I'll Never Let You Go (Morgans of Nashville), page 5
“I think we’re two people who’re fairly bad at dating and don’t like to talk about ourselves,” Alex said.
His directness charmed her. And that scared her. Being charmed led to liking, which led to desire, which equaled vulnerability. Her nerves stretched tighter and tighter. “Then why’re we here?”
A shrug. “I was curious about you. And Tracker likes you. He’s a good judge of character.”
Secrets, sadness, and shame banged on the wall so carefully built. She sipped her beer, which now tasted flat and lifeless. “Ah.”
“So what about you?”
“I’m fairly straightforward. Raised in Nashville. Both my parents have passed. Got my vet degree in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. Enjoying the single life.”
He leaned forward, as if a bullshit meter had clanged in his head. “How did you get the scars on your hands?”
Cut to the chase. This guy didn’t waste time or mince words. No need to look down to see the deep slashes that crossed both palms. “Are you this nosy on most first dates?”
“No.” No apology. “They look like defensive wounds.”
“Nothing so dramatic,” she lied.
No adult had ever asked about the scars on her palms, or the ones on her arms. They might have stared, but they hadn’t asked. Once a little girl in a grocery store had asked her about them. She’d looked as if she’d believed in fairy tales, Santa Claus, and the tooth fairy. Monsters under her bed could be chased away with a mother’s kiss. Leah couldn’t bring herself to tell the girl real monsters walked among them. “It was an accident.”
“Okay.” Alex tapped a finger on the table, as if forcing back more questions that, eventually, he’d ask. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
She kept her hand on her beer glass, refusing to tuck it in her lap. “I’m not upset.”
“You’re pale now.”
She moistened her lips. “Just been a long day.”
“It’s my job to be nosy.” That smile appeared again. “Sometimes it’s hard to shut off.”
Alex Morgan was the kind of guy who’d unearth all her carefully buried secrets. And when he did, what would he think of her? What kind of woman, what kind of fool, would willingly lay down with a monster? The idea that he’d see her as less or weak scraped the underside of her scars.
Her phone buzzed, startling her. With a grateful heart she dug her phone from her purse and read the message. “It’s from my clinic. I’ve got to go by the kennel to check on one of the dogs.”
Alex looked more curious and disappointed. If his job was to sniff out lies, then he surely knew this was no fib. Their clinic took emergency calls, and this was her night on call. “You can’t eat first?”
“No.” She gathered her coat, anxious to step into the cold and slide behind the wheel of her car.
He tossed a couple of twenties on the table and rose. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
She gathered up her purse and coat. “You don’t have to. I’m right across the street.”
“I’ll walk you.” He helped her on with her coat, opened the front door, and waited for her to pass through before allowing it to swing closed behind them. Across the street, the door to Rudy’s opened and closed. In a rush of music and flashing light, Deidre and her date sauntered out arm in arm.
Leah envied the couple’s easy manner. Her back stiff, she started toward her car, her pace brisk as she fished her keys from her pocket and pushed the unlock button on the key fob. She opened the door, and he lingered back an extra half step. For a tense moment she thought he might kiss her. Normal women on first dates kissed their dates, right? A kiss, a touch, vulnerability, pain, and death.
Alex held back a couple of steps. He watched her. Seemed to see fear and accept it as a fact to be filed away under Leah Carson. “Drive safe.”
“I’ve been a real lousy date, Alex. I’m sorry. I’m way out of practice.”
A small shrug. “No worries, Leah. See you soon?”
“You don’t have to check up on Tracker every day.”
“But I will.” The patience humming under his tone coaxed her out of her shell a little further. “You want to go out with me again?”
Fear hovered around her like a ghost. Stay behind the walls. But something she could not put into words challenged her to reach for more. Elbowing aside gnawing butterflies, she nodded. “I’d like that.”
“Great. We’ll figure it out.”
“Perfect.” She drove off, wondering if she’d lost her mind, all the while daring herself not to look in the rearview mirror, knowing he was watching.
He sat and watched as his wife stood by her car and spoke to her date. The guy had dark hair and a trim build. A gust of wind had caught, blown back his jacket, and for a split second, the edge of a gun resting on his hip caught the moonlight before the guy tugged the coat’s edge back into place.
This man was not a beat cop like he’d been. He had the look of a detective. “Moving up in the world, babe. The uniform isn’t good enough for you anymore.”
Embers of rage, always warm and glowing, flared and flickered into a hot flame. His wife and the guy lingered, staring at each other. A smile flashed on her face, and he knew they’d be seeing each other again.
“She’s my wife, dick.”
This close he could see dick’s face. Keen interest sharpened the man’s gaze. No doubt he was thinking about getting into his wife’s pants.
Irritated, he tore his gaze away and focused on the mission. He studied the text he’d just sent Leah: EMERGENCY AT THE CLINIC. CAN YOU COME INTO WORK?
“I might be a regular cop, but I found her number and I’m going to win this chess game, dick.”
She slid into the front seat, started the engine, and rolled down her window. She glanced up, smiling, nodding, and drove off. Dick got into his car and drove off.
He started his truck and shifted into first gear. Slowly, he turned onto Broadway and followed it until it branched right and turned into West End Avenue.
The drive back to his wife’s town house took ten minutes, but of course he knew the way. He’d been watching the house since he’d arrived in Nashville a week before. Many a night in the last couple of weeks, he’d sat in the parking lot across the street and watched her town house. He’d gotten to know all her new habits.
His wife arrived an hour later and parked in her reserved spot under the street lamp. She hurried from her car up the brick front steps of the town house, unlocked the door, and vanished inside. Lights clicked on, and though she’d already drawn the drapes, he could see her figure pass in front of the sliding glass door before the lights in her bedroom clicked on.
He imagined her in that bedroom, stripping off her shirt, her full breasts spilling over the top of her bra. It had been too long since he’d kissed those breasts, but he remembered how soft they felt. He remembered her lips tasted like her cherry lipstick. He remembered those lush lips kissing him along his belly, teasing him to the brink of insanity. He remembered every single detail of their life together.
But she wasn’t thinking about him as she stripped off her clothes. A different man lingered in her thoughts. How many men had she fucked since him?
It took all his willpower not to scream as he removed a switchblade from his pocket and flicked it open. Moonlight glinted off the sharp blade as he gouged it into the truck’s seat. He sliced through leather, imagining it was flesh.
He leaned back against the seat. Her shadow passed back into the living room, and the light of a television glowed as her silhouette lowered on the couch.
In the last few weeks, he’d learned all her new patterns and all her secrets, tracking her and listening via the bug he’d planted in her house. “No one knows you better than me, babe. No one.”
After an hour in the parking lot, the cold had numbed his toes and the tips of his fingers. He would have sta
Until death do us part.
The words hummed in the back of his throat. So poignant, and yet their meaning appealed to him.
Until death do us part.
His little bird flew free right now, but soon he’d catch her and pluck off her wings. She belonged to him and no one else.
Until death do us part.
Sunday, January 15, 6 A.M.
Keys. Where were the damn car keys? Leah brushed her fingers a second time over and then around the lopsided ceramic blue bowl always by the back door and felt for her keys. A quirky yet unbreakable habit, she always put them by the back door in the exact same place. It was a reasonable habit. Made sense. Saved her time. And it worked so well.
But the keys weren’t there. She glanced at the clock on her cell and knew she only had a half hour to meet up with the running group. They started at exactly 6:30 A.M., and if she weren’t there, they left without her.
“Where’re my keys?” Confirming they weren’t in the bowl, she checked her purse, rattled it, turned it upside down. No keys. What had she been doing last night?
Ah, the date. It had been a long day, she’d been tired, but she’d agreed to a date with Alex. He was tall, good-looking, and an ambitious agent. He was the kind of guy most women wanted to date.
She’d wanted to like him, should have liked him, but trust was going to take more than a New Year’s resolution.
She moved toward the large couch where she’d eaten dinner, reheated Chinese leftovers, after her return to the town house. She pulled out the cushions. Nothing. Irritated and a bit desperate, she ran her hands along the creases of the couch. Her fingers brushed metal and she pulled out her keys, half relieved yet puzzled that she’d lost them.
Leah had her faults, but she was painfully precise. How could a date have thrown off her routine so completely? Maybe it wasn’t the date but the text that had proved to be a false alarm? Was her steady, even life so fragile that she couldn’t handle any deviation?
She snatched up the keys and hurried to her car. The morning chill cleared her head, but she questioned again this resolve to get fit. She turned on the ignition and switched the window defroster on high as she watched the frost on the windshield slowly melt. “Crazy people run marathons. They’re insane. Misguided fools. Sane people are asleep in bed right now.”
The ice on the windshield yielded a large enough hole for her to see well enough so she could drive. She threw the car in gear and made a run for it.
As she made her way down the dark streets, the lost keys jangled in her mind. Before Philip had died, missing keys would have totally freaked her out. She’d have panicked and called the cops, certain he was behind the mishap. She’d have called her aunt, hysterical.
Her heart raced. “Philip is gone.” He was dead. Buried right here in Nashville.
He wasn’t messing with her. She’d simply misplaced her damn keys.
Leah released the breath caught in her throat as she wove her way through town toward Centennial Park. She’d joined the running group when Deidre had reached out to her. She’d already decided to give up smoking as a New Year’s resolution, so how much worse could it be to add running? Famous last words. Moments like this, she questioned her sanity. Later, after the run and a hot shower, she’d feel a boost of pride and hope, two unfamiliar emotions that had become so addictive.
She spotted the line of ten cars parked at the park entrance. Most people still remained in their cars, staying close to the heat as long as possible. She parked, checked her watch, and realized she had only seconds to spare. She reached for her water bottle and discovered she’d forgotten it. Left it by the back door. The missing keys had distracted her. Thrown her off-track. Damn.
She pulled her ignition key from the ring, tucked the remaining keys under her mat, and got out of the car. The morning blast of cold air hit her hard and she reminded herself yet again that physical fitness was a good thing. She locked her car, unlocked it, locked it again, and checked the door handle to make sure it was secure.
She moved toward the park bench where the runners all assembled. Today was a short run. Five miles. They were all slowly building up their distance. For the best runners in the group, five miles was easy, so they focused on time. She focused on finishing, surviving.
Leah turned toward the familiar female voice and smiled.
Leah, for the most part, still didn’t reach out to a lot of people. When Philip had been at his worst, he’d terrorized her as well as the people around her. She’d learned to keep her distance. During the last four years, she should have felt free to make new friends, but she hadn’t. She’d focused on school and work. She’d kept her life as small as possible, not wanting to attract any unwanted attention. Logically, she understood Philip was forever out of her life. She shouldn’t worry. But fear and apprehension would not release their grip.
“Deidre.” Leah rubbed her gloved hands together, anxious to get started.
“Week three of training and you’re hanging tough.” Deidre grinned as she stretched her arms.
“Keep telling me why I’m doing this.” The cold air transformed her breath into visible puffs of air.
“Oh, you love it.”
“You keep saying that, but I’m still waiting on the love.”
Deidre laughed. “As I remember, it didn’t take much to convince you.”
Leah smiled as the other members of the group assembled around them. There were about a dozen today. The day after the New Year, the group had boasted over twenty, but some of the resolutions had drifted away in the following days.
“How did your date go last night?” Deidre asked.
Leah shrugged. “Okay, I guess.” Time to breathe a little life into her nonexistent love life. “I’m out of practice, and it showed. It was all I could do to carry on a conversation.”
“Why?” Deidre looked puzzled. “You’re smart. You have a wicked sense of humor.”
“Not the best dater, I guess.”
A weight settled in Leah’s chest, just as it always did when anyone mentioned her love life. Most times, she could crack a joke or change the subject, but Deidre had a keen eye for details not so easily brushed aside. “I had a bad marriage. A while ago.”
Deidre’s expression sobered. “I’m sorry.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. It’s over and done.”
“How long ago?”
This was the part when Leah would sound odd. “Four years.”
“Must have been really bad.”
Deidre rolled her neck from side to side, and for a moment the veil hooding her bright gaze dropped. “I’ve told you a little about my divorce. Like I said, it isn’t pretty. Worse than I’ve really let on to most people.” She released a sigh. “I keep wondering when I’ll see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Leah had constructed an impregnable wall around herself that kept her safe but alone. “I’m sure you’ll see better days soon.”
Deidre leaned against her car and stretched her hamstrings. “How long did it take you to recover from it?”
“It’s a work in progress. But I’m getting closer.”
A frown furrowed Deidre’s brow. “Sounds like it was really rough.” She let the words dangle, a fish hook in choppy water.
Leah tugged on her gloves, hating the sudden chill racing up her spine. “He tried to kill me.”
Deidre’s face paled, and she leaned in a fraction. “What? God, Leah, I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry about.” Talk of her marriage created the sensation of standing on the edge of a cliff. She didn’t want to fall into the past
“Where is he?”
“He vanished after the attack but crashed his car in South Carolina a few weeks later. He’s dead.”
Deidre’s eyes widened. “Shit.”
Leah’s smile held no joy. “Karma’s a bitch. I don’t dwell.”
That wasn’t true. The past had a tight hold on her. She still kept the journal she’d started when Philip had stalked her. The journal had been a necessary evil in those days. In fact, it had been her entries that had got her the restraining order. No reason to keep it any longer, but she did.
“My ex-to-be is having trouble with the divorce,” Deidre said. She pointed to a long, deep groove keyed into the side of her car.
Leah frowned, remembering the flat tires she’d dealt with during the months after she and Philip separated. “You okay?”
“Nothing I can’t handle, but I’ll be glad when we sign the papers in a couple of days.”
“Stay strong.” The platitude buzzed false in her ears.
The coach blew a whistle and the group huddled close. She explained the course, called out projected times for each one of them, and wished them all a good run. Leah knew the course, which would help her with her pace. She wasn’t the fastest runner and had been dropped a few times. Deidre would run with Leah for the first half mile, but as soon as her muscles warmed up she would break away.
As the group got under way, beginning to move at a slow pace down the dirt pathway, she focused on her form and breathing. Running made it difficult to worry about anything else. When she ran, Philip receded to the back of her mind.
As they rounded a wooded corner, the color red flashed in her side vision. She turned toward the woods and saw a man standing amid the trees, staring at the group. The runners got lots of stares from the few early morning walkers. A few drivers even honked when they passed a road. The flash of red wasn’t out of the ordinary.
But something about this man held her attention. His hoodie covered his face, making it impossible to get a good look at him. He was tall, muscled, and he dug his hands into his pockets like Philip did when he stalked her.
Other author's books:
- Vulnerable (Morgans of Nashville)You're Not SafeThe Colorado BrideBefore She DiesThe Unexpected Wife (Harlequin Historical)Cut and RunIn Dark WatersThe Tracker
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