars
Bright Lights Duet #2
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Under the Stars
Copyright © TLM Productions LLC, 2018
Printed in the United States of America.
Cover design by RBA Designs
All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, photocopying, mechanical, or otherwise—without prior permission of the publisher and author.
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Under the Stars
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More Tia Louise
When We Touch
The Prince & The Player
About the Author
Under the Stars
By Tia Louise
A thrilling, white-hot second-chance romance duet from USA Today bestselling author Tia Louise…
Book #2-UNDER THE STARS
All around us was darkness and night…
I’m not a hero. I’m a survivor.
I had one way out, and I took it.
Now all I want is peace,
A place to pick up the pieces and start over.
But she wants justice.
Names on a list, faces in the crowd.
I vowed to help her, but it’s taking us back to the demons.
Until he appeared.
I thought he died in the fight.
I was wrong.
Stronger, more powerful… Sexier.
The boy I loved is now the one man we have to fear most.
When he tried to save me, he had no power.
Now everything has changed, and he’ll never stop until I’m his.
Book #2 in A CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE Duet.
* * *
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For the survivors.
“What value is life if we are not together?” –Jane Austen
Five years, seven months after Under the Lights.
The sunrise paints the early morning clouds in gold, salmon, orange, and yellow, burning stripes above the emerald green and deep blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
I walk on sugar-white sands down a grassy hill from Freddie’s villa in Nice, the one he allows us to live in since Molly stopped being able to sleep.
Since she became obsessed with revenge.
My chest is heavy, and my mind is filled with images of our last errand…
A cold white night.
A beautiful man with beautiful eyes and a beautiful soul.
An urgent knock on the door blasting it all to hell.
The salty breeze whips around me, twisting my dark hair into a rope where it’s tied at my neck. Catching the sides of my oversized white shirt, I pull it closer around my body, covering the thin tank underneath.
“Lara!” The high voice catches my attention, and I look up to the top of the hill.
Molly waves and starts down the weathered wooden staircase leading from the top of the berm to the shore where I stand. Every morning I’m here. I’m easy to find… for anyone who’s looking.
The salt water washes over my feet, cold and shocking. I watch as the watery sand surrounds them and they slowly disappear.
Tiny splashes, and a Yorkshire terrier joins me in the surf. I bend down to pat his little head. “Hi, Pierre.”
“Hey!” Molly bends down to scoop up her little dog. “It’s time to talk about what’s next.”
My lips press into a sad smile, and I stand, placing my arm around her waist. She allows me this small token of affection as we resume my stroll down the shoreline.
“We have at least four months before we can do anything,” I say, hoping to placate her.
Her body stiffens, but the fight has left me. I understood before. She needed to finish a job no one else could be trusted to do, but now I’m tired. I’m sad, and I’m ready to be done with it. No matter how much we’ve accomplished, how much justice is served, I can’t help feeling like it cost me everything.
My mind skips across the miles to that night seven months ago…
I stood in the doorway, and our eyes locked over the evidence of what she’d done.
Only minutes before, I’d been surrounded by Mark’s strong arms, secure and happy, in a cocoon of love and protection. I’d looked ahead, into a future of all the beautiful things that might be mine.
The faintest knock on the door changed it.
“It’s over,” I said looking down at the dead body.
Molly stood looking at her handiwork, lips tight and body stiff.
“They’re all gone,” I said.
Reaching out, I tried to touch her, to comfort her, but she pulled away, anger lining her young face.
“There’s still one more.”
My brow furrowed as I recalled her list of names. “That was the last one.”
“There’s one more. The biggest one of all.”
My reticence makes her angry, and my arm is awkward around her stiff body. Vigilante justice is the path she chose, but my wounds have lost their power. They’re not worth the fresh ones I’ve acquired.
“Four months, tops,” she argues, blue eyes slicing into mine.
Barely contained rage bubbles behind those eyes. She’s got the taste for blood, and whether it’s to avenge her or me, she wants more. She wants it all. She hasn’t lost anything. For her it’s been only gain, and she won’t stop until they’re all dead.
“You understand in four months, I’ll barely be out of recovery?”
“I understand no one would ever suspect the three of us in four months.”
Exhaling a deep breath, I try. If I’ve already lost everything, what does it matter? Anyway, she’s probably right. In four months, we’ll be even less suspicious.
We stop walking and turn to face the emerald waters. The briny air pushes her hair back and around her shoulders. Tendrils spin around my face, and the inescapable sorrow filters through my chest.
“I can’t do this anymore.”
“Yes, you can.” Her voice is flat, and she bends to put Pierre on the dry sand. “I’m going up. How much longer will you be out here? Celeste is making Quiche Lorraine for breakfast.”
Another sigh. “I’ll be up in a bit. I’m finishing my exercise.”
I watch her run up the tall staircase, her little dog at her heels, thinking of the reasons she has to run. I remember her as a small girl on the street, in the dark alley behind the theater. She was thin and starving and hunched in the corner waiting to die.
She was so malnourished, I thought she was younger than her actual age, which was twelve. I remember carrying her inside and fighting with Rosa. I remember Rosa boxing my ears and telling me the first time that kid cried, she’d throw us both in the alley with the rats. I remember the terror I felt that night and Molly falling asleep so quietly with her head on my chest.
She needed me. She loved me, and I loved her fiercely in return.
I remember her running around the theater, a sweet and innocent kid never suspecting the hawk was circling above, watching her, closing in to steal her soul and warp her future. I’ll never forgive myself for what happened to her. I’ll never forgive myself for not being there to protect her.
A flash of pain moves through my stomach, and I remember someone saying the same words to me not so long ago…
Walking to the edge of the water, I look out at the surf, at the waves rushing in and out. I think about how nothing bad can happen here. The sins of the past are far, far away from this beautiful place.
Only it’s a lie.
The sins of the past are never far away.
We carry them with us in our hearts wherever we go.
No matter how far we run, we can never outrun ourselves.
Tears are in my eyes, and I blink them away. My emotions are so close to the surface these days. I squat and wrap my arms around my knees, holding my insides together and wishing…
My wishes never come true.
“Lara!” A strong male voice cuts through the breeze.
For a moment I don’t believe it. It’s a wish caught on the wind and carried away out to sea.
“Lara!” It’s louder this time, closer.
Nervous anticipation floods my chest. I stand and look up and over my shoulder. The staircase where Molly descended is empty. The one ahead of it is empty as well.
Was it a dream?
Another shout, and I realize it’s coming from behind me. Turning, I see a tall figure jogging down the steps. He’s alone, and he’s moving fast. I look around, and no one is here. I have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
My heart alternates between beating out of my chest and dying. I’m back on that train, seeing him for the first time out of the blue, completely caught off-guard, alternately panicking and rejoicing… He’s alive!
He’s wearing faded jeans and a plain white t-shirt. His caramel hair is a little longer, but not much. It moves in the breeze as he approaches me.
He’s strong and pure and gorgeous as ever, and the way we touched, our glorious reunion is stronger and hotter in my memory than the sun climbing higher in the sky.
I want to cry. I want to sing. I want to hold him…
But now everything has changed.
He only pauses a moment at the bottom before dipping his head and starting forward, heading to me at a steady clip. I’m standing in the surf defenseless against reality racing closer by the second.
Catching the sides of my blouse, I pull the thin cotton around my body. I wrap my arms over my stomach just in case. The wide straw hat is on my head, and it flaps and bows in the sea breeze.
I’m barefoot, so at six foot two, he towers over my tiny frame. I wait, watching the play of the wind on the fabric of his clothes, knowing I have nothing to say, no excuses to give. My heart beats painfully hard at the thought of everything he has the right to say. I’m utterly defenseless.
Still, he’s so blindingly sexy. He’s standing here, looking down on me, clenching and unclenching his fists. His full lips press together then relax as if he doesn’t know where to begin. I can’t take the pressure, so I say the first thing I think.
“You shaved your beard.”
He reaches up and passes a hand over his cheek and chin. “It’s coming back.”
“Five o’clock shadow.” I nod, swallowing my nerves. “It looks good on you.”
So much emotion swirls in his blue eyes, so much pain.
My heart aches at the way he looks at me. He’ll never know how much I wanted to stay with him that ice-cold morning on the train.
The wind hits me hard in the face, and I reach up to keep my hat from blowing away, unintentionally releasing the large shirt covering the knit tank stretched over my growing stomach. His eyes dart down and widen. They fly back to mine, and everything changes.
“When were you going to tell me?” His voice is sharp, somewhere on the edge of anger and need.
“I-I don’t know.” I’m ashamed but elated. I want him here, but I know it can never be possible. “I didn’t know how I could tell you… How we could make it work.”
In a sweep, he steps forward, gripping my arms and giving me a light shake. “Dammit—you don’t get to decide things like that on your own. You don’t get to tell me what can and can’t work when it comes to this.”
It’s too much. My chin drops, and the tears flood my eyes.
I’m standing on my favorite beach, in the place where we ran to for safety years ago. We’re here because it’s still safe, and we’re hiding, hoping to start a new life…
I am starting a new life.
A new life is starting inside of me.
“How did you find me?” I look up at his ocean blue eyes.
They’re grey like the waves during a storm, and I know his storm is the same one battering my insides. It’s elation at seeing each other again. It’s devastation at knowing anything between us is impossible.
“I’ve done nothing but search for you since the day you left.” He takes a few steps toward the berm the turns and strides back to me. “I searched all over the U.S. and Canada, Alaska… then I remembered what you said about France.”
“It’s a big country.”
“It took me six months to find you.”
“What happens now?”
Looking down, he clears his throat before blinking up to me again. “Didn’t it mean anything to you?”
The tears are back, sneaky bastards, and I have to cough to keep them away. He has no idea how much all of it meant to me.
“You weren’t supposed to be on that train.” I touch the corners of my eyes.
The waves hiss and sizzle behind us. He steps closer, gripping my upper arms in tight fists. “I was on that train.”
“Yes...” My next words hurt like the devil. “And did it not occur to you that my job was to keep the attractive detective occupied while she did what she needed to do?”
Blue eyes flash as if I struck him. He processes that statement only as long as it takes for his eyes to return to my pregnant stomach. “You didn’t use protection.”
“Neither did you.”
His jaw is tight. “I don’t want protection. I’ve only ever wanted you, to keep you safe from the demons.”
“They weren’t my demons on that trip.”
Two more breaths. He looks out at the waves, and I watch as he’s thinking, as his face melt from rage to reality. His gaze returns to me, and he seems to have reached a conclusion.
“No.” He grabs me by the waist and pulls me to him, pausing only to angle my body to allow for my small baby bump. “You’re not pushing me away again. I won’t let you.”
I’m surrounded by his strong arms, and in spite of it all, a surge of joy floods my veins. I love you I love you I love you… Every cell in my body sings his name, sings the joy burning in my chest.
It’s all fucked up and wrong, but for six months, all I’ve dreamed of is being right here, never leaving again. My hand slides up, and my fingers clutch his shirt. I hold him in a way I have no right to do.
“You’re a cop,” I say quietly. “You can’t let us get away with murder.”
He straightens, catching my chin and lifting
“No.” Not that one.
He hugs me closer, and I tuck my face against him cherishing this moment of pure joy, listening to his heart beating strong in his chest.
When he speaks, his voice is low and grave, sorting through the facts. “I knew Esterhaus from my days as Gavin’s doorman. I had no evidence, no way to arrest him for anything, so I watched him, waiting. We made yearly trips across country. We smoked. We drank scotch. We played cards.” He pauses before continuing. “I knew he did wrong, but he never gave me any reason to suspect he hurt a child.”
Clearing the tightness in my throat, I take a step back, out of his arms. Our eyes meet, and I can see he’s waiting for me to give him a reason.
“When the theater changed, a handful of men became regular visitors.” An involuntary shaking breaks out from my chest as I begin to travel down this dark path. The memory sickens me. Saying the words out loud makes my lips tremble with fear.
Still… If Molly survived it, I can say it.
“As you know, he wasn’t a baron back then. He was only a businessman who visited the city.”
“I remember your question the first night.”
Sorrow radiates through my chest on every breath. It grips my shoulders as the memories punish me. No matter how many times I try to exorcise these demons, they always come back to bury me in guilt.
Mark pulls me close. He wraps one strong arm around my waist. The other he uses to smooth my hair back, to wipe the tears away with gentle hands.
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